Raising the bar: digital standards, websites, and accountability

McGill's websites are the public online face of our university. For many visitors, a website visit is their first McGill experience.

It's important that our audiences have positive experiences that are welcoming, accessible, and answer their needs. In support of this goal it's imperative to have awareness of the digital standards principles outlined in this article. Non-compliance with McGill's digital standards may result in monetary penalties, legal action, human rights complaints, and/or reputational damage to the university.

A summary presentation covering the details of this article will be delivered to faculty and department key contacts in early 2022.

What are 'digital standards'?

Your new site is complete and your team has put through a request to make it live. Instead, they receive a notice that a pre-launch review has uncovered some issues. For instance, all those attractive images on your home page have embedded text, and the reviewers say this violates 'digital and web standards'* and must be replaced before the site can go live. What’s wrong with text in images? The team spent a long time getting them just right and you don’t want to start over from scratch. What is this ‘accessibility issue’ thing anyway and why does it matter?

What are these 'digital standards'? What issues risk making your website problematic? And what do we mean when we talk about ‘accessibility’ as one of those standards?

Digital standards, including the accessibility standards, have evolved over time as computer applications and websites have become such a part of our culture. They define and encapsulate principles of usability and equal access so that the user's experience is managed fairly whether they are using slower networks connections, or if they have visual or motor disabilities. These standards are considered universal, but they are managed and applied at different levels by organizations such as the World Wide Web Consortium, ISO standards bodies, local governments, and even institutions such as McGill.

The rights of users

As an institution, we can’t just ignore identified problems. These days, digital standards are increasingly important due to a number of factors. New legislation concerning standards is being released by governmental bodies based on the guidelines published by web standards organizations such as the W3C. Also, there is increased reliance on the web as a primary link to school and work activities, especially as a result of the pandemic.

As well, we are seeing heightened sensitivity towards the rights of website users, including those with disabilities. Adherence to standards is essential to advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion on campus.

For instance, text embedded in an image is not accessible to someone who relies on assistive technologies to read a web page. The assistive software can't at this time discern a difference between text and any other element in the image, so it skips over the content. By using 'alt text', descriptive text embedded in the HTML markup, the web manager can help alleviate the problem because alt text is read out loud by the assistive software. But it is always best practice to include vital text in the main body of the page.

Our reputation

Adherence to these standards reflects on the reputation of individual units, as well as the University as a whole. Faculty and department heads need to be aware of and encourage their delegated web coordinators to comply with McGill's digital standards. Of course, they need to ensure that their sites are accessible to all visitors, including those with visual or motor impairments. However, it doesn't end with accessibility; they must also respect other standards.

Are web managers protecting their site visitors' data with respect to the collection of personal information (PI) and personal health information (PHI)? Are they aligned with the McGill brand and its visual identity? The fact is that the heads of faculties, departments, and other units are accountable for ensuring their websites comply with standards and requirements, similar to their accountability regarding content considerations like copyright.

And to manage that accountability, they need to make sure that they have the right people in place to take responsibility for the planning and day-to-day management of these websites. So, what should they look for when hiring web personnel? 

The right stuff

Staff members who work on websites need to possess the skills and knowledge required to create web content that complies with standards, as well as an appreciation for following compliance practices in a centralized institutional setting. When hiring new staff members to work on websites, administrators need to ensure that these specialists possess the recommended skills and knowledge as outlined in Web Services Toolkit for increasing web management capacity: Appendix.

Moreover, website owners need to ensure that their web team members have the time and resources required to adhere to digital standards. The web team shouldn’t be pressured to cut corners to meet deadlines or ignore compliance issues. They need to be empowered to make the right decisions about the content they add to these websites and how it is formatted.

Because web technologies and best practices are constantly changing, ongoing learning and training will be required to keep skills and knowledge up-to-date. Web team members need to be able to influence departmental communications strategies, resources, and processes. They’ll also need to have the authority and autonomy to carry out their work related to standards compliance free from pressure or interference. 

Keep in mind that an appropriate amount of staffing hours needs to be devoted to website content creation and maintenance. This is especially true for staff members who already have other duties before being tasked with website maintenance.

Related links

*Although this article primarily addresses standards as applied to websites, we use the term 'digital standards' to describe the principles that relate to all digital properties of McGill University, including the Web, mobile apps, and online applications. 

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