If you’ve just been put in charge of making a site or app works for everyone, the most daunting step might just be the first one. Sure, there are standards, but sometimes they raise more questions than they answer.
What you need is an easy way to get started. And Easy Checks may be just what you need.
Sharron Rush heads the Easy Checks project at the Web Accessibility Initiative. These simple steps help you get an idea of whether a site meets some of the basics for good accessibility, without any special technology or tools. She joins Whitney Quesenbery for this episode of A Podcast for Everyone to answer some of these questions.
- What are the Easy Checks, and why are they needed?
- Can anyone use the Easy Checks? Is there special equipment needed?
- What’s the best way for a project team to get started with accessibility?
- How do usability and accessibility fit together when you are evaluating a web site?
Sharron Rush has been an advocate, a learner, and a teacher of accessible technology for 15 years. She is Executive Director of Knowbility and an Invited Expert to the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative where she co-chairs the Education and Outreach Working Group, which wrote the Easy Checks.
Whitney Quesenbery: Hi everyone. Welcome to this episode of “A Podcast for Everyone.”
Whether you are in charge of the user experience, the development or the strategy for a website, our goal is to help you make your site accessible, without sacrificing design or innovation. I’m Whitney Quesenbery. I’m the co-author with Sarah Horton of a new book from Rosenfeld Media, “A Web for Everyone.”
Today, I’m talking to the extraordinary Sharron Rush. Sharron is the Director of Knowbility, home to projects like the Accessibility Internet Rally, AccessWorks, they do projects to help companies make their sites accessible, and they run the annual AccessU conference. We’ll talk about that at the end.
She’s also a part of the education and outreach group at the web accessibility initiative at the WC3. She joins us today to talk about Easy Checks, and how they can help you get your site on the road to part of being a web for everyone. Welcome, Sharron.
Sharron Rush: Thanks Whitney. It’s great to be here.
Whitney: Great to have you. Before we dive in, I want to just mention the URL, so we make sure we get it in the tape, that URL for Easy Checks is www.w3.org/WAI/eval/preliminary, and the full title of this page is “Easy Checks – A First Review of Web Accessibility.” You know, Sharron, that sounds almost practical, and this is from a standards organization.
Sharron: [laughs] Are you surprised? You sound like you’re very surprised at that. That was our goal, in fact. We wanted something that was practical, and that really truly was easy.
Whitney: Yes. It sounds like we all know what we need to do, what we don’t know is know where to start. It’s great to see some material out there that will help. Tell me about who created the Easy Checks and how you worked on it.
Sharron: You mentioned a minute ago that I was part of the W3C’s Education and Outreach Working Group for the Web Accessibility Initiative. That’s a group of volunteers and invited experts who take all of those fabulous very technical documents that are developed around HTML5, CSS, and all the accessibility standards, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, all of those things.
What we try to do is digest them, and do outreach that will help lay people use them, understand what they are, and be able to really use them in a practical way. One of the things that we kept hearing was that…I just feel overwhelmed when I come to the W3C. I’m interested in accessibility, but I really can’t even begin to know how to apply those Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). What we decided was, why don’t we make a really easy way for people who aren’t technical, who don’t necessarily have automated testing tools or any of that, but just to get an idea of what does accessibility mean and how do I know if I’m even in the Ballpark.
Whitney: Cool. So, you see why I was a little surprised about something called the easy connectable standards, but it’s really great to hear that kind of project. I have a really big question with just how did you decide what you should include. I assume that Easy Check are things that are really important, but how did you decide what to include?
Sharron: That is a good question. That part wasn’t an easy thing to do because there are some things that create great barriers for accessibility but that aren’t really easy to check. We start by developing a framework that says, here are the requirements in order to be an Easy Check. It has to be all these things, but paramount was, it has to be easy to make a decision, it has to be easy to make a call on whether or not it passes or fails.
We weren’t always successful, and I think you’ll find, if you look at the Easy Checks, that we say, “Here’s what you can do. You can take this step and you can do this, but, even if you get a green light on this, you’ll probably want to go further. If you get a red light on this, at least you know that you have a problem. It’s not all black and white either, through the Easy Checks.
Whitney: Two things. They have to be things that we could do, like someone like me who’s not very technical could just look at the site and be able to pretty easily tell…maybe not if it met the guidelines, but it certainly could tell if it fails.
Sharron: That is correct.
Whitney: Also, these are things that are important to get started with accessibility, so if it fails these, then maybe some of the deeper things don’t matter them much because you haven’t even gotten the door open.
Sharron: That is exactly correct, too.
Whitney: So, let’s pick one of them apart, and talk about how it works and why it’s important. The first one on the list is ‘Page Title.’ It seems pretty basic, doesn’t it?
