Web sites that waste away

The design may be slick, the graphics supercool, but the site doesn't deliver the longed-for holy grail of booming e-business.

Why? Users, who were interested enough to find the site, may also find that it's inaccessible to them, either because its laden with graphics and their slow dial-up connection can't handle can't handle them, their browser, or the site's design just doesn't produce a legible, easily viewed and used encounter.

Organizations with inaccessible Web sites not only risk losing customers and wasting money they fail to comply with Australian government regulations.

According to iFocus senior consultant solutions division Andrew Stevens, organizations do this because they do not understand their users' needs.

Stevens said accessibility has become a larger issue in recent years, as broadband divides Internet users around the country into haves and have nots.

Under section 67(1)(k) of the Disability Discrimination Act, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (Hreoc) issues guidelines for the purpose of avoiding discrimination in this area.

Access to Web sites is described by Hreoc as 'designing Web pages so they can be navigated and read by everyone regardless of location, experience or type of computer technology used'.

"All Web design should start with the user in mind," Stevens said.

"Accessible Web design considers that not everybody has the latest hardware or a fast Internet connection," Stevens said.

The main groups Stevens identified as being disadvantaged by inaccessible Web sites were rural users, the aged, disabled and non-committed customers.

Companies that do not make their Web sites accessible may be prosecuted under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA); many large organizations fall into the trap of making accessibility a low priority, he said.

Other organizations build it in. One example is Fairfax Digital, a large network of sites catering for six million unique visitors and 135 million page impressions per month.

Fairfax Digital moved to a standards-based design in late 2003, and expects to have saved $1 million in data transfer charges over 12 months.

"What's more, their sites download faster and are more compliant," Stevens said.

Accessibility consultancy PurpleTop has partnered with iFocus to create Australia's leading accessibility unit, with PurpleTop principal Gian Sampson Wild believing that too many organizations overestimate the time and cost involved in making a Web sites accessible.

"It does not have to be expensive, especially if it has been considered in the preliminary stages of Web design," Sampson Wild said.

Sampson Wild is also a member of the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Committee, and claims that organizations should have their Web content editors trained for their role in site compliance.

"Sites are at risk of losing compliance because of site editing. For those who understand accessibility guidelines, compliance becomes automatic."

Basics of an accessible Web site include text that can be resized for vision impaired, a reasonable level of bandwidth, alternative text for an informational image.

Sampson Wild recommends organizations refer to the current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which provides standards for Web site accessibility and is common practice for all Australian government sites.