It takes a lot of work to build an accessible website, but going live doesn't mean the work is over. Ongoing testing and updates are a requirement for managing any website, and when trying to stay accessible, regular assessments are even more essential.
Guidelines and recommendations for digital accessibility constantly change as research and technology advance and the first-hand experiences of people with disabilities become more understood.
What may have been considered useful a year ago could be retracted and changed at any time, so it’s critical to keep yourself and your website up-to-date and stay ready for whatever comes next.
Step one: routine testing
The first step in keeping your website accessible is to test it regularly. It’s a good idea to run accessibility audits every four to six months. This may seem like a lot, but new guidelines and suggestions are released every day. What was acceptable in January may be completely disregarded by May.
Plus, digital tools, scripts, and software are also frequently updated. Android phones, for example, update as often as monthly.
These updates to phone, computer, and browser software mean that your website may not remain usable for all visitors forever. As devices with built-in accessibility features become more common, the features built into your website may compete with them, rendering your website inaccessible for some.
So it’s crucial to regularly test your website to make sure it runs smoothly, meets the most recent requirements, and is compatible with current technology.
Step two: staying informed
Ensuring your website continues to be accessible requires a lot of research and understanding, not only about computer software but also about requirements beyond those enforced by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA itself is not frequently updated. It's only been updated once since its inception in 1990.
However, that doesn’t mean that research into the best ways to provide accessibility has not been ongoing. Most of this research has been conducted by independent organizations such as the Epilepsy Foundation and National Organization on Disability.
Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect an organization to fully understand every single guideline that has been proposed or published. Some guidelines conflict: people who are Deaf or hard of hearing may need captioning and audio descriptions, but people who have blindness or vision loss may find that these accessibility features compete with their screen readers.
Additionally, some disability organizations are actively at odds: a well-known example is the disagreement between Autism advocacy groups regarding terminology, best practices, and more. Navigating through conflicting information is difficult, but it’s still necessary.
Step three: knowing your customers
One of the best things you can do as a business owner is to know who your customers are. Attempting to create the perfect website that anyone with any disability can access without any issues is not only a tall order; it’s impossible due to the aforementioned conflicting access needs.
Instead, a good rule of thumb is to focus on your customers. Of course, this requires paying attention to who visits your website, makes purchases from your store, and posts about their purchases on social media.
Running analytics on your website is a key step in getting to know your customers. There are many ways to track analytics, so choose the method that works best for you. Once implemented, you can track visitors and see how they interact with your website.
For example, analytics can show you who uses captions on your videos or navigates using voice commands. You will also be able to see if a feature is not getting any use. This can help you paint a picture of who your customer base is, what they need, and what they don’t need.
The more you observe, the more information you’ll glean from your website visitors, which can help narrow your focus when researching to ensure consistent accessibility. Once you know which accessibility features your customers use most, you'll know where to focus your attention regarding maintenance and updates.
Ensuring your website remains accessible is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires dedicated research and an investment of time to keep your website optimally accessible and compliant with the latest available guidelines. It is well worth this effort, however, to maintain a positive, welcoming, and open website that is more accessible to all.