Sharron: One of the reasons that we put that as the first one is because it’s relatively easy to check, and it’s the first thing that you often encounter when you come to a website. We thought, “We’ll start with the page title. Does it have a page title, does it not”? And also relatively easy to understand the importance of, because people who are listening to the Web need that for orientation, to understand where they are, “Am I on the right page? Am I where I thought I was going to be”? If the page title is announced and it’s clear, and gives that information, then they have success.
Whitney: Are you talking about the title that’s up in the title bar or the title that might be a big display title on the page.
Sharron: The title that is shown in the window title bar.
Whitney: If you’re listening to the Web with a screen reader that gets read to you as you enter a page?
Sharron: It does, yes. That’s the first thing that you hear.
Whitney: So, you know that if you clicked on a link, you’ve got to the place you wanted it to be.
Sharron: That is correct.
Whitney: The second one is ‘Headings.’ Again, that doesn’t sound like a really technical thing.
Sharron: No. Checking for headings, but now what you have to do there is to make sure that you’re not just looking at the page to see if there’s big, bold text. In this case, you have to actually do a little bit more investigation and see, has it been marked up as a heading? So, before people get really scared about, “My Gosh! I have to know code,” we do also introduce in the Easy Checks some easy tools that you can just put in your browser and use to help you find those things.
Whitney: Cool. So, I don’t have to have a web editor or a technical development environment.
Sharron: Right. And you don’t have to open a source code and start digging through the source code. You can download some of these tools and, that’s one of the first things we take you through, how do you chose the tools that will work, that will be easy to use, and the results of which you can understand also very easily.
Whitney: This sounds like you’re really addressing something that I hear a lot when I talk to project teams, which is that they say, “We want to do it but the whole thing seems daunting,” and they don’t know where to start. You’ve told us that someone who isn’t that technical could use Easy Checks. Here’s my real question, if you fixed the things that were in Easy Checks…let’s say you found out that you didn’t have good headings or good page titles and you actually fixed them, how much of a difference does that make?
Sharron: It makes a huge difference because those are the ways that people even orient to the information on the page, to begin with. You used the phrase earlier about opening the door. You definitely are, then, opening the door so that people know where they are, know how to get among the different sections, where they’ve landed, and they just have a really useful way to interact with the information that they’ve come upon.
Sharron: Yes, Absolutely. That was our goal, to make sure that anyone…and also regardless of the tools, if you are using WordPress, Drupal or some content management system, these Easy Checks still apply and you can use them really sequentially or you can jump around and see what…”Well, I just added some multimedia. I just want to check that out.”
Whitney: If you’ve just added something new…
Sharron: If you’ve just added something new to your site and you just want to check on that particular part of it…
Whitney: You said something really interesting which is, this isn’t a sequence, so it’s not a process, it’s a series of checks that you can use. Tell me how you would decide when to check something.
Sharron: Certainly, you’re welcome to…and people have used this sequentially, just gone one ride after the other and done all the checks. In some cases you may have just added a new feature, and you’re not sure if you can reach that or activate that with a keyboard. So, you might use a keyboard access check, all by itself.
If you’ve added a new sidebar and you say, “I wonder if that text contrast meets the requirement for people who have color blindness or low vision,” and you just want to check that one thing. Then, you can really segment this out and check whatever it is that’s of concern or maybe that you have responsibility for, if it’s media or some other aspect.
Whitney: That’s nice because I think often…I know there are sites where one person does everything, but a lot of times I would think that the people in charge of multimedia might be different that the people in charge of, say, writing forms. So, this lets you get the right check to the right person.
Sharron: Exactly. That was what we were hoping for. Now, for people who are going to be at CSUN, the Assistive Technology Conference, we’re going to be trying to corral some people to really do some usability tests on this Easy Checks itself. If people are at CSUN, and they want to find us and do that, Shawn and I…Shawn Henry is my coach here at the Education and Outreach working group. We have a couple of different sessions.
Just come find us, because we’d love to get feedback from people about the way that they use it, how they found it to be useful, or how it could be more useful.
Whitney: Since you mentioned CSUN, that’s the CSUN Conference. That’s CSUN in San Diego, from the 18th to the 21st of March. You actually gave me a great lead into what I was going to ask you next. For those of us who work in UX, working with real users is an important part of developing any project.
First of all, I’m really glad to hear that you’re actually testing the Easy Checks, but I want to actually ask you about where you think usability testing fits into accessibility.
Sharron: Oh, Whitney. I think usability testing is so important, because there’s a difference between conformance to a technical standard and usefulness to a person with a disability. I think Education and Outreach, our working group, most definitely has the human perspective. We want to give people resources that certainly, by all means, meet the standards and conform to the standards, because that’s really important in terms of technology interoperability.
