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Jim Byrne Accessible Website Design Glasgow for The Third Sector, Voluntary, Charities and Not for Profits

Accessible design for the Third Sector
Creating inclusive websites since 1996
Jim Byrne Web Designer

Making Websites Accessible: 6 How to plan your website

You have decided your organisation needs a website – so where do you go from here? The most important work is done in the planning stage. Spending time and effort on deciding what you want the website to do, what kind of features will deliver that and who is going to do it, is well worth the effort. It is always harder and more costly to rectify problems after the website has been published.

All of the most important decisions about website design are taken before a single page is published. This section is designed to help you make those vital early decisions. We will also give you information about various technical features which you might want to add to your website.

Put someone in charge

Getting a website designed, built and maintained is not a simple task. It requires good management skills in order to co-ordinate the project, and considerable understanding of what the organisation wants to achieve and what barriers exist to achieving its aims. Therefore, it makes sense to find a single person who can lead the entire process.

The ideal person is someone with enough ‘clout’ to have the full support of management – and enough knowledge of the details of how the organisation works to ensure the correct information goes on the site. He/she should be responsible for managing the entire process: organising meetings; clarifying the aims and design of the website; finding, employing and supervising a web designer; and liaising with all those involved in the project.

What should the website do?

A bad website, i.e. one that frustrates visitors because they can’t find what they are looking for, or stretches their patience because it is too slow to download, will do your organisation more harm than good. It is better to have no website at all than a website that shows your organisation in a bad light.

Here are a few questions you will need to answer:

  • Why do we need a website?
  • What do we want the website to do?
  • What are the features we like about websites?
  • What are the features we don’t like?
  • Who will the website be aimed at?
  • What are the needs of the particular audience/s?
  • Who will design the website?
  • What is meant by an accessible website?
  • How do we ensure our website is accessible?
  • How much time do we have to maintain it?
  • Will staff be given extra time and training to work on the site?
  • How will we encourage ownership of the site within our organisation?
  • How will the success or failure of the website be measured?

Bring together an appropriate group of people within your organisation to discuss the questions above. Write down the main points of the discussion as well as any conclusions reached during the meeting. You will want to start with the most important question, why do we want a website? Doing the exercise as a group should help build a feeling of ownership of the resulting website.

Clarify your aims and objectives

To clarify the aims of your website attempt to write a single paragraph that explains the following:

  • who you are,
  • what the site is for,
  • what information/services should be found on the site.

Remember, if you don’t know what your website is for, don’t expect any of your visitors to know either.

Identify your target audience and its needs

Next you need to think about who you expect to use your website; who is the main audience for your information/services? Don’t work on the assumption that it is for everybody – this is too broad and, if you adopt this approach, your site is likely to appeal to nobody. People surfing the web are usually looking for answers to specific questions – so think, why should they visit your site? Think about your site in terms of what needs it will meet for your intended audience. Look at a wide range of other websites and ask yourself what is good or bad about them.

Perhaps the single most important thing you can do is ask your potential audience what they want to see on your website and involve them in the planning and delivery process. For tips on how to involve disabled people in the process read SAIF’s Standards for Disability Information and Advice Provision in Scotland (the section ‘Involving Disabled People and their Representatives’ is particularly relevant).

Once you have identified your target audience, but before you start to build your site, ask yourself these fundamental questions:

  • Do the people I am aiming at have access to the web?
  • Are they likely to use the web to access my information/services?

Perhaps putting up a website is not the best strategy for meeting the needs of your intended audience. Maybe another year is needed before those you are aiming at are ‘hooked up’ and sufficiently comfortable using the web to access your information or services.

Identify required features

When you have identified the target audience and main purpose of the website, you need to decide what features you require on the website.

To start with, write down everything that you think should be on your site, including features like discussion forums, feedback forms or guestbooks. Divide the information you end up with into categories. Give each category a short name – these names may later form the sections within your website. Think about how you might organise these categories on your site. Popular organisational schemes include: alphabetical, time-based, geographical, subject-based, audience-based or metaphor-driven.

Examples of these organisational schemes:

  • alphabetical schemes: phone directory,
  • time-based: television or radio guide,
  • geographical: holiday guide,
  • subject-based: university syllabus,
  • audience-based: a conference website with sections for exhibitors, press and visitors,
  • metaphor-driven: road signs.

Pick what you think is the best organisational scheme for your site and for your particular audience. Give some thought to this because you will need a system that will be able to accommodate the future growth of your site as well as its initial content.

You may wish to consider other technical features such as:

  • audio,
  • polls,
  • message boards,
  • news feeds,
  • payment function,
  • forms,
  • password protected areas.

Level of accessibility and usability

Depending on your target group you need to decide on what level of accessibility your website requires, bearing in mind minimum levels required by law.

