One of the key principles of our web transformation strategy is that the content we put online should be accessible to as large an audience as possible.
This is an easy statement to make, but much harder to implement. In this post we want to explain just something of what is involved.
Supporting the disabled
When you think of accessibility most people think of the disabled. Although this isn’t all that web accessibility is about, it is a key consideration especially considering the legislation surrounding it and the university’s reputation as an inclusive institution.
Unfortunately it is impossible to design a site that meets everybody’s needs because different disabilities can have conflicting requirements. However, there is solid best practice we can follow in the form of the WAI guidelines.
In addition to these guidelines, we are also working with an assistive technology advisor who is helping us run usability test sessions and providing quality assurance on the work we are doing.
Supporting different browsers
As well as thinking about the needs of the disabled, we also need to consider that people will be accessing the new website using a range of different browsers.
At the moment our beta site only supports a small number of modern browsers, but we are in the process of changing this. The site will not look identical on all browsers, but users will still be able to access content on most browsers available.
Because of the huge number of browsers out there, we will only test on a subset, but the site should be accessible to even the oldest browser.
But providing browser support is not just about supporting older browsers. It is also about supporting the next generation of browser. This is why we do not endeavor to make the site look the same across all browsers. If we took that approach, our website would never make use of the emerging technologies that creates a better experience for those with modern browsers.
The approach of providing access to information on all browsers, but optimising for more modern ones, is called progressive enhancement. This means that no matter how old your browser you will be able to navigate the site, but the newer the browser the better it should look.
Supporting multiple devices
Not only do we need to consider multiple browsers, we need to think about multiple devices. We are not even just talking about a mobile or tablet. There are literally hundreds of devices with different sized screens and different input methods.
We also have no idea what the future will hold. For example the majority of users might be using the iPhone or iPad right now, but that might not be the case in another year. Even if it is there is no guarantee Apple won’t release a new device with a new screen size.
The way we solve this problem is by making the website “responsive”. That means it adapts based on the screen real estate available to it. The advantage of this approach is that no matter how devices change over the years, as long as they still have screens the website should adapt accordingly.
Building a site that works this way is no easy challenge and that is what we are working on right now. Each module that makes up the website has to be flexible enough to adapt to a range of available space and this can prove a time consuming business.
The final audience to consider when thinking about accessibility are international students. It goes without saying that these are a massively important audience for any university, and so it is important to ensure the website is as accessible as possible for them.
There are two accessibility concerns that need particular consideration when thinking about international students – bandwidth and language.
While broadband is widespread here in the UK it isn’t always abroad, and so it’s important to consider download times. Furthermore, some countries make much heavier use of mobile than we do here in the uk. This means we need to make sure the site downloads fast over a cellular connection.
The other issue is the language we use on the website. Although we expect a certain standard of English from international students, university websites are often full with verbose copy, complex sentences and a lot of jargon. If we are keen to attract overseas students we need to work hard at keeping our language simple.
Using simple language also helps users with cognitive disabilities such as dyslexia, and speeds up comprehension for all users.
We will need your help
By now I hope you have realized that ensuring an accessible website is more than the web team can achieve alone. Yes, we can build accessible templates but as soon as content providers add video without captions or images without descriptions things fall apart.
We cannot hope to maintain an accessible website without everybody writing plain English and considering how the images they choose will look on a mobile device.
Accessibility is something we all need to be committed to. That is why a programme of accessibility training will be made available for anybody involved in adding content to the website.