But, ultimately, the most important thing is whether someone with a disability can get the information, interact with it, and perform the same functions and do it in an efficient way. I’m so much a fan of your work, because of the fact that you understand that intersection as well as anyone, and it’s an important thing for people to remember.
Conformance, by itself, is almost secondary.
Whitney: Yeah. When I started in usability, we used to do heuristic or expert evaluations, and the way I was taught to do them is, first, you did the expert evaluation, you fixed all the problems that you could see easily, and then, when you had something you really thought was working, you took it to users, and you tried it out with them to make sure that it really worked.
You would really find different things. We would find technical problems, but the usability testing would find problems like, “Yeah, it works, but it doesn’t work the way people want it to work,” or, “It doesn’t really do the things they need.” I think it’s great to hear that getting into accessibility as well.
Sharron: Yeah, and, often, that it doesn’t work the way that they expect it to work. User expectation is something that, I think, in the accessibility field, you have screen reader users who they’re managing some pretty complex interactions with the screen readers in the way they use the keyboards for certain things.
Then, if the designer decides to introduce a keyboard command that contradicts that, maybe, technically, it doesn’t interfere with accessibility conformance, but, when it comes to use, it’s going to be a different story. Fortunately for us on Education and Outreach, we have group participants in the working group who have disabilities of various kinds, so we get that feedback immediately.
We hope that we’ve integrated that into…one of the things you’ll find on the Easy Checks is we have different sections that expand and collapse in order to talk a little bit about the tools that you might use here, or give you some more tips of some more definitions. We had to really fiddle around with that expand-and-collapse function because of the way it interacts with its various assistive technologies and what were the expectations of people with disabilities who would come on the expand-and-collapse function.
Whitney: I also noticed that one of the links on the page links to another page that talks about involving users in evaluating Web accessibility. I think that’s really helpful to have some guidance there as well.
Sharron: Yeah. We also want to not just include that in our own group of people but encourage other people to understand that it’s really not that difficult to include users with disabilities in your testing processes.
Whitney: It sounds like we’ve got a great thing here. We’ve got a strong standard that’s an international standard with some choices about where to start, some tools to help you get started, that’s been informed by actually users with disabilities as well as experts, and also guidance to help people who are evaluating their own website, include people with disabilities in that testing.
Just to say it again, you can find the Easy Checks two ways: if you go to the home page of the Web Accessibility Initiative, you can look for Easy Checks under “Evaluating Accessibility,” or let’s repeat the URL, it’s: www.w3.org/wai/eval/preliminary.
Before we run out of time and wrap up, Sharron, I would love you to tell us about AccessU, your conference is coming up May 13 to 15 in Austin, Texas. Full disclosure: Sarah Horton and I, are both really excited that we’ll both be presenting at this year’s event.
Sharron: Oh yeah. We’re very excited that you’re coming. The whole usability track at AccessU this year is going to be one of the strongest that it’s ever been, thanks to the work that you, Sarah, and others who are doing so. Yeah, we’re very excited about AccessU this year.
It’s the 12th annual AccessU. We get the run of the St. Edward’s University campus. It’s a beautiful campus in South Austin, looking right over downtown, and they’re in between classes, so we have the full run of the campus for those three days. We really tried to provide very practical…just like the Easy Checks. Something that’s practical, that you can take home and use right away.
We have tracks in usability, we have technical tracks, policy and managing tracks, and really hope to see as many people as possible come to Austin in May. We haven’t turned on the big heater yet.
Whitney: Who are some of the other stars that’ll be there?
Sharron: Derek Featherstone, from Simply Accessible, is going to be there. Glenda Sims — she’s the stalwart, always a great contributor to AccessU. Estelle [?] is going to be there. We have quite a bit of expertise of HTML 5, CSS, all the new techniques that people are using, as well as some very basic and very introductory classes as well.
Whitney: So, to work for someone just getting started and for someone who’s trying to do innovative design.
Whitney: Excellent. I really look forward to seeing you there. Sharron, thank you so much. This has been Sharron Rush, from Knowibility, talking to us about Easy Checks and getting started with accessibility.
Sharron: Thanks for having me, Whitney. It was my pleasure.
Whitney: And thanks to all of you for listening in, and, of course, a special thanks to our sponsors, UIE, Rosenfeld Media, and the Paciello Group, for making this series happen. Be sure to follow us at A Web for Everyone on Twitter. That’s @AWebforEveryone. We’ll be posting information about future podcasts there.
Of course, if you go to our book site at Rosenfeld Media, we have lots of resources available for you as well.