Wearing badges is not enough

A discussion at Accessify got me thinking about the usefulness of compliance badges or icons. What purpose do they serve the public who have little knowledge or interest in accessibility or code validity? And how can we better use these badges to help promote awareness of standards and accessibility?

While being generally secretive about work in progress, I often post links to almost completed sites for accessibility critiques by those kind people who inhabit Accessify Forum.

One such posting today began a long and sometimes heated debate on the accessibility claims made by certain sites of AAA accessibility (not mine I hasten to add) and a trend towards sites ‘sprouting’ compliance badges. Swedish accessibility luminary Tommy Olsson continued the thread on his blog where he suggests,

If accessibility claims don’t hold up to scrutiny, badges lose their effect. Therefore it is better to honestly claim level A or AA, than to boast AAA when you’re not even close. The interpretation of the guidelines is subjective, but a strict interpretation is better than a generous one.

Claiming accessiblity without substance is of course wrong. But today got me thinking about the usefulness of compliance badges, icons or stickers in general. What purpose do they serve the wider site reading public who have little knowledge or interest in web accessibility or code validity? Do they help educate? What value do they add? Worse still, these badges are often used in conjunction with links to Bobby, W3C or WAI, of interest mainly to web professionals and government agencies. To a regular website reader, landing on these pages makes most reach for the back button quicker than you can say,

Welcome to the W3C CSS Validation Service; a free service that checks Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) in (X)HTML documents or standalone for conformance to W3C recommendations.

But accessibility matters, right? Badges show how hard you worked, right? “Oh pleeeease Mr. Malarkey, don’t say we take away our badges!” Unlike some have suggested, taking away such badges may not be an answer and we may then miss an opportunity to educate the wider audience on the importance of validity and accessibility.

One possible alternative might be to link from these badges to a page within the site that explains the issues in plain, non-technical language. Something like,

We have tried our very best to make this web site usable by as many people as possible. Some people with disabilities find using the web difficult and many sites do not accommodate those with visual or other disabilities. While we know that it is impossible to design a site that everyone can use, designing this site with accessibility in mind means that more people can access its content.


In designing this site, we have used technologies that form a common standard. By designing to what are known as ‘web standards,’ the content of this web site is made available to a wider range of people and technologies. You may have noticed that it downloaded quicker too. Perhaps one day, all web sites will be made this way, but until then this site is still quite special.

What do you think?


  1. #1 On July 13, 2004 03:30 AM Ryan Brill said:

    I think it partially depends on the aim of the site. I’m assuming from the context of the entry you’re referring more to commercial sites that have nothing to do with web development. For those sites, I agree that there is probably little value in pointing out the the site is valid XHTML, CSS and AAA. However, I’m also not sure the badges detract much, either, as I’d think the average person would know not to click them. ;)

    On personal sites, such as your blog or mine, or on our business sites for our web design companies, I think it’s a totally different story. By all means we should be shouting it out to the world that we develop according to web standards, and take accessibility issues into consideration.

  2. #2 On July 13, 2004 09:20 AM Dan Bowett said:

    Being a newcomer to the issues raised here I feel pride in making a site that even validates. I would therefore include badges on personal sites that I have created. If I create a site for a company then I would leave the buttons off. Most people would believe they detract from the message or intention of the site. I think linking off to W3C is unnecessary in most cases and a plain explanation of your intentions is a better approach.

  3. #3 On July 13, 2004 09:45 AM Tim said:

    It’s more important to have a clearly linked-to site accessibility policy, IMHO.

  4. #4 On July 13, 2004 10:05 AM Tommy Olsson said:

    Hey, you spelled my name wrong! ;) I don’t mind ‘badges’ as long as the claims stand up to scrutiny. Some designers seem to think that ‘passing’ a Bobby test means their site is accessible. They conveniently overlook the “If the priority 1, 2 and 3 issues listed below do not apply to your page” part of the report. (X)HTML and CSS validation is not subject to interpretation. Either it validates or it doesn’t. Accessibility validation cannot be fully automated. That’s why I think the AAA badges are less than useful—especially on sites that don’t even qualify for level A.

  5. #5 On July 13, 2004 10:40 AM Malarkey said:

    Ooops sorry Tommy :(

  6. #6 On July 13, 2004 10:52 AM Robert Wellock said:

    Actually through experience I have found the average person does click upon such icons but to place an WCAG AAA on a website that has not been tested by a disabled user is close to blasphemy.

    Yes, the badges do help educate but not without additional supporting text; my WVYFC site is a prime example. I won’t go into the details though let’s just say I’ve seen clones of my website that have had a strong vein relating to accessibility as a direct result of the content provided. It could paramount to copyright infringement though I’m letting the culprits off because they are prompting the greater good.

  7. #7 On July 13, 2004 03:39 PM Neko said:

    Sometimes badges are the only way to feed a designer’s ego, given the fact that most designers work really hard in order to obtain the desired graphical effect while coding according to W3C standards.

    Sometimes badges are good to fill empty sidebar/footer spaces or a way to conform to the most trendy and influential sites of the blogosphere. I’m guilty from this point of view, because I love Jon Hicks’ layout and I stolen his old badges directly from his site.

