This is a task which comes up over and over again for many developers. There are a lot of jobs in maintaining web sites. Our work doesn’t always come with the dream experience of a brand-new web site. Even if a new web site is a major goal, there will inevitably be large quantities of legacy content which will need to be worked into the new accessible design. Working on legacy websites can pose a number of subtle challenges.

If you can’t redesign, what can you do to work towards a more perfect site?

I’ve written on this topic before, but it’s a subject which comes up frequently enough that it deserves something more. That article, written for Yuri Filimonov’s search marketing blog, was targeted at an audience that might be working on improving the accessibility of a legacy site without any major redesign. As such, I focused on simple content or style based changes which, for most sites, can be made without making substantive changes to the site.

They’re valuable changes, although superficial in terms of fundamental degree of change. In user interface design, “superficial” can be pretty substantial, after all — as I heard Peter Merholz say in a speech last night, the fundamental experience of most users is a division between a user interface and “magic” — everything else that happens. As a developer, we know what underlies the user interface — most users don’t care. Superficial changes to an interface can make a huge impact for the user experience.

Nonetheless, for a truly accessible web site it’s important to go beyond the superficial. One important facet of many web users with disabilities is that they have an experience with the site which exists on a different level from that of most users. Why? Because the user agents or interface devices used, whether a screen reader, a text browser, a keyboard, a pointer or some other device require interaction at a different place in the normally three-tiered software model. The basic model is data, logic, and user interface. An accessible web site has to go a little further: the data, the logic, the user interface and, finally, the accessibility tool which needs to operate that user interface.

One way of viewing the shift from an inaccessible website is adding “hooks” into the standard user interface which provide the critical information a disabled user needs to be able to successfully navigate the site. It’s not a perfect viewpoint: as I’ve written several times before, accessibility is the removal of barriers to access. But either view is a simplistic model. Adding alt attributes is an additive practice; but the addition of that element removes a barrier, if the attribute is attached to a navigation link. It’s a balancing act: understanding when an addition overweights the balance is the critical understanding most required.

So, back to the subject of legacy websites.

There are many possible ways in which a web site redevelopment project can be approached. First, if you’ve been told that redesign is not an option you need to know why. Is it because the content management system produces the majority of the code and they can’t afford to either replace their CMS (Content Management System) or fix the back end? Well, that may be insurmountable — at least, for now. Is it because their marketing and branding (or legal) departments won’t approve a design change? That is hardly even worth calling a problem.

Any site which has been developed using table elements for layout can be redeveloped without them, without making any substantial changes to the design. Any site which has been developed using font elements to control headings can be redesigned using appropriate heading elements. Any site which has been developed using br elements to separate paragraphs can be fixed.

If redesign isn’t an option, re-building still might be.

Yes, it may be more challenging to perfectly reproduce a design using all-new code. Yes, in order to reproduce certain design decisions you may have to use techniques you wouldn’t have otherwise chosen. Yes, it may be less satisfying creatively to build a web site where you have absolutely no ability to make new design decisions. Do these matter, ultimately, if the final product provides substantially better access for users?

Also on this subject: Mel Pedley “5 Steps to Reworking a Legacy Site”. Mel’s article focuses on the planning process to consider when approaching a major re-development.