Today sees the release of the first public working draft of WCAG 3.0 (formerly WCAG Silver). The document may seem — ironically — incomprehensible to many so it’s my aim to simplify and explain how I understand the guidelines themselves.
To start it’s worth mention this is one of the single biggest changes to web accessibilities standards that we have seen in over ten years and sees the discipline and professional practice push onto a new level.
So what does it include?
Well the initial document that’s been published has one key thing to consider, it’s not what it includes at the moment, it’s what it doesn’t. And currently what it doesn’t include is success criteria.
Let me be straight here, on my first reading of WCAG 3.0 what we are seeing is a document focussed on two P’s, people and process, it’s the beginnings of something that changes how you work, how you test and how you define good.
So let us begin with the stated aims, and those aims are these:
- improve usability — especially for beginners;
- support disability needs that cannot be tested by true/false success criteria; and
- facilitate maintenance to keep the guidelines more current.
And you know what that’s great!
It’s the user, stupid.
The first really interesting thing that strikes you about the new standards is that it shows a real drive and move towards a user first, human direction. The focus no longer sits on making the mechanics of the web pass simplistic true/false values and instead looks at the user experience more holistically.
Functional needs vs functional categories.
In this early document what we are starting to see is a person first model, with functional needs (3.2) forming a statement — a user story/acceptance criteria — for testing against, and which describe a gap in a person’s ability or mismatch in their need.
These needs are applied to topics that mirror the things we are familiar with in the older versions of WCAG such as contrast, forms, readability etc. and define test criteria of these barriers as outcomes (more on outcomes later).
Alongside this are the functional categories section (3.3) which mirror the functional performance criteria/statements of legals like section 508 & EN301 549 and are designed to act as test groups for the functional needs, checking and assessing no barrier exists.
These groups are defined as:
- Vision and Visual
- Hearing and Auditory
- Sensory Intersections
- Physical and Sensory Intersections
- Language and Literacy
- Mental Health
- Cognitive and Sensory Intersections
Everything changes, nothing remains the same.
The next most notable change in the document is how these tests are recorded, and what “success” now looks like.
The first draft explicitly calls out that a new scoring system which means that conformance levels are optional (in where the importance lies) simplifying how businesses can report on them.
That said the higher standards still require the lowest standard to be met for conformance to be achieved. Much like completing a level in a computer game to pass to the next doesn’t mean every sub story needs to be played.
This may sound counter intuitive too many, and it’ll be interesting to see what this means in reality going forward, but WCAG are careful to say, in section 3.4 that the base level of “score” is based upon a built up score, across the functional and final outcomes.
The expectation currently is that the new low level of Bronze is based on similar criteria as WCAG2.x’s success criteria, whilst Silver and Gold will be focused far more on usability testing rather than the “on ramp” of technical assessment.
Testing real outcomes
At the real core of this first draft of WCAG3.0 is testing, both in the micro sense of actual tests to test against, to the macro of language, methodologies and principles of how they’re done.
The two key types of test that are defined in WCAG3.0 are the following:
Atomic tests, as defined by section 5.3.1, atomic tests are the most similar in style to those we know and are familiar with from previous WCAG versions, these tests include the A, AA, AAA success criteria of WCAG2.x and build on them by applying additional context or expertise [sic].
These tests are designed so they can be automated or carried out by humans, and can be tested in and against multiple forms, or in the words of WCAG3.0 views, achieving a high success in this tests will form the basis of passing he Bronze level of conformance.
Next are the holistic tests, as defined by section 5.3.2, this section is at yet to be fully defined but the desire is for them to focus on testing with assistive technologies, testing against user centred design methods, and will be the basis of success against the silver and gold standards.
How such tests are defined will be incredibly interesting to see, especially since user centred design will largely depend on the form of function of the tool that it is applied to.
The final part of this brave new world is something called Outcomes.
Outcomes nominally replace the success criteria in WCAG2.x. they are written as testable criteria that allow testers to objectively determine if the content they are evaluating satisfies the criteria, and unlike previous versions of WCAG the test style themselves are defined in WCAG3.0 to make the more comprehensible to beginners and non technical people.
To lift directly from the guidelines, appendix B.1, outcomes are written to be:
- In plain language;
- More understandable by people who are not experts in technology;
- More user-need oriented instead of technology oriented;
- More granular, so there will be more of them; and
- More flexible to allow more tests than the true/false statements of WCAG 2.X.
The spoken aim of these outcomes is that their considered design will allow for more varied needs of people with disabilities than could have been included in WCAG 2.X.
Goodbye to the web
WCAG 3.0 uses a model that allows it to address more disability needs than WCAG 2.X, as well as address publishing requirements and emerging technologies such as web XR (augmented, virtual and mixed reality) and voice input.
It’s important to understand that one of the key purposes of the new draft guidelines is the concept that the web is no longer just a static selection of webpages, and that our digital estate has now moved on to encompass so much more.
Hence why WCAG3.0 now defines the testable elements as views rather than pages, section 5.1, and defines a view as a single interaction with a piece of content encapsulating but not restricted to web pages.
The new draft of WCAG3.0 is a milestone, an early stake in the ground for defining complex ideas around access and inclusion and offering a way to measure abstract ideas to improve the lives of many.
It is a document that seems so far to be focussed on process, on defining it’s purpose and one that is not scared of the greys of humanity.
Whilst the scoring system — one thing I have intentionally not covered as my understanding of it may well take some time — still feels highly complex, and needs better or more simple clarification, the move away from a checklist and into a broader scope of human and usability focused standards is to be admired.
Director of experience technologies Kin+Carta Connect & Member of BIMA Inclusive Design Council.