February 23 2016

Understanding Website Conformance and Website Compliance

Best Practices for Website ADA ComplianceWebsite compliance is a hot topic for website owners and marketers, but understanding the difference between compliance and conformance can help you determine how and when to prioritize this effort. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provides success criteria that they want you to conform to. You’re conforming to an idea of inclusiveness and function in those criteria. The compliance steps underneath each criterion speak to the ‘how’ of compliance but if you just do that without grasping the higher concept of conformance, you’ll likely run into trouble later on and will definitely make this harder than it needs to be.

With the official Department of Justice (DOJ) guidelines coming out in 2018, striving for website conformance is a best practice of all “early adopters” and something that every website owner should prioritize to ensure their site is accessible to as many site visitors as possible. 

Conformance Philosophy Prioritizes User Experience
WCAG Guideline 6: Ensure that pages featuring new technologies transform gracefully: This is clearly a philosophical guideline. There are many ways to implement the “how” but how you get there is less important than arriving at the right destination.

Accessibility, properly done, is as much a design philosophy as it is code changes, and works to the advantage of all users, not just those who depend on conformance. Designing for inclusiveness reduces clutter and increases content clarity. Your message is sharpened and your brand stands out. Sure, you may avoid a possible lawsuit, thinking inclusively offers more than these benefits. Consider these examples:

  • When you make yourself think about tabbing order and keyboard use, you are forcing yourself to think about what data is presented and in what order. This increases focus and aligns site priorities and goals.
  • When you think about making your site functional for someone using a screen reader, you remove the visuals that you are used to and have to think about what is really important. Maybe it’s logging in or maybe it’s the product search. The point is, what might have a small visual focus now might get a bigger one when you remove the visual and understand its useful value.
  • When you embrace design and user experience inclusiveness, you reject the flashy, unnecessary widgets and baubles the internet loves to foist upon us every year. Drop-down boxes that initiate action on click of the item? Sure that seems cool but apart from being totally inaccessible to someone using a keyboard it removes a traditional user’s ability to correct an accidental selection. How often have you meant to click Colorado in a state selector and gotten ‘Connecticut’? If a user isn’t able to fix this simple mistake before going to the next page, it is wasteful of their time and annoying as all heckfire.

Partial Web Conformance is Better Than Non-Conformance
Web conformance is also a process philosophy. Conformance starts with a step. It’s a journey the entire web is on. So, it’s okay to start with partial conformance.

  • Unless your company or institution is being sued, as of this moment WCAG conformance is voluntary. If you want to start the process of conforming to WCAG guidelines, that is better than ignoring the speeding train ahead. At this time, worrying about how third-party plug-ins and other things outside a company’s control creates an unnecessary panic. It is better to start conforming with what you have and hope for a solution from the third party than ‘wait and see’. WCAG admits as much by allowing you to claim partial conformance on a page. Basically if you’ve done all you could to make your part of the page conform but your third party (a CMS form, aggregated news articles, maybe even a secure login) isn’t conforming, you can make a claim of partial conformance. It doesn’t mean you’re off the hook forever.
  • Starting the process means you embrace design and thinking in a conformant way. If a site redesign happens, you’ll be ready to do it the correct way instead of having to learn all the lessons again.
  • Making your site function even a little bit is quite simply the right thing to do. Let’s say you are a bank. You may not be able to make your login conform because it’s a third party add-on. Customers with disabilities still may want to use your site for a wealth of other reasons: finding the nearest location with tellers who speak American Sign Language, checking latest rates, looking up hours for locations, contacting the bank either via phone, or email/form. All of these things add value for a customer and you can clearly see that’s better than not trying.

When you start thinking about conformance as a design philosophy as well as a code change, you’re ready to get started making the change. The time is now.

  • Regs & Legislation
  • Website Compliance

posted by
Will Creedle
Will Creedle
Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies (CPACC)

ZAG Interactive is a full-service digital agency in Glastonbury, CT, offering website design, development, marketing and digital strategy to clients nationwide. See current job openings.
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