Consistency and integration with other marketing tools

If your organisation has a marketing plan, a ‘house style’ or templates for communication, you need to consider what will apply to the website. The marketing plan can give you help with who it is you want to reach with your website. Your house style and templates can give you logos and other information that should always be included in communication, as well as how items like phone numbers, addresses, and dates should be displayed. The house style can be very helpful when designing and writing content for the website.

Remember that house styles designed for printed material will have to be adapted for screen use. Text is read differently on screen and the legibility is generally only 70% compared to printed material, so headings and subheadings are important for the information. An accessible website design will also be flexible when it comes to text sizes, so the users can change the text size and font to their preference.

Domain name

The domain name is the name in the web address. For example, www.saifscotland.org.uk is SAIF’s web address with saifscotland.org.uk being the domain name. It makes sense to use the organisation’s name or abbreviation for a domain name but other names relevant to your activities and what you want the website to do can also be suitable. The domain name must be registered. This can be done through a registration company, your web designer or hosting company. The authority holding the register depends on the ending of the domain name i.e. .co.uk or .com

Design

Think about what general message you want to convey and how people will find the information on the website. Pay special attention to how the user will navigate around the website. It can often help to make a flow chart of the way people can navigate through the site. The navigation should be easy to understand and consistent throughout the site.

Gather the content together

Once you know what your site is for, who your target audience is, and the needs of that audience, you are then in a position to start gathering information to put on to your website. Always remember that the information you choose to put on to your website should directly meet the needs of your audience.

Some content should be on all websites:

  • contact information,
  • a map to get to your premises if required,
  • details about when individual pages were last updated,
  • accessibility statement,
  • sitemap,
  • copyright statement.

Organise your content

You should now have the content and a scheme, or a mixture of schemes, that form the basis of your website. To organise that content within the scheme, draw out the structure of your website on paper. Think about what is the most important information for your intended audience – and make sure that it will be easy to find.

Group similar information together (i.e. you want to have an ‘About Us’ section containing information about the aims of your organisation, a map, annual reports, address information etc.) Group all your services at one physical location on the page (discussion, search, classified ads, jobs etc.) and access to your content/information on another.

Think about whether you want to have links to everything on your front page or just a few links representing top-level topics – each leading to several related topics.

Plan for the future

A website is not finished when it is published, that is only the beginning and from then on it will develop and grow. It is a common mistake to relate to it as you would to printed information and think of it as finished and set in stone when published. The flexibility and low cost to change and add information are part of the benefits of having a website. It is therefore valuable to begin to think about the future at the planning stage and plan in advance for updating the content and maintaining standards.

Promote ownership of the website

Once your website is online that is just the start of your work – now you want to keep it fresh by updating it regularly with new material. Assuming most of this new material will be produced by staff within your organisation, you need to motivate and train staff to contribute to the site.

If your aim is to build a useful and regularly updated website ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the idea of having a website have the full support of everyone in the organisation?
  • Are staff/management/directors already experienced users of the web?
  • Is there a culture that sees the web as a valuable and core research/information tool?
  • Do staff have access to the web from their desks?
  • Will staff be given the responsibility to update their own sections of the website?
  • Will staff have the technical means to update the website (i.e. a site management system)?
  • What are the procedures in place to update the website?
  • Is updating centralised and done by one person or decentralised to the various staff members themselves?
  • What are the policies, if any, that relate to updating information on the website?
  • Does everything have to be checked and passed by one person before it can go live? If so, does the designated person have the time to do this – and are there targets for ‘turnaround’?
  • Will the staff be given appropriate training?

If all of the above conditions are met you are in an ideal situation to operate a successful website. And you are probably unique, because such a scenario is unlikely to be the norm in most organisations.

You may first have to look at how you can make more effective use of the web within your organisation – and develop a culture where the web is seen as a legitimate and valuable communication and research tool, as vital as the telephone or the fax. The closer you can get to this ideal the better.

Having motivated, trained staff with instant access to the web on their desktops will help make them feel part of the process and be eager to contribute to the site, as will familiarity with the technology involved and a belief that the web can help them to reach their target audience.

Adopt the right attitude

Your website should be able to stand alone – don’t think of the web as an advertisement for your offline activities – if possible provide the full service online. Don’t tell people of the interesting and useful documents and articles you can send them by post, provide the full text of these documents on the site so that your visitors can read or print them themselves. Don’t ask visitors at your site to phone for further information. By the time a potential customer is offline he/she will probably have forgotten all about your organisation and your products or services – remember that email is the natural way of communicating on the web.

Working through the above tasks is not quick nor easy but it is worth the initial effort. Apart from helping you to build a useful website, it should also help to establish commitment from those involved in the site at an early stage.

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Give me a phone if you would like me to test the accessibility of your website:

I provided feedback on the WCAG 2 (as representative of Guild of Accessible Website Designers) have two decades of experience and worked with hundreds of organisations.

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