In an ever-changing world of social media and web collaboration, tools for user interaction and engagement are becoming increasingly prevalent. Many non-profits have embraced features such as forums, blogs, user profiles, and photo/video sharing as a means to extend their reach.
Your organization may have implemented any number of social tools in the past, or may be considering doing so in the future, but with these decisions often come concerns about how to best address your audience’s diverse needs. These needs may relate to accessibility and the user-friendliness of your site for those with auditory, visual, cognitive or mobility impairments.
This blog post is not meant to explain the nuances of accessibility, nor will it explore all of the dimensions of building a social site, but it will discuss key considerations when working to make your online presence social while remaining accessible to all users.
User Accounts & Profiles
When developing social sites, personal user accounts and profiles form the backbone of such destinations. These accounts allow users to make themselves visible to the site’s community while helping the organization to transition constituents from passive visitors to engaged participants.
To create these accounts, sites frequently make use of registration forms. As non-profit organizations, your sites likely have the added complexity of tying this data to a constituent database. So when building these forms, how can you capture the information you need while still maintaining accessibility?
- Keep it simple: Minimize the number of questions asked in the registration form, and clearly lay out the content you want to capture.
- Make it keyboard friendly: Ensure that users can navigate all fields using only a keyboard, and that each field flows in a logical progression. Pay particular attention to dynamic lookup fields, particularly when utilizing a constituent database.
- Provide clear feedback: At each stage of the registration process, make sure your users understand what is being asked, where they are in the process, and how to get help if they need it.
A true social site encourages interactivity by creating an environment that fosters communication not only between your organization and its constituents, but also between the members themselves. Social features on your site—such as comments, discussion boards, user-submitted stories, ratings, and voting widgets—can help build engagement within your audience.
If you have ever implemented a web submission form on your site, you quickly realized that without spam protection your environment was vulnerable to unwanted content. Many sites implement a CAPTCHA system to filter out spam robots, but quite a few systems use only visual-based tests, which aren’t accessible. So when fostering conversations, how can you allow all constituents to participate while safeguarding the site from spam?
- Stop spam, not people: It is important that you pick a CAPTCHA provider that offers both visual and auditory tests. There are also CAPTCHA alternatives to consider, such as Mollom, Akismet, and Defensio.
- Use an accessible editor: WYSIWYG editors allow users to style and format contributed content. Choose an editor like CKEditor, which was designed to be accessible for content writers and outputs accessible code.
- Implement accessible widgets: Make sure any rating, sharing, and voting widgets are accessible via keyboard.
Photographs are likely the most common form of media added to your site—and likely the ones whose accessibility guidelines you are familiar with the most—but this category also includes videos, audio files, and downloadable documents. In addition to creating accessible content yourself, you also need to provide mechanisms for members to contribute accessible content. So when dealing with media content, how can you ensure that everybody benefits, regardless of who contributes it?
- Provide text alternatives: Whether using the ALT attribute on an image, furnishing a full transcript of an audio podcast, or embedding captions in a video, every media file must have a corresponding text version available.
- Require accessibility: Configure your CMS to provide required fields to capture text alternatives for submitted media files.
- Prepare guidelines: Explain why these additional fields are required during content capture. Provide examples of good and bad usage.
Keep Accessibility in Mind
Building a social site can serve as a great asset to your organization, but it is always important to remember that whatever you build has significant implications for your users. Whether your organization strives to be a good web citizen, plans to maximize the number of individuals who can interact with your site, or needs to meet legal requirements, accessibility should stand at the forefront of your considerations when designing components or entire web destinations. With the resources, tools, and services available in today’s market, accessibility no longer has to be a limiting factor. You can still build a truly engaging site while promoting usability for all.
Stuart Holland, a web consultant at TerpSys with more than seven years of experience, works closely with each client to ensure open communication and to architect sites that further the organization's goals. He has expertise in the areas of requirements gathering, training, implementing social technologies such as wikis and blogs, and tailoring e-commerce solutions. His customers appreciate his expertise delivered with a smile.