Ten top tips for designing an accessible council website

There are two things in my work life that I am passionate about – website accessibility and building effective council websites. So I thought I’d write a blog post that combines both of these passions, particularly as I believe that website accessibility is fundamental to building an effective website. This blog post is aimed at digital professionals in local government but what it covers is relevant to anybody who is building or has responsibility for managing a website.

What is web accessibility and why is it important?

Web accessibilityWeb accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with and can contribute to the Web. The Web is now a fundamental part of our daily lives and a key resource for education, government, commerce, health care and more. It is essential that the Web is accessible in order to provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with disabilities.

As more and more services become ‘digital by default’ we have a responsibility for making sure that they are designed to be accessible to all. If we don’t we will be excluding people with disabilities from accessing our services and making our websites inhospitable places to visit.

Web accessibility is also important from a business perspective. Websites that are accessible to people with disabilities will also perform better for all visitors. Research by SOCITM, the representative body for public service ICT professionals, found that the performance on a number of tasks on council websites was 41% better on the accessible sites than the rest. SOCITM have said that its research suggests “a significant relationship between the accessibility of the websites for people with disabilities and the more general usability of the websites for everyone.” Put simply, web accessibility matters and we need to take it seriously.

Disability infographic - source: Usablenet
Disability infographic – source: Usablenet

 

Why do council websites need to meet accessibility guidelines?

Nobody should be excluded from accessing services online. To do so would represent a breach of the Equality Act 2010.

All government websites, whether built for central or local government, need to meet or exceed level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. These guidelines explain how to make websites accessible for people with disabilities.

How accessible are council websites?

Pie chart showing the accessibility of council websites

The accessibility of council websites across the UK currently leaves a lot to be desired. In 2015 the Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC) carried out a review into the accessibility of 407 council websites. Overall, 176 councils (43%) were rated by the DAC as satisfactory, but only three sites out of this total were rated very good. Seven sites (2%) were rated inaccessible and another 225 sites (55%) were rated poor.

The results of the review make it clear that in general local authorities need to take web accessibility more seriously. Over half of the councils in the UK are potentially failing to meet legal requirements but perhaps more importantly they are failing to make their websites accessible for their respective disabled residents.

What can councils do to make their websites accessible?

The starting point is for councils to acknowledge that web accessibility is an essential requirement and one that needs ongoing attention. To help councils to meet this challenge I have identified ten tips for designing an accessible council website:

  1. Understand the difficulties experienced by disabled web users

    The only true way to understand web accessibility is to experience some of the issues that disabled users have to endure on a day to day basis. My first experience of this was on a visit to the RNIB where a blind web user demonstrated how he used a screen reader to visit websites. I was shocked at just how frustrating this can be on a poorly developed website and amazed at the patience that the web user showed as thousands of web links were read out to him at lightning speed. This experience ignited my passion for getting web accessibility right.

    There are a number of ways that you can better understand the difficulties experienced by disabled web users. One of the best ways is to get in contact with local disability groups and ask to meet up with members to discuss their web accessibility experiences and challenges. An alternative is to contact organisations that provide web accessibility services, such as the Shaw Trust, the Digital Accessibility Centre and the RNIB. These organisations can provide help and advice, training and web testing services.

  2. Raise awareness of accessibility amongst internal audiences and particularly to senior managers

    Raising awareness of web accessibility throughout the council will help to reduce issues arising and ensure buy in from senior managers. It will help, for example, to ensure that content is provided in accessible formats and help to avoid inappropriate purchases of inaccessible third party web applications.

    One way to raise awareness is to develop a simple online training session that all staff can access to improve their understanding of web accessibility. Another way is to brief procurement staff to make sure that web accessibility issues are considered when purchasing any new web based application. Web managers also should devote time to briefing senior managers and helping them to appreciate the business benefits of tackling web accessibility.

