Interview : Blair Millen – GAWDS

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blairmillenOur interview today is with Blair Millen, administrator at Guild of Accessible Web Designers, owner at Doepud Web Design and team member of Accessites.org. He is an advocate of accessible website design and designs funky websites without compromising on usability.

Blair was my contact while trying (and succeeding) to gain membership to GAWDS back at the start of PoLR. He was the one who kept mailing me back and telling me to sort out my image replacement!

We recently contacted Blair to see if he would be willing to answer a few questions for our blog. He agreed (at the promise of a coffee) which brings us to now…the answering of 6 questions on Accessibile Web Design.

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It is often assumed that an accessible website is a boring website. We are finding it easier to promote the benefits of having an accessible site but there are still times when we hit a wall. How easy do you find it is to convince clients that they can have what they want without having to compromise with design?

Not that easy to be honest. I actually find that on occasion a design does need to be compromised, although I’ll try to prevent this from happening by planning ahead during the early stages when I’m working on the design in Photoshop. I’ll keep one eye on making the design work and the other on the practicalities of building it with HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

However there has been times when I’ve made a decision about a design to ensure maximum flexibility in terms of web accessibility and the client has requested a change which has proven a challenge to deliver. For example, in a recent project the design I came up with was fluid (with minimum and maximum widths). The client wanted to add a drop shadow to the site container (i.e. all the way round), which wasn’t going to be particularly straight-forward to implement in a fluid design. So on this occasion I was compelled to explain my design decisions by talking about web accessibility and the benefits to having a flexible design.

In my approach to designing websites it’s very rare for me to mention web accessibility to a client (and it’s even rarer for them to mention it to me!). I aim to deliver an accessible site as standard. It’s a fine balancing act because quite often the client is only interested in how the site looks and not really how it will get used by their customers.

We were at an SEO conference on Sat where there was a talk on Accessibility by Dirk Ginader. He went over some of the most common ‘incorrect assumptions’ made about accessibility for example, Javascript being the root of all evil. What are some of the ‘incorrect assumptions’ you hear on a regular basis?

As I rarely preach the benefits of web accessibility to my clients I don’t get to hear many incorrect assumptions. This is an interesting point though because I realise there’s a lack of awareness about what web accessibility actually is and why it’s important… and of course this isn’t helped by the fact that I don’t actively push it in my work.

Of course, high profile web accessibility cases like Target and the Sydney Olympics have helped to bring awareness to a wider audience and I mention these cases when necessary.

What basic checks can you recommend that any website owner can do in order to check their websites accessibility and usability?

Quite a few of the accessibility checks I make are with browser extensions, like the Web Developer tool bar for Firefox, so I’m not sure most website owners will be in a position to make these checks themselves. However, as a website owner there’s still plenty of simple checks that can be made to see if their websites are accessible and usable:

  • use automated checking software – a valid website isn’t necessarily an accessible website but it helps to higlight potential problems. Website owners can validate their site using the W3C Validator – http://validator.w3.org/. Another automated validator is WebAIM’s WAVE tool – http://wave.webaim.org/ which checks for things like alternative text for images , semantic page structure and and how JavaScript is implemented. Finally, a last automated check is to use the Lynx viewer which is akin to turning off styles – http://www.delorie.com/web/lynxview.html
  • check forms – try submitting forms with empty fields. Is there a useful error message
  • turn off JavaScript – what happens when you turn off JavaScript? Do you get useful error messages? What about other functionality on the site? Does it still work with JavaScript turned off?
  • find something on a site – on larger sites finding things can be difficult. How easy is it to find a certain product or piece of information? Is there a site map? What about a search box?

In reference to your work at GAWDS, have you seen an increase in membership applications as the awareness of SEO increases?

No, I haven’t been aware of an increase in GAWDS applications as a direct reaction to SEO awareness.

Again, in reference to GAWDS (and out of curiosity), have you ever had a complete failure of an application – one where you’ve just had to shake your head in despair and give up!?

Many. If it’s a terribly inaccessible site I’ll just turn down the application straight away but if the site shows promise I’ll give the web designer a chance to bring it up to scratch. I’ll make up a list of the main problem they’ll need to fix to reach minimum GAWDS requirements and see what they say and do. Interestingly, it’s these applications that I can end up shaking my head at. I can’t tell you, the number of times I’ve compiled a list of accessibility issues only for the web designer to come back to me a week or so later claiming to have fixed all the issues, when in fact they haven’t actually fixed much at all… that bewilders me, and it happens a lot! (Shakes head just thinking about the times).

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