The much anticipated First Public Working Draft of the W3C Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 3.0 was recently released, with ongoing calls for feedback as the Working Draft develops. Showcasing a new structure, a new naming convention and promising a more understandable, easier to digest set of guidelines. These guidelines are expected to be far more inclusive and look beyond web content.

But there’s no need to panic. You don’t need to let go of all you know and love about WCAG 2 yet. Rather than a replacement, WCAG 3.0 is more of a complimentary set of guidelines. The WCAG 2 suite is far from obsolete. Also, this is the first public working draft, so we can expect several amendments and iterations before a final release. This alone could take a few years. It is expected that there will be some time before WCAG 3.0 is fully adopted and seen as a replacement of the 2’s, especially from a regulatory and legislative point of view.

So, what is WCAG 3.0?

WCAG 3.0 is the result of several years of research and consultation to fill recognised gaps in previous versions.

Anyone who recalls their first introduction to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines will likely remember a sense of overwhelm and anxiety as you tried to learn, interpret and apply the Principles, Guidelines, Success Criteria and Techniques.

Much of the feedback received by the W3C has shown the current format and language to be, at times, difficult to understand and navigate. The aim of the new structure is to develop a set of guidelines that is simplified, user friendly and flexible.

As indicated by the new naming convention from the “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines”, to the “W3C Accessibility Guidelines”, WCAG 3.0 is moving beyond web content to serve a broader audience. No longer will they be constrained to “web content” and only interpretable by industry experts.

WCAG 3.0 aims to be flexible enough to apply to more digital content, devices, and tools, including:

  • Web pages
  • Apps
  • Virtual Reality
  • Smartwatches,
  • Smart TVs,
  • Navigation systems
  • Home assistants
  • And other emerging technologies

According to the WCAG 3.0 Silver Working Group, WCAG 3.0 also offers a more nuanced set of recommendations. This will allow for levels of, or “partial” conformance, rather that the strict pass or fail measures of WCAG 2.

The new structure is one of the most noticeable features of 3.0. Principles, Guidelines, Success Criteria and Techniques have been replaced by a three tier:

  • Guidelines
  • Outcomes
  • Critical Errors
  • Outcome scoring
  • Methods
    • Description
    • Examples
    • Tests
    • Test scoring

Guidelines are written as high level, plain language renderings for the “non-experts”. They are aimed at content managers and policy makers who don’t need a deep dive into the technical side of things, but rather need a general understanding of the concepts. Each Guideline includes a unique descriptor and a summary. These address the functional accessibility needs such as forms, contrast and readability etc.

Each Guideline is underpinned by multiple Outcomes. The Outcomes are designed to be used and understood by developers, testers, and other technical experts.

Although the structure has been simplified, the WCAG 3.0 guidelines are far more granular. Rather than relying on Success Criteria, the Outcomes focus on how well the needs of identified user groups are being met. Outcomes are testable statements that include a rating scale from 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent). The scores given will be tallied and averaged to determine the overall level of accessibility and a score per disability type will also be given. It is hoped that this will encourage continuous improvement in organisations and businesses, rather than simply aiming for a certain level of compliance (usually AA).

Additionally, each Outcome will also have a defined set of “Critical errors”.

Under WCAG 3.0, a product can have some minor issues and still be considered compliant. However, any issues that prevent a user from fully completing a task or a “process” will be considered critical and the site will be deemed non-compliant.

To be deemed compliant a product must have:

  • No critical errors, and
  • at least 3.5 average total score, and
  • at least 3.5 score within each functional category (disability type)

There have been three types of Critical errors identified in this first draft:

  1. Errors that are a serious problem wherever they occur e.g. Flashing, keyboard traps, etc.
  2. Errors “in the process”. e.g. missing alt text on a navigation icon is a critical error and will not pass. However, missing alt text in a footer image is likely not to be essential to accomplishing a task and will pass.
  3. Errors that when aggregated within a view or across a process cause failure (example: a large amount of confusing, ambiguous language)

Guidelines and Outcomes include background information regarding which user needs are being addressed and ways to ensure those user needs are met. Outcomes are supported by “Methods”. The Methods describe approaches to achieve the outcome required. Similar to, but more in depth than the “Techniques” of WCAG 2.

Another big change is the replacement of the current conformance levels (A, AA and AAA) with a Gold, Silver and Bronze format.

In this draft only Bronze has any real visibility and is thought to be roughly equivalent to WCAG 2.1 A+AA. Silver and Gold are expected to include other types of testing, such as

  • usability testing
  • assistive technology testing, and
  • cognitive walkthroughs

More information on Silver and Gold is expected to be introduced in later drafts.

A candidate recommendation of WCAG 3.0 is expected to be published in 2022, with the final publication of WCAG 3.0 as an official recommendation by 2023.

So, for now, be alert, but not alarmed. Keep doing what you are doing, focus on your current preferred WCAG 2 conformance level and providing an accessible and usable product for all of your clients, staff and stakeholders.

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