Usability: More than Skin Deep at Web Directions

At Web Directions South 2007 in Sydney, SitePoint usability blogger Lisa Herrod (aka Scenario Girl) proposed a new way of looking at usability and accessibility within the web design process. Not only does her approach point the way to better user experience design, but it also brings formal accessibility testing within reach of small web development teams!

Lisa led off boldly with what I felt was a tough sell to some members of the audience: that user experience design is by definition incomplete unless it takes accessibility into account at every stage of a project. To soften the blow, however, she demonstrated how the ‘personas’ used in usability work could be adapted to include common disabilities without diminishing their usefulness for gauging other usability factors.

No matter how you approach it, of course, accounting for accessibility within the development of a site is going to mean more work. But whose work should it be? Most businesses can’t afford to have a full-time accessibility expert on staff, and will either call in a contractor to do a last-minute accessibility review, or put the responsibility on the shoulders of the front-end designer.

Slide title: Petra is deaf. General surfing and online shopping. Purchasing travel and movie tickets. Basic literacy in English. Auslan is her primary language.

Lisa proposed a more sensible, holistic approach: one where the responsibility for producing an accessible site is shared by every member of the team, according to their strengths. To show how this might work, she started with the accessibility checklist provided by the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and assigned each of the sixteen WCAG Priority 1 checkpoints to one or more members of a typical web development team (content developer, designer, frontend developer, information architect, and scripter).

Lisa stressed that building accessible web sites still requires formal accessibility testing by a specialist, but that sharing the responsibility as she suggested would enable this to be limited to relatively brief testing phases conducted by accessibility specialists working on contract, rather than a full-time member of the team.

Lisa plans to publish her role-specific WCAG checklists shortly. In the meantime, check out the slides from her talk and watch for the podcast on the Web Directions web site.