    Sometimes badges are too damn trendy to be left outside: I think people such as Zeldman and Co. achieved an incredible goal: turning the whole Web standards affair into something trendy, something to show off. You know, I’ve always wondered about Muttley and his desire to collect as many medals as he could. What’s the point for a dog to own a medal? ^_^

    Ultimately, I agree with the Boss here: badges would better suit colophon pages, explaining in a human-readable way their purpose and the incredible amount of work and time behind them. Regarding this matter, I love Mike Davidson’s example of his Invalidation badge.

  8. #8 On July 13, 2004 03:41 PM Neko said:

    me == stupid

    Muttley == http://www.dfcom.freeserve.co.uk/hbw/wacky/dastmutt.htm

    Mike Davidson == http://www.mikeindustries.com/blog/archives/000009.php

  9. #9 On July 13, 2004 04:06 PM Malarkey said:

    Hi guys. My point is *not* that we shouldn’t use badges, but that we can possibly use them to greater effect by educating the wider public (rather than just our own community) as to the meaning and importance of standards and accessibility.

  10. #10 On July 13, 2004 05:25 PM Luc said:

    At the moment I’m redoing my entire site and used this technique: in my footer I have made non-graphic links (XHTML | CSS | 508 | Accessibility). They are linked to my Accessibility Statement. From there I’ve included the links to the standards and validators. That way I believe both the average and technical user is served :-)

  11. #11 On July 13, 2004 06:55 PM will said:

    Badges? We don't need no stinkin’ badges. Seriously, I think this is a great idea.

  12. #12 On July 13, 2004 07:29 PM NateL said:

    Well said and I agree.

    Doing something like this may help to educate less-informed, yet up-and-coming developers and encourage them to look deeper into the issue. These are the people who are interested in many of the topics being presented by you smart bloggers, but may have only an introductory understanding of those topics.

    Another approach would be to create some sort of mouseover popup (or even a super-descriptive ALT tag). There are tons of other ways to accomplish the same idea. Anyway, good idea. I like it.

  13. #13 On July 13, 2004 09:21 PM Christian Machmeier said:

    Your last two paragraphs should become standard within everyone's accessibility statement (of course, only, if they apply). That’s a really great text. Am I free to use it within my AS? In modified form for example?

    On topic: I agree with all of you above, but one question keeps staying in my head: How should it be possible to increase standards awareness with people that aren’t aware of standards, if not prompting a big fat sign in their faces: “Use standards, stupid!”

  14. #14 On July 13, 2004 10:29 PM Michael Pierce said:

    Sounds like Shea’s approach to the RSS/XML badges. Linking to a page that explains RSS and the feeds rather than to just the feed/XML itself. Much more useful for someone that doesn't know about RSS. I would think that the same approach to other badges makes sense.

  15. #15 On July 14, 2004 02:10 PM Chris said:

    I think the suggestion of making the badges point to internal pages that explain their meaning is a very good one. I’ll be doing that with my forth-coming Summer redesign. The various validators are development tools IMO and linking to them doesn't serve any real purpose.

    Standards-aware designers might click on them to test your claims, but the average Joe will most likely look at them blankly. Those that do click on them will probably become lost and confused as to where they were just taken and what all this “validation” nonsense means.

    Better to explain, and raise awareness than blindly place a button for a bit of “cred” with a minority few…

  16. #16 On July 14, 2004 03:53 PM Adrian Lee said:

    Excellent idea, much along the lines of some peoples thoughts with the nice orange XML button that means nothing to most people. Perhaps someone should suggest that the W3C put something in the link people would use on the standards badges? Along with the pretty colours proclaiming the page does indeed validate, perhaps it would be nice of them to put in a nice explanation of what this actually means to your average web surfer who maybe doesn’t know what HTML, much less why it should validate.

    Accessibilities a bit different due to the problems of automatic checking as is always mentioned, but I think the W3C could easily stick up a page explaining what the badge means, and let developers link to it. If someone does do that though, please help them out with the wording! We all know how easy to understand W3C writing generally is…

  17. #17 On July 16, 2004 11:16 AM Andy Budd said:

    Generally I think these badges are intended for people in the know. Kind of like a kite mark for your code. If you’re not interested in the topic you probably won’t click it. If you are interested, you’d expect them to go to the validator/bobby.

    If you link to a page that then links to the validator you’ll only be validating the explanation page anyway. If you want to explain these issues in more depth it’s probably best to have a prominent link to your accessibility statement and maybe even a colophon to explain how the site was built and why it was built that way.

    Accessibility ratings are hugely subjective as lots of the WAI guidelines (guidelines being a critical word here) are down to individual interpretation.

    I admit that I add accessibility badges to my sites, as one of the services we “sell” at message is accessibility. However I realise that most of these sites contain issues that, looked at from a very strict point of view, could invalidate their usage. I generally see these buttons as a sign of intent rather than a guarantee of compliance. They say that this is the level we’re aiming for. Click them, check the work and if, for whatever reason, you don’t feel the site comes up to the standard, let us know and we’ll endeavour to fix the issues ASAP.

    p.s. I like your explanation of standards and accessibility. May have to nick them for myself.

