How Audits Improve Your Site: Accessibility, Performance, and Design Audits
Much like we maintain our homes from season to season, our websites need periodic audits — to see what has changed and what has not. In this post, we focus on three specific types of audits: accessibility audits, performance audits, and design audits.
The web changes. We can't stop that. But web changes lead to website changes — whether intentional or not. It could be a new set of design elements introduced by your design team. It could be a change in site standards that necessitates improvements for accessibility. Regardless, when the web changes, we must ensure that our site runs optimally.
So, much like we maintain our homes from season to season, our websites need periodic audits — to see what has changed and what has not.
There are dozens of different audits that you can perform on a site — content audits, usability audits, SEO audits, and more. However, Blend likes to focus on three specific types of audits that take a holistic view of the entire site, with a push toward inclusiveness, editorial clarity, and overall performance: accessibility audits, performance audits, and design audits.
You’ll never know who may visit your site, so the best plan is to ensure everyone — regardless of situation or disability — gets a quality experience. Building and maintaining a site to specific accessibility standards isn’t just a good idea — it’s a wise business decision, and in some industries, it’s a legal requirement.
In reviewing the site for WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) compliance, an accessibility audit examines three specific areas of the site: your site’s HTML structure, your editorial content, and the content model that helps fuel future content.
- HTML Structure: Accessibility tools rely on your site’s HTML structure to understand the context of each page. Markers like headings, ARIA tags, and usable CSS transitions can all help — or hurt — an accessibility tool’s ability to translate this context, depending on the quality of the code. Accessibility audits uncover issues within the HTML that may cause problems for those with disabilities.
- Editorial Content: The content itself has its own accessibility rules. Are pages titled in a way that makes sense to someone who can’t see the full page? Are images being given alternative text, or is that field left blank? (Is there even a field in the first place? We’ll talk about that one below.) Accessibility audits highlight areas where editors must make subjective changes to the content. Blend often provides editorial training alongside any accessibility audit to help facilitate the improvement of site content.
- Content Model: You can build accessibility-friendly content all you want, but if your site’s content model can’t handle it, those good intentions will fall flat. Good alternative text means nothing if your CMS doesn’t allow you to include it when necessary. A good headline can’t fix a broken HTML structure. Buttons that auto-generate button text may lead to confusion that an editor can’t overcome. Accessibility audits help uncover areas within the content model that require updates to allow for inclusive language.
Everyone loves a fast website. Including Google. While fast, high-performance websites are great for easing frustration and delivering content even on the slowest of connections, there’s also a simple capitalistic reason to ensure things are fast: Google’s rankings use page speed to help surface higher-performing sites in their search results.
A performance audit is designed to improve page speed and find hiccups within your site’s structure, and focuses on:
- File Size: It should be no surprise that large images and videos slow down a page’s loading speed. A performance audit helps find large files and recommends solutions for shoring up file size and finding creative ways to deliver large files with less strain.
- System Inefficiencies: From extraneous CSS to over-large external fonts, there are hundreds of places on a site where the strain of continuous HTTP requests or file size may cause inefficiencies. And, while a minor issue or two might not be a huge thing, the truth is that every little issue adds up, especially over the life of a complex site built on an enterprise-level content management system.
- External Plugins: When a site relies on an external plugin or tool, it pulls in more than just a screenshot — it asks for a completely separate system to integrate with the existing system. In other words, it’s running two things instead of just one. Thankfully, not all external plugins cause performance issues, and a performance audit, in part, helps identify plugins that might be causing problems.
Where accessibility audits identify issues and improvements with the inclusivity of a site, design audits focus on improving a design system in the face of always-changing standards. A design audit, typically handled by a senior-level designer with a good sense of front-end possibilities, highlights areas of improvement while keeping a site fresh without relying on a complete tear-down-and-build-up redesign.
- Creating Consistency: As a site expands and evolves, some aspects of the design standard can begin stretching and breaking away. A design audit focuses on finding areas where design has diverged — whether an outcrop of new-but-similar-to-existing blocks that confuse the overall design or a new set of landing pages that follow their own path — while making suggestions for creating better consistency between elements.
- Finding Accessibility Issues: Accessibility is an ongoing concern. Changes in accessibility guidelines — paired with the natural evolution of an extensive design system — may lead to areas where design no longer meets the needs of those with disabilities. A design audit, in this sense, identifies areas where accessibility can be improved, from contrast and spacing to recommendations on the layout.
- Improving Workflow: Anyone who has managed an evolving website understands the frustrations of introducing new design elements — especially if those elements serve a narrow or one-time function. A design audit helps identify blocks and elements that can be sunsetted in favor of other existing elements, improving workflow through a more purposeful and simple content model.
Maintenance is important.
How often does your team need to perform an audit? It depends on your situation. For example, a design audit may be something you visit every few years, or you may have a design team that’s intent on keeping the design system simple and progressive every few months. If you’re in a highly regulated industry, you may opt for a performance and accessibility audit every six months.
Timing may be situational, but one thing is for sure: maintenance of your website matters, and audits are a great way to prevent, find, prioritize, and eventually fix many ongoing site issues. Think of them as a check-up for your website, and you’ll discover how much better your site can perform.