Building an accessible website is easy in comparison with keeping the website lively, useful and accessible after it has been built. If the website is to remain useful it must be regularly updated. SAIF advocates the ‘distributed approach’ to web publishing. This means that staff should ideally be able to publish their own information (i.e. they don’t give it to a third party to publish).
However, if you have a group of writers all with varying web-publishing skills – and using a variety of different publishing packages – the resulting website is unlikely to be good-looking, consistent or accessible. Why? Because the tools available at the moment don’t help publishers learn the most important skills: usable, consistent and accessible design.
In the long term, writing pages for the web will be no more difficult than writing standard documents using a word processing package. However, until this happens you need to find systems that will work for you right now. Whichever you choose, staff will need training so that they have the skills to maintain an accessible and usable website.
Keeping your website up-to-date
In order to keep your website accessible those who are updating it need to know why keeping the website accessible is a good idea.
They also need to know how to add pages to the website and edit them without compromising its accessibility. They also need to know how to test the website to ensure that it continues to be accessible.
The only way that staff can learn the importance of publishing accessible information on the web – and how to do it – is to provide good quality, appropriate training.
However, the training needs to be at the right level and of the right type. It is not reasonable to expect every member of staff to be:
- expert designers,
- expert information architects (i.e. the effective organisation of information),
- expert HTML authors,
- experts in building accessible websites.
Given that we are not quite at the point where writing a web document is as easy as writing a standard word-processing document, what should staff be learning? What type of training is required?
If you are committed to maintaining a regularly updated website you need to find a way to do two things. Firstly, you need to find a way for staff to publish and edit their own pages or sections on the website and secondly, to ensure that the resulting pages remain accessible. These two goals are difficult to reconcile – but with the correct approach it is possible to achieve both.
Allowing staff to publish and edit their information
If we look at the traditional web-publishing scenario, the following situation emerges. One person within an organisation becomes interested in the web and builds a website for the organisation with few resources and little input from anyone else. This person then becomes the organisation’s ‘web expert’.
When new information is to be added to the website it is channelled through this individual member of staff. As the demand to get information published on the web increases, he/she eventually becomes the bottleneck in the publishing process since it is highly unlikely that one person can keep up with the demands of the whole organisation (unless the organisation is very small).
The system then starts to break down; staff send their updates and have to wait weeks before seeing them on the web. Subsequently, they lose enthusiasm for web publishing and start thinking the process is not worth their effort. They then stop sending their documents for publication and the website stops reflecting the work of the organisation in an effective and up-to-date way.
The problem with the above method is that those who write the documents and are the experts in their own subject areas have little control over what actually goes on the web. As a result, their feeling of ownership of the website is eroded and its strengths are lost (i.e. timely information, instant feedback, interactivity and dialogue engendered by the immediacy of web publishing).
You could try to solve this problem by adding more ‘website experts’ by providing them with training or making this the person’s full-time job rather than an adjunct to the person’s main job. But this doesn’t solve the problem of ownership or participation. On top of this, many organisations will insist upon another layer in the web-publishing sandwich, the editor.
Determining staff support needs
First of all, staff will need some type of web-publishing application. Many people are currently using WYSWYG (what you see is what you get) web page design packages like FrontPage or Dreamweaver. These packages have become popular because they promise to free people from the burden of having to learn HTML to build pages. However, using most WYSWYG web design packages can lead to difficulties because:
- they don’t always produce standard, accessible HTML,
- their strengths don’t lie in site management but in site design,
- they are not good at helping writers to organise their information logically or helping writers add their information to the correct part of the website,
- writers are not necessarily experts in the organisation of information.
These systems are often very good web design packages and if they are appropriate for your organisation’s needs you may decide to use them. However, buying a web-publishing package will not tackle the fundamental issues of website management. They may make you a good designer but they won’t teach you how to organise information on the web so it is easy to use or quick to download – and most importantly they don’t necessarily make it easy to publish accessible websites. It is arguable that the time taken to learn most of these packages would be more usefully spent learning some basic HTML.
So what should staff be learning? Well, for the most part accessible web pages are pages written in standard HTML and HTML is not rocket science. All HTML does is give some labels to the bits of text that make up the page (i.e. here is a header, here is a paragraph, here is a list). Anyone who is going to publish information on the web should learn:
- some basic HTML,
- why it is a good idea to publish accessible web pages,
- how to write accessible web pages.
Learning some basic HTML will help all publishers – no matter what applications they are using – to build their websites.
Content management systems (CMS)
For updating your website you should consider using a content management system rather than a website design package. A content management system consists of software that enables a number of people to update, delete and add to, the content of the website. The software can control what different people are allowed to do and which pages they can change. There can also be a review function which enables the changes to be checked for accuracy and accessibility amongst other things.
A content management system set up at the same time as the website can potentially decrease the overheads for organisations publishing their information on the web. It will make it easier to maintain an accessible site, promote ownership of the website and specific pages amongst the people contributing to them.
Choosing a content management system
There are many different types of content management software, though at the point this document was published not many of them claim to help in the creation of accessible websites. They mainly divide into two groups of CMS, web-based and client-based.
With web-based CMS you can access and change the pages through a browser. A client-based CMS is a program installed on your computer, where you access the pages through a connection to the web server. It works not unlike a word processing program where you make changes, can send changes for review by a third party and then upload to the web server. One example of this type of software is Contribute which works well with the website design package Dreamweaver.
An example of a web-based CMS suitable for small organisations is called QnECMS (Quick and Easy Content Management System – a system designed by one of the authors of this document). It has been designed to help organisations and individuals create accessible websites (www.qnecms.co.uk).
For larger organisations OpenACS is worth investigating (www.openacs.org) as is Joomla! (www.joomla.org). There are many free and open source content management systems. However most of them don’t help users to create accessible websites, including the last two mentioned above.
The main features of a good content management system are as follows:
- It can control access to particular web pages – writers can only edit their own pages and add to their own sections (this has some drawbacks as well as advantages).
- It allows the creation of a consistent look and feel throughout the site, so assuming you have implemented good design and organisation at the outset, it is easier to maintain.
- It allows writers to concentrate on writing and designers to concentrate on designing.
- It allows the automation of the publishing process. If editors need to approve content before it goes live, this facility can be built into the system.
Once you create templates and your website is built using accessible HTML you are already a long way down the road to maintaining an accessible website.
With such a system in place ongoing training requirements will be less. For most documents writers will only need to learn some basic HTML. The learning curve is fairly gentle and, because it is easy to get started, you can learn as you go along.
Running a web-based CMS lets you carry out the entire publishing process using a web browser. You can also add photographs, graphics, word documents or PDF documents to your website. However, you will still have to pay someone to build your site in the first place so that it is accessible and you have a consistent framework to work with.