When to audit
Site life cycle
Websites "and the projects to produce them" have life cycles (a series of steps that they progress through). Typical steps are:
Plan > Specify > Design > Develop > Test > Deploy > Operate > Review
The final pair, Operate and Review, are likely to be repeated many times. Eventually, a review may raise the need for extension or redevelopment of the site and this begins a new cycle at Plan.
On many sites, however, content is constantly being added, removed and updated. For this reason, even though the structure may remain static between reviews, the majority of changes that affect accessibility may take place during the Operate phase. Therefore, organisations need to adopt a process that will guarantee that accessibility is maintained between Review and redevelopment cycles.
Achieving and maintaining excellent web accessibility is easiest if this accessibility is a requirement from the outset. At every stage of the life cycle, accessibility can be audited against the planned level. While the website is being created, changes for accessibility are relatively easy and cheap to include. If accessibility has been specified from the outset in the contract, such changes should cost the site owner nothing as the developer is obliged to carry them out.
Accessibility is not just a set of features that can easily be added to an existing website. If you wait until you have built the site before considering its accessibility, you may find that some of the design choices you have made are fundamentally at odds with accessibility.
For example, you may have adopted a content management system that makes it difficult or impossible to produce valid code or to make certain aspects of your site accessible. You may have implemented a content creation process that fails to retain important semantic information (information related to meaning) that is required to make the content accessible. Changing these fundamental features at a late stage in site development may be difficult, expensive and time consuming.
Faced with an existing website, you cannot build accessibility into the whole life cycle. Therefore, the natural point for an accessibility audit is during a review of the website. If there is no planned review (and for almost all sites there should be), you may have to call for a special accessibility review of the site.
How often should I audit?
A website is more like a process than a project. Although the term project is frequently applied to site development, operating a site effectively means an ongoing editorial process. This is particularly true of web accessibility. Maintaining your target accessibility level means building accessibility into your site operations, including regular checks by managers.
No matter how rigorously accessibility is tested and achieved in the first build of a site, and regardless of how strongly it is emphasised during staff training, it constantly needs to be considered. Many issues can affect the accessibility of a newly developed or redeveloped website, degrading its accessibility over time, such as:
- Staff turnover leading to those without accessibility skills working on the site;
- Pressure of work leading staff to take shortcuts with accessibility;
- Inclusion of external content that is not accessible;
- Applying accessibility measures in a mechanical fashion that does not achieve the required accessibility.
Therefore, it is important to regularly check that your site continues to meet your target accessibility level.
A large and diverse site that has a high turnover of content and/or staff and a wide variety of content types is prone, over time, to accessibility decline. If your site is like this, you may need to consider quarterly accessibility audits. These need not be equal in depth. A major annual audit could be followed by 3 mini-audits before the next major audit.
At the other extreme would be a site that changes little, is built from a small number of accessible templates and is managed long-term by a small and highly trained team. This may need a full accessibility audit once every 12 months or so.
For sites that fall between these two extremes, consider an accessibility audit every 6 to 12 months.