Accessibility is a key concern for many Web sites, especially for intranets, e-commerce, and other enterprise presences. To make your site accessible, an experienced Web designer is required—someone with years of experience working with W3C and U.S. Rehabilitation Act Section 508 guidelines.

To facilitate the creation of accessible sites, UsableNet, in conjunction with the accessibility experts of Nielson Norman Group, has created LIFT-Nielson Norman Group Edition software. LIFT-NN/g is an extension for Macromedia Dreamweaver that makes creating accessible, usable Web sites a little easier.

Product specs

Product: LIFT-Nielson Norman Group Edition
Vendor: UsableNet
Highs: Makes finding issues easy; centralizes guideline information within Dreamweaver; ALT tag editor saves a lot of time
Lows: Problem correction is automated to varying degrees; can be complicated
Price: $549; available

LIFT-NN/g features
You can use this Dreamweaver extension in a couple of ways. First, you can monitor accessibility and usability issues while you create your site’s pages, using the Evaluate and Monitor functions. As you add elements to your page, Monitor will continuously list issues that may need to be addressed. Alternatively, you can use the LIFT menu to create reports and evaluate existing development or live sites. Figure A shows the LIFT Evaluate window.

Figure A
Evaluate window

LIFT can perform an analysis of an entire site at one time. Not only does this reduce the amount of time it takes to determine what usability issues may exist, but it also allows you to fix some issues with a single interface, using the ALT tag editor, for example. In addition, many of the testing guidelines deal with issues across multiple pages on the same site, such as different titles for each page and navigation considerations.

When performing an analysis, LIFT enables you to customize the tests used to evaluate accessibility on a number of levels. First of all, you can select which guidelines you’d like to apply, selecting from several predefined options, such as Section 508, W3C, and various targeted rule sets for tables, frames, images, JavaScript, usability, and links (Figure B). You can also create your own guidelines and enable the various testing options you would like evaluated.

Figure B
Creating custom guidelines

Many of the tests have configurable parameters, such as restrictions on the size of text and the number of outgoing links (Figure C). This feature will enable you to create guidelines you can apply to multiple sites, such as when you need to conform to corporate standards.

Figure C
Customizing accessibility tests

Other customization capabilities include configuring what priority each guideline’s rules assign to issues, what information appears on reports, and which rules are enabled for each guideline. Registered users can receive updates to the LIFT product as rules for evaluation from the various standardizing bodies get released.

Using LIFT
Whether you are including accessibility considerations as you create pages or are evaluating a preexisting site, you can use the Fix Wizard to step through each element on your page and address issues you’ve configured your guidelines to be concerned with. When using the Fix Wizard, you depend on the Reference pane to inform you of what changes need to be made to pass each test.

I found that the Fix Wizard is best used with both the design and code panes showing, as many tests picked up by the wizard require manual entry in code, while others ask for information to be entered into the Properties pane. In addition to the reference information included with LIFT, the wizard has links to Help information that explains more about the usability or accessibility of the item in question. This information helps Web designers understand why certain elements can cause issues and allows them to focus on the issues at hand rather than research dozens of reports from multiple sources.

At first, the Fix Wizard and evaluation screen (which will highlight the relevant element in the design pane) take some getting used to. Using the [Tab] key to get from one field in the wizard to the next doesn’t work, and you have to depend heavily on the Properties pane to know which element is being referred to sometimes. Also, a few minor bugs in the wizard interface quickly taught me how to “properly” use the tool. (If possible, stay away from the Browse icon in some fix screens.)

Overall impressions
One feature that I wish had been included is the ability to mark a violation in the evaluation screen as a false positive. Of course, you could disable the test that flagged the item if you wanted to avoid getting complaints of a certain nature, but then violations you needed to catch might slip through There is no way to leave the test enabled and allow a particular element to pass the test. The tutorial site that comes with Dreamweaver MX had a few of these violations that didn’t actually apply.

On the plus side, a guideline that’s too tight is better than one that’s too loose. LIFT made me aware of issues I hadn’t considered before and made the inclusion of elements exclusively for text-based browsers easy. The tool is highly accurate and capable of deploying an extremely thorough examination of any Web site. Although some knowledge of accessibility may be required, LIFT can help your designer come up to speed quickly, eliminating the need to have an engineer focused on these types of issues exclusively.

Personally, I found it easier to use LIFT as a post-design utility; however, individual experiences may vary, and some of the rules will help design usable and accessible menus, image maps, and other elements before the look and feel has been finalized.

LIFT-NN/g facilitates creation of accessible sites. It is not (and arguably could not) be a fully automated fix-it-quick tool, but its use will improve the accessibility of your sites and reduce the amount of time it takes to create compliant pages. In fact, the time gain could easily offset the cost of this product. Just don’t expect an idiot-proof solution that an unseasoned designer can use. If accessibility and usability are issues your company is addressing, LIFT-NN/g may well be a worthwhile investment.