  18. #18 On July 26, 2004 09:00 PM Marco said:

    Well, I know this topic is from I while ago, but here’s my $0.02 that I’ve been meaning to give.

    In my view, badges shouldn’t the main motivator for individuals to create standard compliant documents. Simply put, it should be about understanding the methodologies behind having web content reach the most people possible and then creating content that conforms to best standards and practises. That simple.

    You should understand and come up with solutions for the need for creating something that will help enhance the user experience now and in the future. Not simply have a visual cue that shows you simply know of it. The badge should be secondary to the actual understanding and work that is performed.

    Nothing chaps my ass more that a 'Webmaster' that catches the ‘latest hot button issues’ and throws up the official W3C logo without the vaguest understanding of what is going on. And for us experienced Web Standard Consultants out there, we can usually sniff out the bullsh*t like a fart in a small car. View > Source, View > Text Size, Tab, tab, tab, just to name a few.

    Anyways, my $0.02. Better late than never :)

  19. #19 On July 26, 2004 11:00 PM Malarkey said:

    Woohoo Marco!

    Glad you could make it over here, your $0.02c is always welcome!

  20. #20 On July 26, 2004 11:48 PM Marco said:

    Hey Malarkey! Yeah… I used to have so much more time, but my current contract keeps me sooooo busy now. But, I have dedicated to at least a monthly update on the Accessify forums so I can at least keep in touch with the gang and say how things are going. Plus… I did promise that I would respond to this issue above as well :)

    Take care! Marco

  21. #21 On July 28, 2004 08:38 AM Robert said:

    Where Andy Budd says “If you link to a page that then links to the validator you’ll only be validating the explanation page anyway,” you can pass any absolute URL to the validator via query string, not just the explanation page.

  22. #22 On July 29, 2004 02:39 AM Kevin Francis said:

    Hi guys. There’s a lot of valid points here. As a freelance web designer most of my work is from design agencies so my content is geared towards the web design community. Which is part of the reason for using css/xhtml icons to promote my work to companies using traditional web design techniques.

    On my accessibility statement page there is a AAA WCAG 1.0 icon. I’m probably the designer with the least experience of Web Standards / accessibility techniques here, never the less I’ve worked hard to ensure my site is AAA (I’m also aware that it's probably impossible to cater fo every disability)—it didn’t come over night. I’ve read books and sort advice from more experienced developers on Accessify Forum as well as reading numerous articles posted on the web.

    I may be lacking years of experience but I have faith in the claims made on my site. I manually check my site for accessibility and only use automated tools such as Bobby for a very basic site MOT It’s true that some sites use AAA badges on their site without much thought about their actual level of accessibility. I for one take accessibility very seriously and do all I to achieve it.

    Quote from Robert Wellock (“WAG AAA on a website that has not been tested by a disabled user is close to blasphemy.”)

    I disagree with this point. If you follow the WAG guidelines correctly and learn about other issues, there is no reason why you can't achieve AAA status without testing on disabled users. What about the designers who can’t afford user testing? Does this mean that only developers with the cash can build AAA sites? I don't think so! What about using software such as JAWS? Even if I could afford the $895 for JAWS it takes an awful long time to become proficient with the software to use for testing purposes; all this time costs money. So because I can’t afford user testing or JAWS I must do the best I can to educate myself about issues that effect accessibility and this goes beyond the WAG 1.0, but my modest wallet will not stop me from sticking a AAA badge on my site if I’m satisfied that I’ve covered all the issues covered in the WAG 1.0 and a few more issues which you only pick up by continuing the learning process.

    Perhaps I should update my accessibility statement to clarify what the badges mean to non web professionals instead of gearing my content to other's in our community like suggested here in another post.

    I’ll admit my guilt that pride is another factor in using such badges on my site, but it’s this same pride that drives us to produce the best work we can for our clients.

  23. #23 On July 29, 2004 12:18 PM Andy Budd said:

    Robert: Well sure you can. But how many people are likely to create an accessibility statement page that passes the previous page to the validator. Not to mention that you'll have to explain that clicking the link will validate the previous page. I’ve seen a few pages with link to the validator and they all end up just validating the explanation page.

  24. #24 On July 31, 2004 06:25 PM Ollie said:

    99% of web users are stupid. That is why they use IE, they have no idea what standards are or what they mean. When I tell my clients that I code to comply with web standards they just look dumb to me. I tell them that it is so their site will work and look correct in all browsers, again they just look dumb at me. As far as they know the only way to browse the web is with I.E. micro$oft has a lot to answer for.

  25. #25 On August 2, 2004 12:01 AM Malarkey said:

    @ Ollie: I can’t agree with you I’m afraid. Much as I dislike IE for it’s lack of standards support in certain areas, you can't use that to label users as stupid. And you also can’t blame them for not being aware or understanding technical stuff like standards. All that they need (and probably want) to know is that a site just ‘works.’ I have no idea how a clutch really works, but I damn well hope it does when I get in my car.