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Website Accessibility Testing – Where to Start?

In today’s blog, I’ll address web accessibility testing – where to start. If you are currently doing accessibility testing, might be tasked with doing so soon, are considering an investment in some type of automated scanning solution or overseeing or implementing accessibility initiatives, you’ll benefit from this blog. In fact, anyone who is looking for a different viewpoint on the subject can benefit from this material on web accessibility testing.

Wondering where to start when it comes to your accessibility testing? Whether you’re staring at a complaint letter from a legal firm about the inaccessibility of your website, or just looking to be proactive about ensuring that content is accessible instead of waiting for a letter to arrive, your initial efforts are going to start out the same.

Accessibility Testing Basics – Where to start?!

We recommend you take the following approach:

  1. Decide what standards and guidelines you will strive to meet
  2. Identify the highest traffic pages on your website
  3. Identify the templates that make up the framework of your site
  4. Determine the critical user tasks/scenarios on your site (if any)
  5. Know what your testing approach will be for the accessibility audit

Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps.

Web accessibility standards and guidelines

When it comes to the standards and guidelines, knowing your target goals allows you to do many things. First, it’s going to allow you to document issues against the published standards and guidelines. Next, it will be useful for communicating the current state of your content and obtaining guidance on how to address the various accessibility issues you might identify.

This blog doesn’t discuss these global regulations in detail (learn more here) but the standard I’m referring to are WCAG 2.0, particularly A and AA. Regulations and standards bodies around the world are converging upon WCAG 2.0, whether they are the US Section 508 refresh, the US Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the EU’s {EN 301 549](http://www.etsi.org/deliver/etsi_en/301500_301599/301549/01.01.02_60/en_301549v010102p.pdf), ISO 9241-171 and others. Although these standards are all based upon WCAG 2.0, it’s important to know which ones you’re going to reference as a goal so that you are better able to prioritize your efforts.

The nice thing about choosing specific standards and guidelines to inform your goal, is that it will allow you to report on the progress you’re making toward the conformance with those standards and guidelines which is extremely beneficial if a legal settlement requires you to provide a progress report. If you are not in that situation, having a paper trail of what has been done over time, how much effort was put into accessibility, and how much was improved may keep you out of litigation.

As you become familiar with the standards and guidelines, you may find there are various ways to make your content accessible, and that not all are outlined in the guidelines. As a result, many organizations that we work with determine they are going to choose a different path. Ultimately, if the result is accessible content, everyone is happy.

Having a set of standards and guidelines as your target will also allow everyone in your organization to speak using the same terminology. This is very important if you want to be effective. It’s even more important when you have many individuals or departments that could be involved with this effort because it will help reduce any misunderstandings or confusion that can happen when everyone is talking about the same thing, but using different terminology.

Identify the highest traffic pages on our website

Next, you’ll want to identify your highest traffic pages i.e. those pages that receive the most visitors. If you’re not sure which ones these might be, you can usually obtain that information through web analytics like Google Analytics.

You’ll want to give these pages special attention as part of the review to make sure the content is as accessible as possible. This is going to allow your site to appear more accessible than it might be in its entirety.

This approach can also help limit the number of complaints from users as well as from legal firms looking to threaten litigation, and even from those that are just looking for issues in general. You can buy some time as it will allow you to move forward with accessibility testing efforts with more structure and less pressure from customers, potential litigators and senior management.

Identify the templates that make up the framework of your site

You also need to look at your page templates. A page template makes up the framework of your site – sort of like how your skeleton provides the structure for your body. Most sites run on some type of content management system that uses templates to post content.

Identify the templates that make up your site. For most, this number is not very large, ranging most commonly from six to twelve templates. Of course, it depends on the complexity of your site.

Once you’ve identified the templates, you’ll want to identify pages that represent the most features or the types of content or modules that can be added to those templates. This allows you to have a reduced number of pages to actually look at but still be able to review the majority of what could be placed on those templates. (Sometimes you do have to look at multiple pages to adequately represent the variation of content and the features allowed within a template.)

The benefit of doing this is that you now have a concise representation of the framework of your website. You can then focus your testing and identify and properly document issues that might be related just to templates.

By correcting these issues first, it really helps to enhance your site. Whatever enhancements and corrections made to your templates are not going to apply to just a single piece of content or a single page. Instead, these will cascade throughout the entire site. The result is a huge improvement in the accessibility of your website from this initial effort.

Determine the critical user tasks/scenarios on our site (if any)

Next, look at your key user tasks and scenarios i.e. the ability, for example, to:

  • Sign up for a newsletter
  • Create a user account
  • Modify the user profile
  • Change a user password

For an e-commerce website, the user paths to verify for accessibility might be completely different and just as critical (if not more so) i.e. the ability, for example, to:

  • Search for a product
  • Review product description
  • Add a product to the cart
  • Check out

Not all user tasks and scenarios would be considered as key. To determine which ones are key, you need to think of the reason or the purpose a user is coming to your site or going to a particular page on the website that involves some type of user interaction. Determine the key purpose for visiting that page – all other features could be considered secondary. From a legal perspective, most regulations focus upon providing equal access to a product or service, which should be consistent with the scenario you identify as a key purpose. Secondary features are not necessarily any less important, but they can potentially wait until later.

