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Writing a website is a complex task. The website needs to cater to the very human needs of it’s visitors, but also requires a certain amount of consideration for it’s non-human visitors: web browsers of all sorts, search engine spiders, or any piece of software which gathers information from the internet.

These two aspects can’t easily be separated: humans are using computers to interface with your web-based information, so the information received by your visitor is biased by the device they’ve used to access it. Website design and development requires a very conscious and simultaneous consideration of both parts.

Accessible web design is often times very computer and device-centric. Much of the process seems to be:

These are, to some degree or another, measurable and definite. They provide a definitively testable scenario where you can state clearly that website A is more accessible than website B. This doesn’t mean that either website is actually usable.

The technical aspects of accessibility are easy. They’re a pleasant shortcut from not knowing what you have to a sense of confidence that you’ve done the right thing. They’re also quite necessary — if your human audience is unable to make use of your site due to a technical issue you should absolutely be able to fix that. Your code is written for a computer, and you provide the best information to whatever device is being served your page in order to give it access to your website. This applies to user agents and web spiders.

But the ultimate audience is not the device; it’s the person operating that device. A second layer of much less measurable consideration needs to be applied to the people operating devices.

  • You’ve provided the ability to change font size. Do you need to tell your audience?
  • You’re using hidden skiplinks to help navigate. How does somebody know this?
  • You’ve got a really cool AJAX search which discovers results as your visitors type: do they know this?

You can’t make assumptions about your visitors or their devices. Many techniques are questionable because of discoverability — a screen reader may support the JavaScript you’re using to power a technique, but not have a means to inform the user of the change in the page. The JavaScript you’ve written may degrade when JavaScript is not available — but how does it degrade when an earlier version of JavaScript is all that’s available?

At the end of the day, you have no way to know exactly how well you’ve done. Even a thoroughly tried and tested site may be flawed when it hasn’t been confronted with users. You can run every machine test conceivable on a website and pass them, and still produce a site with problems. Testing, communication, and a willingness to explore alternatives gives you a chance of success.

Device compatibility is certainly important, but human compatibility is more important. Human compatibility is ultimately a question of audience — and in the web sphere, as often as not, the audience is filled with question marks. Market research isn’t just about marketing: it’s about knowing your audience so you can provide not just what they want, but what they are able to use.