  3. Design in accessibility at the beginning of a website

    It is possible to fix accessibility issues on existing websites, but this can be a long and arduous task, particularly if a council is using proprietary software such as a web content management system. My advice is to carry out a full review of web accessibility and determine whether it is feasible to resolve major issues. If it is then put together a programme of work to fix accessibility issues and work meticulously and patiently through this, testing as you go along to assess your progress. If it isn’t feasible to retro fix web accessibility issues then consider carrying out a website redevelopment. Failure to meet web compliance can help to build a business case for website redevelopment particularly as there is a legal requirement to meet web accessibility standards. 

    If you are using external suppliers to assist with your redevelopment then make sure that you check their accessibility credentials before employing them. Most web design and development agencies will claim to have an understanding of web accessibility, but make sure that you challenge this thoroughly during the procurement phase. Beware suppliers who offer to do the minimum needed to meet accessibility standards or suggest that this can be sorted out by simply plumbing in some external web accessibility services.

  4. Build accessibility into criteria for procurement

    As mentioned above procurement is a key phase in your web accessibility journey. Choosing the right supplier is critical otherwise you may design in accessibility issues rather than avoiding them. Make meeting WAI AA accessibility compliance a key requirement but don’t stop there. Ask suppliers to provide examples of websites that they have built to demonstrate how they have tackled web accessibility – and then test those websites to confirm that they are compliant. Beware suppliers who simply claim that web accessibility issues have been introduced by local authorities after the website build. There will certainly be issues introduced after the build has been completed, but it should be fairly easy to spot issues that suppliers themselves have built into website templates.

  5. Make accessibility a key responsibility of all members of your web team

    Web accessibility is more than just a set of technical issues, so don’t confine responsibility for it to the technical member(s) of the team. Accessibility issues can be added in through content and design, so make sure that every member of your web team fully understands web accessibility. Invest in training where you can and if you are the manager make sure that you inspire your team to keep their knowledge up to date and become champions of web accessibility. Recruit people who have an appreciation of and passion for accessibility and make sure that the responsibilities for it are clearly referenced in their job descriptions.

  6. Select a range of automated tools to assist with reviewing accessibility

    There are a wide range of tools to use to help you to assess and manage web accessibility. Many of these are free and they will help to save you a great deal of time. Council websites are generally large websites containing several hundred pages (if not thousands in some cases), so manual checking really isn’t an option. Automated testing will help to identify issues that occur across the whole website or just on specific page types. Free examples include Wave, AChecker and Cynthia Says and paid for examples include Powermapper and AccessIN.

    There are also a range of paid for web accessibility services that are available which can automatically alert you to issues as they occur. The value of these services is that they help you to fix issues in a timely way. Examples include Sitemorse and Siteimprove.

  7. Complement automated testing with real life accessibility testing by disabled web users

    Automated testing is useful but it can never be 100% accurate and it may not always reveal issues that can affect disabled users. So I would always recommend that you complement automated testing with real life testing by disabled users. Organisations such as the Shaw Trust, DAC and RNIB provide comprehensive testing services that cut across a wide range of disabilities, using a variety of assistive web technologies. If you can’t afford paid for testing then I would recommend approaching local disability groups whose members may well be more than happy to volunteer their help.

  8. Consider the accessibility of your third party web applications

    Sorting out web accessibility on the council’s website is important but it is not the end of the story. Most council websites use a wide range of third party web applications to support services such as planning, payments, bookings and mapping. These applications also need to meet web accessibility guidelines otherwise disabled users will fail to complete the task(s) that they have set out to complete when visiting your website.

    Third party website applications pose a major challenge for local authorities as resolving issues is in the hands of suppliers. One way to reduce these issues is to build accessibility into the criteria for procurement. This will help when purchasing new external services but not help with existing suppliers unless contracts are periodically reviewed and accessibility can be set as criteria for renewal.

  9. Build accessibility checks into the publishing process

    Once your new site is live you will need to actively build in accessibility checking into the publishing process. It is very easy to import in accessibility issues through content, either by importing spurious code or by failing to make content accessible. Importing Microsoft Word content and failing to tag PDF documents are responsible for many of the web accessibility issues arising from content.

