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Best Practice #5: Mobility and Accessibility in Economic Development Websites

Does it sometimes seem to you that the web is like a strange creature from mythology that keeps growing more heads? That’s perfectly understandable – the web really has changed so much that it can hardly be recognized as the familiar old WWW.

Compared with the old days when all you had to manage was one simple website with the same appearance for everyone, today’s web requires continuous monitoring and assessment because of rapid and major changes to the nature of the beast.

In this current series of Tech Trends we have been discussing the proliferation of web-based communications including specialty websites and portals as well as social media sites. Economic development departments need a web strategy that takes all these into account.

But there’s more. It is becoming more and more important for EDOs to be aware of the need for websites to be mobile friendly as well as accessible.

Mobile Access

By “mobile friendly” we mean that the website should display properly on a mobile device. Your messages should be clear and your data accessible. The site should be clickable and user-friendly even on tiny screens. All core functions should work.

This is a new and potentially difficult challenge for managers of sites that are often full of large files and dense data. Why is it suddenly important?

Simply put, web users are going mobile. Research clearly shows this, including a survey carried out this spring by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. It found that 59 per cent of US adults regularly access the web using mobile devices, compared with 51 per cent a year earlier.

Young adults aged 18-29 are avid users of mobile data applications, but older adults are gaining fast. Compared with 2009, people aged 30-49 are significantly more likely to use their mobile devices to access the internet as well as to send text messages, take pictures, record videos and use e-mail or instant messaging.

The trend is unmistakable. Your target audiences — site selectors, business people, students, tourists and other audiences — are using mobile technologies to access the Internet. You must cater to their medium of preferred choice.

One way is to create a duplicate website intended specifically for mobile users. This, however, requires double entry, with its potential confusion, and effectively doubles your work and costs. It is possible to make your existing site mobile-friendly with relatively simple modifications to your web design and functions. In the future, this is likely to become more technologically complex as mobile applications begin to offer more to users.

Meanwhile you can reach out to your on-the-go audiences through the creation of applications that are direct, targeted tools for communicating with specific audience segments through mobile products. For example, there’s a mobile guide to San Francisco on the market that is designed for use with Apple’s iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. Have a look here – this is what’s coming.

Accessibility Considerations

Another coming thing is the requirement that your ED website is accessible by everyone including people with visual disabilities. In other words your site must offer technologies such as text-to-voice software that enables its content to be understood even by those who cannot read it.

This requirement is gradually becoming pervasive in law. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the workplace, in state and local government programs and activities, and in places of public accommodation. The US Rehabilitation Act bars recipients of federal financial assistance, including state and local governmental agencies, programs and services, from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. People who are blind or visually impaired must be able to access and use government information and services as independently and effectively as those who are sighted.

Some jurisdictions are zeroing in on laws or regulations to define website accessibility. The government of Ontario, Canada, has proposed an Accessible Information and Communications Standard that outlines how businesses and organizations will have to create, provide and receive information and communications in ways that are accessible for people with disabilities.

It is clear that, sooner or later, your ED department is going to be asked what it is doing to promote accessibility. It will be in your interest to have an answer ready. You need to be aware that accessibility is not straightforward and there are many considerations. One challenge is that high accessibility compliance on a site generally means low interactivity unless complex coding and manual content appending is done.

Mobility and Accessibility Best Practices for Economic Development

Solutions to both mobile and accessibility challenges will undoubtedly become easier as new technologies are introduced. For now, a best practice for online economic development is to plan for both mobile access and accessibility when upgrading website and launching new websites.

As the Hydra-like web adds new heads, maintaining a watchful eye on the resulting new trends and requirements will help you keep yours!

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