Why Is WCAG Important for Web Design?

December 14, 2022

Every person deserves equivalent access to the internet. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality: In WebAIM’s (Web Accessibility In Mind) 2022 survey of the internet’s top 1 million homepages, an astounding 96.8% of pages had detectable accessibility errors — an average of 50.8 errors per page.

Digital accessibility barriers can be as impactful as a missing wheelchair ramp or other physical barriers. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is an international standard that helps content creators find and fix digital accessibility issues.

WCAG is published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the same organization that publishes standards for HTML and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). Here’s a brief overview of why WCAG is so important — and how you can use the latest version of the guidelines to provide better online experiences for your users.

Why the Internet Needs Accessibility Standards

About 1 billion people worldwide live with disabilities. Some of those people use screen readers (which output text as audio or braille) or other assistive technologies when using computers. Others may not — the scope of disabilities is extremely broad. 

The goal of digital accessibility is to provide all users with an equivalent experience, regardless of the technology they use to browse the internet. That’s an enormous mission, and to fulfill that mission, we need an objective framework.

To that end, WCAG is based on four principles, which are intended to improve experiences for every internet user — regardless of their abilities or the technologies they use to access the internet. Those principles:

  • Content must be perceivable. It cannot be invisible to all of the user’s senses — for example, if a website presents information visually, that information should also be available through text.
  • Content must be operable. Your website cannot require an interaction that a user cannot perform.
  • Content must be understandable. Your users must be able to understand the information on your website as well as the operation of the user interface.
  • Content must be robust.  Your website should be capable of being interpreted reliably by different user agents, including assistive technologies.

To evaluate content against those principles, WCAG contains pass-or-fail statements called success criteria, which creators can use to determine whether their content is accessible. The success criteria are further organized by three levels of conformance. 

Most websites should aim for Level AA conformance with WCAG. Read more about the differences between WCAG levels

Related: Measuring Success for Your Website Accessibility Initiative

How WCAG Provides a Future-Proof Foundation for Web Content

WCAG is a technical standard, but it’s written in a way that makes it applicable to most types of digital resources (not just websites). It’s designed to be robust, so that as new technologies are introduced, developers can still use WCAG to evaluate their content. 

In other words, WCAG is designed to be future-proof — to an extent. The W3C occasionally updates the guidelines to make the standards more relevant: The current official recommendation is WCAG 2.1, which was released in 2018, and WCAG 2.2 is on its way.

But while WCAG success criteria may change, the principles of accessibility are consistent. Each version of WCAG is backward-compatible with earlier versions, so while new success criteria are introduced, older criteria aren’t removed. 

This makes WCAG a much more useful resource for developers. If you create a website that follows WCAG’s Level A and Level AA requirements, you probably won’t need to do much work to keep your website conformant with newer versions of WCAG.  

Related: Is There a Legal Requirement to Implement WCAG?

Creating Better Web Content by Focusing on Accessibility

Whether you’re running a small business or a Fortune 500 company, web accessibility matters — WCAG simply provides the tools you need to achieve your goals.

Websites that follow WCAG have cleaner code that’s easier to maintain and update. Accessible sites provide all users with a better experience by providing alternative ways to enjoy the content. In most cases, accessible sites perform better in search engine rankings, and businesses that prioritize inclusive design enjoy an enormous competitive advantage.

WCAG is important because it provides straightforward standards for testing content, remediating accessibility issues, and maintaining digital compliance. If you’re ready to test your content against WCAG 2.1 Level AA, start with a free automated analysis or send us a message for more guidance.

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