    Where possible I would advise that you build accessibility checks into the publishing process to ensure that issues are considered and tested before they go live. This can be done manually and assisted by the use of checklists to remind web content authors of what to consider. A good example of a checklist is Userium.

    I would also recommend using content standards to reinforce best practice and help to avoid accessibility issues. For example check out the LocalGov Digital Content Standards.

  10. Carry out regular web accessibility testing

    My final tip is to carry out regular testing of your council website. Testing should be considered an ongoing task and requirement to prevent major accessibility issues from occurring. Failing to complete regular testing is a key reason for the poor state of web accessibility across local authorities. Testing can often be seen as a one off task, done at the start of a new website and then forgotten about until the next website redevelopment. The challenge is to keep the momentum going and not to lose sight of web accessibility.

    Using external website accreditation services (such as provided by the Shaw Trust, DAC and RNIB) can certainly help to keep your focus on this challenge. But beware of treating website accreditation like an annual car MOT. If issues arise they need to be dealt with in a timely way and not left until the next yearly inspection.

I hope that these tips will encourage you to take a fresh look at the web accessibility of your council website. If you have any further tips to contribute please add your comments below. I’d be particularly interested to hear about how you deal with web accessibility issues or if you have any other suggestions for useful web accessibility tools or testing techniques.

Building a responsive website using Drupal

Five years ago I very much doubt if we would have considered an open source web content management system (CMS). About a year and a half ago that all changed as we looked to find a replacement for our existing proprietary CMS, feeling that the time had come to find an alternative which would give us the flexibility to develop and design websites ourselves. We chose to trial the use of Drupal, an open source platform, built, used, and supported by an active and diverse community of people around the world.

When we started our journey with Drupal we had just achieved fours stars in the SOCITM Better Connected Review. So why did we consider this fundamental change at this time? Well, we wanted the freedom to develop and change our website to meet ever changing requirements and public expectations. The biggest driver initially was to allow us to develop a fully responsive website to meet our residents ever increasing need for mobile access. We developed a separate mobile site, which partly meets the demand – http://m.bracknell-forest.gov.uk/home but we now really to provide a single website which can be accessed from any given device.

Use of Bracknell Forest Council's website by device
Bracknell Forest Council website: usage by device – (2015 – 2016) : desktop – 49%, mobile – 31.3%, tablet – 19.8%.

Mobile usage of the Bracknell Forest Council website has been increasing to a point where mobile and desktop use is greater month on month than desktop use. The pie chart shows the annual split between mobile, tablet and desktop usage. Over 50% of people now choose not to use a desktop PC or laptop to access our public website. In some months the split has been even greater and I anticipate that this will continue to grow.

Developing a responsive website needs to go beyond building websites that adapt to all screen sizes. In a recent article Dan Gardner and Mike Treff talked of the need to consider developing a ‘responsive philosophy’ as today ‘users expect online experiences that not only respond to what device they’re using, but also their location, time of day, what they’ve already read and events happening in real time’. (see http://m.fastcodesign.com/3036091/the-next-big-thing-in-responsive-design). This concept throws up all sorts of opportunities which we’d like to explore further, but equally a wide range of constraints, particularly relating to the flexibility of a CMS to meet these new expectations.

Changing the presentation of a website to meet changing requirements and needs cannot always be easily sorted in CMS which will generally use a limited number of fixed templates. Over the last few years design and usability wisdom has suggested that websites uniformly present content simply and consistently – to try to make the experience simpler and more intuitive. I fully subscribe to this view, but I also think that it can make the experience a little dull and repetitive. Government websites need to focus on simplicity and pare down unnecessary navigation and design to encourage users not only to view the content that they present but to engage and transact.

But does one size fit all in terms of design in government websites? I am starting to have my doubts about this. So I am currently working on a different approach which offers more flexibility in terms of design, but one which keeps the customer as the main focus and fully considers usability. Our new council website will be designed to provide a consistent journey, but include some flexibility on presentation to add visual interest and help to sell those services that need to be actively marketed (such as Leisure).