Paul Crichton MBCS, a member of the BCS Disability Group Committee, looks at PAS 78 and its implications for web design and social inclusion.

PAS 78 is a publicly available specification produced by the British Standards Institute (BSI). It is not a standard per se as defined by the BSI, as the PAS is non-consensus, although the process was undertaken with extensive consultation with various interested parties such as disability groups and professional and commercial organisations.

PAS 78 was commissioned by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) in the light of the report 'The Web Access and Inclusion for Disabled People' (2004).

In this, the DRC discovered that there was a high awareness of web accessibility as an important issue: 98 per cent of large organisations and 69 per cent of small and medium organisations. Yet 81 per cent of websites fail the most basic accessibility criteria.

What does the PAS cover?

The PAS covers many aspects that ideally would be incorporated in the process of commissioning and testing of a website prior to its launch onto the web.

The scope of the document has such a wide view that it is targeted at larger concerns such as multi-national companies and high street names.

It is not a document that lends itself well to small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) and is not a replacement for existing standards and use of best practice.

The view of the document presented at the meeting was one of clarification, standardisation, harmonisation and consolidation not only from the perspective of the RNIB and the BSI, but many other interested parties, BCS included.

Accessibility policies

The importance of accessibility policies was reinforced. The policy can be adapted from existing policy rather than being written from scratch. According to PAS 78, the website commissioner requires that: 'A policy is in place and that it is displayed prominently on the website'.

The policy should be jargon free and set down targets for accessibility and any steps that will be taken to broaden access to the site under development. The policy should be included in any specification for tender or contract and require contractors to comply with it to assist the website commissioners in meeting accessibility goals.

Included should be a feedback mechanism for users to send any suggestions, comments or complaints to the website commissioner.

There were five primary aspects of the site development process, as shown below. However the importance of engaging end users in requirements capture, prototyping and testing cannot be over-emphasised.

1. Who is the target audience?

The view that everybody is the target audience is far too wide. However, it is possible to split this view into target groups such as visual, auditory, cognitive, physical.

This grouping should also be expanded laterally to include use by end user devices such as PDAs, WAP/GPRS devices and mobile phones. The principle behind this is that good all-round design should be aimed at the end user irrespective of any impairment.

This is not only a moral obligation towards total inclusion but a commercially sensible one, as the more users that can interact with sites that have sales and service content the more the profit increases for the site owners.

2. Key end user tasks

The key tasks that are undertaken as part of the web development process should be aligned with the real world, as it is in a real world context that sites are viewed and interacted with.

With all web development aspects, there is always something that is considered to be done badly by the site owner, developers and designers or end users. One that was particularly mentioned was the use of contact forms.

PAS 78-section 6.3.2, page 19, suggests that the summary of contact details should include: email, postal address, telephone, textphone and typetalk. It should also be noted that it is difficult and time consuming to provide corrections and alterations beyond the initial specification in retrospect.

3. User requirements capture

The requirements capture process is time consuming and cannot by its nature be exhaustive. It was suggested that benchmarking and the use of metrics would assist in viewing any likely deficits in the light of the requirements capture.

This could be combined with the use of the existing site (if it is not an initial design) or use of a similar site with similar functionality as a test bed.

It should not be overlooked that feedback mechanisms from a website equal requirements capture by and large.

4. Developer procedures and technical standards

It is considered wise to put testing tools in the hands of the developers, which linked to compliance to web standards in terms of inclusions such as xhtml and css, and incorporation of sound heuristic principles, makes for a sound basis for an accessible website.

5. End user testing and usability metrics

End user testing will yield much valued data that has been gathered from extensive requirements capture, prototyping and testing.

Usability consultancies are in place to assist in the web development process. Such organisations have an expanding user base from which metrics are being developed that assist both commissioner and developer alike to assess the effectiveness of the site and how the site meets targets set down in the accessibility policy.

These two factors combined provide a substantial foundation for an ongoing development of an accessible, user-centred, user-focused web presence.

Conclusions

PAS 78 certainly has its place in the toolbox of the web developer; its development skilfully augments the 'Hearts and Minds' approach towards web accessibility.

However, it is not a replacement for standards compliance and good use of heuristic design. Policies per se are static documents and as such need the extra dimension of dynamism where they are incorporated into the everyday working persona of the IT professional.

This article is based on a presentation delivered by Julie Howell, PAS78 technical author, digital policy development manager at the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) and Giles Colborne, president, Usability Professionals' Association, UK (PAS 78 Steering Group Member) at the meeting of the BCS Disability Group in June 2006.

References

  • Presentation slides and notes from the BCS Disability Group meeting, Julie Howell and Giles Colborne, (June 2006)
  • Website design & the DDA 1995 Computers & Law, December 2000/January 2001, Volume 12, Issue 5, pg 16-20, Mason S and Casserley et al (2001)
  • 'Towards Total Inclusion', ITNOW, July 2005.