If limited on time and resources, for those key user scenarios and tasks, make sure that the user can also accomplish the complete task, from start to the finish, considering the various ways they are coming to or interacting with your website.

Know what our testing approach will be for the accessibility audit

Finally, you’ll want to think about your approach to performing your accessibility audit. Typical quality assurance testing, sometimes referred to as QA testing focuses on making sure content displays correctly within the browser. It will also ensure controls can be accessed and are usable with a mouse. As a rule, that’s where QA testing stops. The accessibility testing approach is much more involved. There are a number of different types of disabilities and impairments that need to be taken into account.

To ensure that you can identify the widest range of accessibility issues, you should perform multiple test passes of the same content. Our experience shows that the most important features of an accessibility audit include keyboard testing, testing with assistive technology, reviewing content for contrast, and cognitive issues.

The keyboard-only test pass.

  • Verifies the user can interact with all content and controls, with no mouse!
  • Ensures a foundation for Assistive Technology
  • Addresses many potential mobility impairment issues
  • Boosts general usability of the site

During your keyboard testing pass, if forced to use a mouse at any time, then you probably have an accessibility issue. Of course, keyboard testing, in my opinion, is one of the most important things to do to validate that content is accessible. Unfortunately, it is far too often overlooked.

Assistive technology test pass
Assistive technology as a testing tool can expose a number of accessibility issues that you may not find with keyboard-only testing. The question is what assistive technology should you use in testing? A screen reader? A screen magnifier, assistive input, voice command, etc.? A combination?

You’ll need to consider this for you organization and consider what benefits you’ll receive – it’s going to be different for all. Testing with assistive technology requires a good, strong knowledge of the software and how to use it properly. It also requires the ability to switch to different mind sets. For example, if using a screen reader to test your website, you need to put yourself in the place of, or consider the experience from the perspective of, somebody who is without sight. You need to resist the temptation to look at the screen while doing screen reader testing – and if you do look at it, you’ll need to differentiate between what feedback you are getting from the screen reader as opposed to what you might be experiencing visually.

Assistive technology testing is not for everyone. It can be difficult and time-consuming to master. Sometimes you won’t have the ability or the resources to be able to do it properly. It is typically better to partner with a third-party consultant so they can help with the review.

When it comes to contrast – the color difference between the background and the foreground, most accessibility guidelines recommend that the contrast ratio be a 4.5:1 or higher. There are exceptions to this which outlined in various guidelines and standards. The most commonly recommended ratio is 4.5:1. This type of review can be easily done using an automated scanning tool, but these tools don’t catch everything. That is why it’s important to do a contrast test pass. You don’t need to set aside a specific time to go through your pages looking just for contrast issues, but rather that this can be easily done if you are familiar with contrast issues. Once you are familiar, you can identify contrast issues as you are doing the keyboard-only testing, the assistive technology testing and possibly even while you are identifying what pages to include as part of your testing.

When you observe areas that might be in question, flag them and come back to them after your initial test passes are completed. This step doesn’t add a whole lot to the testing process, but the benefits gained from it can be dramatic especially if there are a number of contrast issues.

Cognitive test pass
The cognitive test pass is often overlooked because it can be time consuming. It can be difficult to determine an appropriate scope because of the wide range of issues related to this test. It can be impossible to validate for a wide range of issues. Yet, by considering some basic issues while going through your selection of pages and manual test passes, just like with contrast, you should be able to identify the issues that can have a huge impact.

For example, one cognitive issue easily identified is link text. You might have links that use text such as “click here”, or just “here”. Within context, saying “click here” might make a lot of sense, but when taken out of context and included as part of a list, it will not make a whole lot of sense. The best thing to do is utilize the context around the link to create a “descriptive link” so it can be taken out of context and understood.

Another example is when you see content that references a color or location of different content or controls on the screen instead of referencing those by name. For example, you might have a page where it says “click the red button in the upper right hand corner of the page”. That is all well and good if I am not color blind and if I can see the page. If I am a non-visual user, I won’t know where the red button is and I also won’t know which is the left or right hand side of the page. You’ll want to reference these types of controls and content by name. This way, whether or not the users can see the screen or can discern the colors, they can find that content easily.

Another area that is rarely given attention is the use of complex wording. Does that mean you need to dumb down the content on your website? No. The content used should be written in the most simple, basic form as possible. Simple language will help those who might have cognitive issues that prevent them from understanding complex wording and sentence structure. Simplifying language will also help users who are non-native speakers.

By using the most basic, simple text, you can improve the overall usability of your site even for people without disabilities. You want every person to be able to quickly understand your content, and this process can spark ideas for overall improvement. In addition, it has been demonstrated that improvements in alt-text and descriptive links improve your website’s standing in search engine results (SEO).

At a minimum, you should look to perform two to three manual test passes to adequately complete your accessibility audit. It really depends on what you decide is important for your organization.

Gathered your accessibility info, now what?

What have you accomplished by taking the time to gather all this information? Identifying which pages and scenarios to test, which standards to test against and which test passes to use gives you a plan of attack. You could call that a game plan, you could call it a roadmap, whatever your phrase of choice might be, the bottom line is that you now have a plan!

Now you can move forward with your accessibility audit and have confidence that you’ll obtain the best results and establish a solid, accessibility framework.