The Impending Collision Of Accessibility and RIA

Over the last six months I have written about two trends in the Web design world that will have an enormous impact on the future of natural search:  accessibility and rich Internet applications (RIA).  On one side of the discussion, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is pressing corporations in the state courts on the issue of designing accessible, text-based Web sites for the visually impaired who use screen readers such as JAWS.  On the other side, cutting-edge Web developers and user-experience gurus are designing rich Internet applications for better user experience in a Web 2.0 world -- applications that also expand the boundaries of being search- and accessibility- unfriendly

The tipping point in the debate on dichotomous design approaches will not occur in the context of designing search-friendly Web sites; it will occur in the impending corporate discussion of Web accessibility, and whether or not corporations will build accessible Web sites in place of, or in addition to, existing rich applications utilizing Flash, DHTML or Ajax.

In the Feb. 27 Forrester Research report entitled, “Prepare To Be Challenged On Web Accessibility Compliance,” analyst Michael Rasmussen discussed the increasing momentum of the Web accessibility movement as it relates to recent court activity by the NFB.  His assessment centers on legal issues, the complexity of the Web, lack of accessibility awareness and lack of ownership in organizations.  The report also points out a few of the benefits of designing for accessibility, including being a socially responsible corporate citizen, reaching untapped markets, and also capturing the riches of natural search optimization.



 In early February, the NFB continued to pursue its Web accessibility mission in the state courts by filing a case against the State of Texas for using inaccessible Oracle software that effectively makes content invisible to screen readers.  The NFB is also pursuing a case against Target in California, which claims that the site is inaccessible to visually impaired persons.

The irony is that while Web accessibility is just beginning to appear on the radar screen of corporate America, current mega-trends in enterprise Web design are as far away from meeting accessibility standards as they could possibly be.  To get an idea of the priority of RIA in the Web development world right now, consider this roster of sessions that represents the rich theme of the upcoming Thunderlizard Web conference in San Francisco:

- Ajax Frameworks & Design Patterns Survey

- Yahoo! vs. Yahoo! Case Studies of Three Mainstream, Large-Scale Ajax/DHTML Implementations
- Keynote: The Dawning of the Age of Experience

- Making Web 2.0 Usable: An Ajax Case Study

So what does this mean for marketers?  It means that the RIA and Accessibility showdown is coming soon to a server near you, and the way you approach online Web development will have a potentially serious impact in other areas of your company that have a stake in the accessibility issue. 

Even if your company doesn’t already have some sort of rich presence, it is quite possible that the next redesign will.  But will it be search- and screen-reader friendly? 

Designing for search-friendliness makes inroads into accessibility

Designing for search will provide many answers for accessibility.  A no-risk, naturally optimized site is fundamentally accessible, though there are still many other special considerations for compliance.  If you are designing a rich interface, it would be wise to start thinking now about how to make it accessible and search-friendly.  Here are a few considerations:

Find out if any rich applications are currently being developed by your organization or respective digital agency.

If rich site applications are being developed, find out what is being done to make the application search and screen-reader friendly. If you are currently in the development process, it may be painful to address search and accessibility, but it will be even more painful if your site cannot be made accessible after launch.  Plan upfront, and avoid trying to retrofit a search and accessible design solution at all costs.

If nothing is being done for accessibility or search, mobilize your developers, designers, search specialists, and accessibility specialists to assess and determine the best solution.This will likely involve the creation of an entire second site for search engines and screen-readers.  If rich applications are a part of your future, get used to the dea of maintaining two sites.  Don’t fret – there are solutions for being both accessible and rich, and your experts will help determine the best solution for your site. 

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