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An enquiry into the acceptance of accessible web content and web design standards by UK small businesses.


1.1 About This Study

This enquiry is to investigate the awareness of web and accessibility standards in small and medium sized UK businesses.

The fundamental questions to be addressed by this study are:

None of this information is currently available within the public domain and there has been considerable interest in this study by high profile figures within UK web design industry including a number of the UK ’s members of the Web Standards Project (WaSP 2006).

This enquiry will be carried out by outlining the history, background and recent developments within the web design industry in respect to existing design standards and UK legal requirements. The opinions already available from within the design community will be gathered and quantitative and qualitative data will be collected to allow for a discussion of the findings. The analysis of the discussion will provide outcomes on the research questions asked and evaluate the current knowledge of web accessibility within UK small enterprise.

The investigation aims to focus on finding reasons for the lack of uptake, and gather information on the current level of awareness of “web accessibility” in UK small business. It will also attempt to ascertain current attitudes towards the accessibility provisions and understand if de facto web design standards are likely to become more widely adopted amongst SMEs (Small/Medium Enterprise) in the near future.

A major benefit of this report is that no such data appears to be available currently, and this study should provide insight to designers and small organisations alike.

1.2 Background

In 1994 the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was founded to construct a guideline-based structure for the oversight of the development of the web format, Hyper Text Mark-up Language. As the Internet developed, the W3C designed new ways of providing data in more efficient and effective ways. This involved the drafting of ‘standards’ for technologies including Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and a revision of HTML known as Extensible HTML (XHTML) which have both since become integral parts of the internet experience. The W3C are also responsible for the most widely known and respected accessibility programmes; the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Over ten years later, the W3C is still the most highly regarded body producing critical guidelines for the delivery of data on the web. However it is now surrounded by a number of independent organisations striving for similar goals, and who act as catalysts for improvement through discussion and lobbying. Such organisations include The Web Standards Project (WaSP) which strives for standards development. They work in the spirit of Tim Berners-Lee’s original idea of a totally accessible, content driven network, complementing the existing work of the W3C. Within this organisation there are a number of ‘Taskforces’ dedicated to particular issues, each comprising of between six to fifteen WaSP members.

Figure 1.1, Separation of style from content

The Separation of Presentation from Content

The development of cascading style sheets, considered one of the most critical advances in web design, separates the site content from site presentation (see figure 1.1) and therefore makes the content more accessible. Adoption only widely began in 2000 with upgrades to the major web browsers, despite the first CSS recommendations being published four years earlier (W3C 1996).

In real terms, this was the first time that accessibility was truly being acknowledged by the web design community outside of a small group of ‘accessibility evangelists’ and W3C developers. Six years have now passed since this first major step towards ‘semantic’ website design (Zeldman 2001), but in line with the way the W3C views development of the web (user driven, not committee enforced) means that the ‘standards’ are not legal requirements. Despite this, several countries have since provided some degree of legislation, dictating responsible behaviour in web design, such as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) which is discussed below.

The result of creating unofficial, laissez faire web standards means that web developers are not bound to produce truly ‘valid’ sites. The majority of web browsers will render totally incorrect mark-up, as long as it contains partially recognisable syntax, and many sites do not meet the guidelines at all. Web developers can produce ‘bogus’ code, and continue unaware of problems while users with impairments struggle to access the site using their specialist hardware and software. This is even a problem amongst the people making the law, with 70% of government websites failing the most basic of tests according to a recent European Study;

…only three per cent of 436 websites across the EU Member States passed Level A of the W3C web content accessibility guideline (WCAG 1.0)…

(eGov Monitor 2006)

A large number of designers have some knowledge of the term accessibility and what the W3C does, as it is almost impossible to avoid their impact while maintaining the skills required to operate professionally. However, with the surfeit of visual editors available commercially to any user, often the incorrect mark-up is hidden from unsuspecting novices, who can output the content and layout without understanding the generated code. Although attempts have been made to produce editors that can produce fully compliant code, there have been some notable recent failures such as Apple’s iWeb web authoring package for the home user (Johansson 2006). Inaccessible content is known colloquially within the profession as ‘tag soup’, and gathers a considerable amount of criticism from the evangelists.

Since 1999 all UK businesses have been legally required to provide accessible websites under the DDA, although statistics from the government (DRC 2004) indicate that very few are either aware, or willing to comply with the law.

With an ever increasing number of campaigns to promote ‘good practice’ from within the design industry, there looks to be increased pressure for conformity in coming years. If a UK SME is successfully sued for negligence, the pressure would be compounded by the legal precedent set. Currently no such cases have been brought in the UK , but the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) has reportedly supported individual claims against some larger UK firms (Neal 2003). A precedent against larger firms in the USA (Powell 2006) and Australia (Slatin & Rush 2002: 445-446) has already been set.

In attempt to help businesses commission good practice sites, British Standards Institute recently published a specification called PAS 78, however web developer John Oxton (2006) questions its relevance to his smaller clients,

This document seems to be aimed at projects with plenty of budget (…) Usability studies, hiring an accessibility consultant so on and so forth. I should run the ideas presented past some of my clients who don't have infinite budgets and see what they think of the idea.

This illustrates just one of the many criticisms that the designers seem to have identified with the current approach to standards, and indicates that the associated problems span wider than just stubbornness of SMEs.

At present web designers are not represented by any chartered governing body. Unlike teaching and legal professions, there are no official qualifications required to endorse a person to author. Therefore there are many small businesses and start-ups can employ the people with basic web knowledge to construct a site, and in the process may unwittingly failing to meet standards and remaining unaware of the UK legal requirements.

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