Everybody’s welcome

Accessibility is a major issue in website design – in fact, it’s the law – and it makes sense to make sure everyone can use a site. But it’s not the be-all and end-all of the internet, says Martin Croft

Usability and accessibility have become major issues in online marketing since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), which came fully into force last year. Indeed, according to research company E-consultancy, the online usability and accessibility market in the UK could be worth as much as £117m in 2005, a 25 per cent increase on last year.

But while one of the major drivers of that growth will be a scramble to ensure that websites meet the minimum standards for accessibility set out in the DDA, E-consultancy points out that there is also an increasing awareness that good usability is good business – and the easier to use a website is, the more likely it is to achieve a marketer’s key objectives.

Arguably, accessibility and usability are two related, but quite different, things. Many digital consultancies and agencies, however, now prefer to use the terms “user experience” or “online experience” as an umbrella term to cover the two. Clients, however, need to understand what the two terms mean. Usability refers to how easy it is for the average person to use a website, and covers issues such as page design, the language used, the way pages within the site link to each other and so on. Accessibility almost always means how easy it is for someone with disabilities to use a website. These may include physical disabilities, such as restricted sight or hearing, or cognitive disabilities, such as dyslexia. As Uwern Jong, marketing director of digital agency Intelligent Marketing says: “Many people group usability and accessibility, but in fact they are two completely different animals.” And too great an emphasis on accessibility can have a detrimental impact on the success of a website, warns Jong: “In some cases, rigidly applying the accessibility guidelines to website design (and feeling great satisfaction having ticked all the boxes) results in sites becoming so basic that they no longer serve their intended purpose.”

Intelligent Marketing recently carried out a usability and accessibility audit for the Regional Co-ordination Unit of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and has used the results of that audit to redesign ten regional RCU sites to improve both accessibility and usability.

Anyone can enter

Ailsa McKnight is interactive business controller at Camelot. She says that “Camelot has put usability at the heart of its interactive operations across all three interactive channels – national-lottery.co.uk, Sky Active and Play by Text.”

Camelot, advised by consultancy The Usability Company, put accessibility and usability at the heart of the interactive development process right from the start, McKnight says, “to ensure the key processes are as easy to follow as possible, and relevant to each of the interactive channels.” Interactive sales rose by 600 per cent in 2004/05 and are now running at more than £2m a week, she says.

McKnight adds: “We survey our site visitors on a regular basis and also make use of comments given to our contact centres. We also use normal industry-wide website tracking software for details of visitors’ referral and destination sites.”

Camelot is also committed to providing access to its website for disabled people, and has been working with the Royal National Institute for the Blind to establish a plan for achieving this over the coming months.

At the heart of the issue of user experience lies the idea of Web analytics – using software packages to collect detailed information on how quickly people move around websites, common mistakes and problems, how quickly pages download and so on.

Catriona Campbell, chairman of The Usability Company, which as well as working with Camelot on the National Lottery has advised 35 FTSE-100 companies, says that when it comes to looking at online traffic, “very few clients understand or use simple analytical tools properly. They should look at exactly where site visitors are coming from, where they are going to and what they are doing when they are on the site.” Getting the most out of online marketing budgets is about far more than usability, argues Campbell: it is about the whole online customer experience and how it fits in with the experience delivered by the company’s other channels of communication. “Customers don’t just go down one channel,” Campbell adds: they may use the internet for research and then phone a call centre, or they may go online after receiving direct mail or seeing an ad. The online experience has to mesh with the offline experience to deliver the same seamless brand message. The only way to do that is to constantly analyse consumer behaviour online.

Lawrence Weber, digital project director of direct-response agency LIDA (a sister company to M&C Saatchi) observes: “Usability should be looked at as a series of evolutions. Initial usability testing will give you a good idea as to what needs to change on your site, but to evaluate the user experience you need to constantly monitor how consumers are using a site. Web analytics are becoming a vital part of usability efforts, as they give you a real insight into how people are using your site.”

Functional and fabulous

Weber echoes Jong’s observations: “It is undeniably a good thing that clients and agencies are taking usability and accessibility seriously, but there is a danger that in striving to tick the boxes, we forget that they are just two parts of the wider user experience. A site that is usable and accessible can still fail if it doesn’t inspire or delight in some way. It’s just as important that brand characteristics come across online – indeed, in retail, this is often the only way a brand can differentiate itself from the competition. As people spend more time online and as the digital channels increasingly become the first point of contact, a website needs to communicate on an emotional as well as functional level.” And communication will depend on the brand: so “a luxury brand might find that using a Flash intro adds to the user experience, contradicting years of usability advice.”

Paul Walsh is principal director of Web accessibility certification and mobile testing specialist Segala M Test, and also a committee member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the body which sets and oversees Web standards and technologies. Segala M Test is developing a second edition of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines, which Walsh says should be “less ambiguous and easier to implement” than the first version. It is this first version that created the commonly used website accessibility rating system – AAA is the highest, while the basic accessibility levels demanded by UK law fall somewhere between A and AA.

Walsh says: “Usability and accessibility are two similar terms in the world of technology – but they don’t mean the same thing when it comes to website design. The distinction is important because there are serious financial, brand loyalty and legal implications to consider.”

Applied to websites, Walsh says, usability means “the ease with which visitors can access, navigate and generally make use of a site and its content. Research shows that users will persevere with a challenging site if the content is relevant and strong, but if they are made to work too hard or have to search for too long to find the information they need, they are less inclined to return.” Accessibility, on the other hand, means that people with disabilities can access and use internet sites, in some cases with special tools such as text-readers. And of course, there is also the issue of accessibility by handheld devices or over older, slower connections.

Walsh says: “Usability and accessibility should amount to the same thing and fall under a single methodology for design and development purposes” – but at present that is not the case, and will not be for another 12 to 18 months, in his opinion. He believes that accessibility is not something that can be “bolted-on” as an extra service – it needs to be part of a complete packaged solution. “It is advisable to design a site with accessibility in mind from the start,” he says.

Don’t you want our money?

Robin Christopherson, of accessibility consultancy AbilityNet says the argument for making all websites accessible to disabled people is actually an overwhelming economic one: “If you make it accessible, you make it usable and it’s good for business.” And disabled people represent significant spending power: there are some 1.6 million registered blind people in the UK, 1.5 million people with cognitive disorders, 3.4 million “otherwise IT-disabled” people and 6 million with dyslexia (4 million severe). Together, they have an estimated £120bn in disposable income.

And Christopherson also points out that involving disabled testers from the start of a website design project leads to a better website overall, not just one that is “accessible”. Research conducted for the Disability Rights Commission shows that “those without disabilities find websites which have been designed to be accessible 35 per cent easier to use. That alone will have a dramatic impact on the bottom line.”

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