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Is It Better to Fix an Existing Website's Accessibility or Build a Brand New One?

Apr 27, 2020

If you're asking yourself this question, there's a chance you're feeling a bit overwhelmed as you read this and you're looking for some quick guidance on the best path forward toward accessibility. You've already taken the first step by seeking out this information — and as you gather more information prompted by the questions here, you'll likely be a lot closer to your answer.

Whether your organization is realizing the benefits of website accessibility, or perhaps has received customer complaints or a demand letter, these questions can help you dig a little deeper and decide whether it's best to save your current site or build a new accessible site from the ground up.

Has the site been tested for accessibility?

It's going to be really hard to assess the accessibility of a website or create a plan on how to fix it without thorough and accurate test reports.

You can definitely get started with a free accessibility scan to get an idea of the types of issues that might be present on your website, but you won't really know what accessibility issues are on your site until qualified experts perform full manual and automated testing.

Even if you're already pretty sure that your website has some major accessibility barriers, or you've received feedback or a demand letter saying so, you won't be able to effectively answer the rest of these questions or confidently make your site accessible without details on the number and kinds of issues.

What kinds of accessibility issues does the site have?

You've got to know the exact barriers on your website to figure out how you want to remove them.

Violations like images without text alternatives and failures in color contrast present major challenges, but may be things you and your team can learn how to fix. These, and other basics in accessible design, will always need proper care and attention. That means these aren't the kinds of issues that a new website will automatically solve or that will take care of themselves on your existing site.

Some violations may require more technical knowledge to resolve or may even be out of your control entirely. For example, if there is a limitation in your content management system that makes it difficult to achieve full keyboard accessibility or to structure content properly, it may be hard to find a workaround if there is one.

How many accessibility issues does the site have?

What you consider to be many or few accessibility issues is probably a bit subjective, but categorizing and quantifying the violations in some way can help you organize and plan.

Does every page and component seem to need work? There is probably a point at which you decide it just isn't worth trying to fix this website, but that point will be different for everyone.

It'll be important to also keep in mind that deciding on a brand new website doesn't mean it will be accessible on its own — it will still need to be tested and tweaked.

Are you happy with the current website?

This is a really important consideration that can get overlooked in all the newness of evaluating accessibility.

Do you like your website? Does it still effectively serve its business purpose? Did it ever?

Discovering that many people can't use it because it isn't accessible might make you like it less, but if your initial thought is something like, "Yes, I love our website! It's beautiful and represents our brand perfectly!," then it's perfectly okay to let that be part of your decision-making. Accessibility isn't about stripping away joy, function, and purpose — it's about making those things available to everyone.

On the other hand, if you have grown tired of your website and will still be unhappy with it even after it's more accessible, maybe that should factor in, too.

Is it time for a redesign?

If you're already planning a website redesign or decide to go that route for improved accessibility, it can be the perfect time to get accessibility integrated as a top priority in your organization.

In many ways, a redesign lets you start with a blank slate. You can establish (or reestablish) accessibility standards and responsibility, reconsider your ideal user and target audience, and begin building expertise for the immediate task and the long road.

A redesign may or may not be a brand new website from scratch — you can make a new website on a new platform look a lot like an existing website, just as you can make the same underlying technology look and feel a lot different — but it presents an interesting opportunity that deserves to be part of this decision-making process.

What kinds of content do you want in the future?

Does your existing website give you room to grow and to do so accessibly? It certainly may after being remediated for accessibility, but it's worth giving some thought.

You may want to expand your use of video marketing or podcasts, for example. It's best to know whether your site can handle these things and can integrate the necessary accessibility features (like captions, transcripts, and accessible media players) before recommitting to it.

Even if you decide a new site is best, you'll save time, money, and effort by mapping out some of the accessibility requirements for the future content types you envision using.

When is the right time to plan for digital accessibility? As soon as possible.

How can your website host or agency help?

Odds are at least some of your website is handled for you by another company.

Some of the questions to ask your website host or agency include:

  • Is the platform accessible? Some vendors may already say they're providing you an accessible website, or they may know (or not know) they fall short in that area, but in either case it needs to be established whether or not they believe and claim they are providing your customers an accessible experience.
  • How do you know? Do they perform their own accessibility testing? Do they have the requisite expertise in-house?
  • Who is responsible for the accessibility of our website? Which end does the responsibility fall on? Who needs to test, how, and when? And who makes the needed adjustments?
  • What if we require improvements other clients don't? You take accessibility seriously, but their other clients may not know their obligations or the benefits of accessibility yet. Find out what customization options are available to you and the process for implementing those enhancements.

If you discover that the vendors you rely on can't or won't improve the accessibility of your website to the level you need, that may be an important factor in saving or scrapping the site.

What resources and talent do you have available?

Effective planning requires an honest assessment of what and who is available to help with accessibility improvements.

From the C-suite to project managers, developers to designers, getting accessibility right requires the right team. If you don't have that expertise in-house, make sure you are selective in who you choose for testing, remediation recommendations, ongoing support, and all facets of your accessibility efforts. Ideally, the right service provider can help your team build its own self-sufficiency with training and guidance to keep the lights on after the initial workflows.

Also check out how to hire top talent with an accessibility mindset.

How much is all this going to cost?

Cost is almost certainly on your mind at this point. This is going to require some work to get right, and that work is going to come at a dollar amount.

Fortunately, accessibility is not a cost without benefit — it's an investment in your brand, your customer, cleaner technology, and compliance.

The questions here are intended to prompt some thought around what might go into making the necessary improvements for accessibility compliance. As you find out the answers to these questions, you'll begin to have a better understanding of the inherent costs of both options (fixing the existing site or building a new site). While cost isn't everything and will probably be considered alongside experience and business strategies, it's sure to play a role in your decision.

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