UPDATE: New accessibility book! Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design is now online & in print.

Chapter 4: Prioritizing, Retrofitting, Redesigning

Chances are, you have existing products that do not meet accessibility guidelines and standards, and it is not feasible for you to make them all meet accessibility guidelines and standards as soon as you would like. (Many companies that sell electronic and information technology to the U.S. Federal government are getting pressure from their sales force for, "Accessibility NOW!") So, you need to prioritize. This section helps you to decide: What should be retrofitted? What should be redesigned? What do you do first? What can be left until later?

The Retrofitting and Redesign Process

Just as designing and evaluating for accessibility fits into existing user-centered design, retrofitting and redesigning for accessibility can be incorporated into standard methodologies. The first step is an inventory of your products and services. Your Y2K lists may be a good place to start. While designed for government agencies, the "Section 508 Self-Evaluation Questionnaire for Designated Agency Officials" is also a useful reference for what questions to ask about your products and services. Next, determine which accessibility standards and guidelines apply to each. A list is available in Existing Accessibility Guidelines and Standards. Then you are ready to conduct initial accessibility assessments.

Initial Accessibility Assessment

Conduct an initial assessment of your current state of accessibility, and help you make the retrofit or redesign decision. The findings from the initial assessment are essential for effectively customizing training, developing internal standards, and preparing your specific implementation plan.

For this initial assessment, you do not need to look at every aspect of every product - do not waste time on the overlap. Instead, choose representative products with which you can extrapolate applicability to other products. Organizational issues and product development stage also factor into which product you assess initially. For example, for web sites:

  • Concentrate on the most important pages, and the high-level pages - because site visitors won't be able to get to the lower level pages anyway, if the high level pages are inaccessible.
  • Look at different types of pages, such as one of each template you use, a page with a form, and a page with a table.
  • Examine pages and applications that will be re-designed or re-coded soon, so you do not miss an opportunity to improve their accessibility during re-design.
  • Review projects in development, and prototypes that are not yet released; improvements earlier in the process are less expensive that after release.

More information on accessibility assessment and evaluation is available in Evaluation Goals and Methods.

Gap Analysis

Now you have a good idea of the opportunities to improve your products' accessibility (yes, that is a nice way of saying where you fall short). Confirm your organization's accessibility goals and policies. Determine what areas need improvements to meet these goals: awareness training, technical skills, tool development, and specific accessibility expertise.

Deciding to Retrofit or Redesign

The next step is deciding what to retrofit and what to incorporate in new designs. If you have a major redesign planned in the near future, it is likely to be more cost-effective to concentrate your efforts on the new project, rather than perform extensive retrofitting of a product that will soon be replaced. However, do not overlook the possibility of easy and cheap retrofits. For example, adding alternative text to images on your web site can take very little time, and will significantly improve the accessibility of your existing site, even while you are working on a more extensive redesign. The sections below provide guidance on prioritizing your retrofitting and redesigning plans.

Role of Accessibility Impact and Investment on Prioritizing

One aspect of prioritizing improvements is weighing the impact on accessibility with investment in cost and time. Determine what improvements you can do within a short time, and a small budget, that have a higher impact on accessibility. Do those right away. Put improvements that take more time and budget, yet have a lower impact on accessibility, on a low priority list.

Keep in mind that the low priority list could change over time as technology advancements make implementation easier. For example, many things that are technically complicated and costly now will become quick and cheap in the near future. Make sure those items are not forgotten, so when it becomes easy, you can implement them.

[chart: showing impact on accessibility versus cost in time and money]

For web sites, the prioritization on the impact on accessibility is already done for you, see "WCAG Prioritization of Accessibility Checkpoints" sidebar.

More information on prioritizing in terms of impact on accessibility and usability is included in Performance and Quality.

Role of Sales and Competition on Prioritizing

In many cases, sales and legal issues significantly impact your prioritization. High priority products are those that will lose the most sales if they do not meet accessibility standards imposed by vendor contracts or sales contracts, such as with the U.S. Federal government under Section 508.

Pay attention to what your competitors are doing. Focus on those products in which you can exceed your competition in accessibility. You may see areas where their accessibility is so lacking that you can gain an edge by improving your own accessibility in that area. Or, you may realize that they have gained such an advantage over you. This would naturally figure into your prioritization for retrofits and redesigns.

Prioritizing Product Elements

Often you can realize significant benefit from a few accessibility improvements. Look at those areas that have the greatest impact on the bulk of your products, specifically, improvements that cross product lines. Also look at the critical path for usability of your product.

Consider the following prioritization for web sites:

  1. templates that impact all or many of your web pages
  2. style sheets that impact all or many of your web pages
  3. your home page that is often the first impression
  4. most important pages (and the path to get there)
  5. frequently-used, high traffic pages (and the path to get there)

For products, consider prioritizing by:

  1. core, primary functionality
  2. supplemental, secondary functionality
  3. maintenance (for example, changing batteries)
  4. initial set up and installation
  5. eriodic maintenance and repair
There is a common myth that complex products are more costly to modify. This is not necessarily true. For example, web pages coded by hand are likely more tedious to fix than ones dynamically generated. By including accessibility considerations in the scripts and code that generate your pages, you can lower the cost of implementing accessibility standards. [Access and Accessibility, Jamal Le Blanc and Rachel Anderson, The Digital Beat, Vol. 2, No. 26, March 10, 2000: www.benton.org/DigitalBeat/db031000.html]

See Integrating Accessibility in Simple versus Complex Web Sites sidebar.


Pre-publication DRAFT
Version 0.13-1
1 October 2001

Draft excerpt from "Managing Accessibility In Technology: Bringing Together People, Processes, and Techniques For Successful Implementation" by Shawn Lawton Henry.

© Copyright 2001 Shawn Lawton Henry. All Rights Reserved. Readers are granted permission to print a single copy for off-line reading. Additional copies may not be printed or reproduced. Copies may not be distributed.