CNIB (the Canadian National Institute of the Blind) wanted to modernize its website with new functionality while still being a model of accessibility. The marketing and IT staffs worked hand in hand with interactive agency Digiflare to overhaul the site in just three months by using Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010. The team used the many accessibility features included in SharePoint Server 2010 to make the site an accessibility showcase. Employees can post their own content, which encourages them to keep the site fresh and relevant. In fact, employees are so excited about using the site to help CNIB constituents that they are coming up with myriad ways to further improve the site. Fortunately, the IT staff has the time to implement these ideas, as it has been able to shift 90 percent of its time from maintenance work to new development.
CNIB (the Canadian National Institute of the Blind) provides community-based support, awareness, and a national voice for Canadians who are visually impaired. Its mission is to ensure that these citizens have the confidence, skills, and opportunities to fully participate in life. The organization works with people in their own homes and communities, providing a range of programs and services that help people overcome the challenges of sight loss, increase their independence, and achieve their goals.
CNIB also advocates for equal access and an inclusive society and strives to reduce unnecessary vision loss by promoting the effective prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of eye disease. With 850 employees and 10,000 volunteers working out of offices across the country, CNIB serves thousands of Canadians of all ages.Accessible But Boring
The CNIB website is the organization’s welcome mat to the world. But because of the need to make the site accessible to people with no or low vision, CNIB was stuck with a boring site that did not really engage anyone. “For years we had put up with perceived accessibility constraints that resulted in a boring and limited website,” says Michael Seaton, Director of Marketing at CNIB. “We couldn’t do the exciting things that other organizations were doing on the web because of the older platform that we were using. It was just static text, with no interactivity or social media capabilities. Our staff and our constituents expected a much more engaging experience.”
The marketing staff wanted to incorporate marketing “hooks” such as rotating display banners, but mostly it wanted to offer dynamic online communities, gathering places for its diverse constituents—parents of children who are blind, adult children of seniors who are visually impaired, or people who are blind and facing employment difficulties. “Online communities were a longstanding request of the people we serve,” Seaton says. “Canada is a huge country, so our constituents are spread out all over. Many live in rural communities that are hundreds of miles from a CNIB office with support groups.”
Frustrating Publishing Process
However, creating online communities meant giving content control to people running those communities—and that was not possible with the organization’s older web technology. All new content had to be routed through and posted by the IT department and took up to a week. “We needed to put power in the hands of CNIB employees across the country so they could make changes in a heartbeat, while still having a centralized, manageable process,” Seaton says.
Content-publishing problems plagued the CNIB intranet, too. “Our intranet had become a dumping ground for content that, increasingly, no one was reading,” Seaton says. CNIB built its intranet on Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003. CNIB wanted to make its intranet as lively as it wanted to make its public website, offering employees social media features, easy access to commonly used applications, and an easier way to find exactly what they needed.Reduce Maintenance Costs
CNIB wanted all these capabilities in a package that would not burden its busy IT staff. The code base of the older website was laborious to maintain, consuming 90 percent of the web team’s time and preventing them from developing new features. “Our webmaster was responsible for mounting new content and answering help-desk tickets, and he was swamped with user-support tasks,” says Vicki Mains, Director of Information Services at CNIB. “We wanted our IT team to be focused on adding value to the organization, not keeping a creaky old site up and running.”
The marketing staff worked in partnership with the CNIB IT team to identify a web platform that would enable the marketing team to be fully creative without compromising accessibility requirements. The technology also needed to be easy and cost-effective to maintain.
||Our site is more professional-looking, dynamic, and constantly changing…. We now have a powerful vehicle for communicating with and educating the public on issues facing people who are blind.
Director of Marketing, CNIB
Because the IT staff had good experience using Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003, it recommended Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. “We had seen the value that the SharePoint platform brought to our intranet and also wanted to explore what it could do for our public website,” Mains says. “We also wanted a single content management model for both our internal and external-facing sites. SharePoint Server absolutely made sense in every way.”
Marketing agreed, and in February 2010, Seaton’s staff got to work redesigning the site. However, when Microsoft announced Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010, CNIB halted its work because of what it saw in that program. “We really liked the feature set in SharePoint Server 2010,” Mains says. “It provided a full-featured website design platform and was WCAG 2.0–compliant out-of-the-box, which was huge for us. We didn’t see anyone else out there raising the accessibility flag like Microsoft was. They were really taking a leadership position on making it easy to design accessibility into websites.”
Mains is referring to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative. These guidelines provide instruction on how to make content more accessible, primarily for people with disabilities but also for all user agents, including devices such as mobile phones. WCAG 2.0 is the latest version, and W3C is the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web.Built-In Accessibility Features
In May 2010, CNIB decided to switch to SharePoint Server 2010 and Microsoft SharePoint Designer 2010 and bring in some outside assistance to speed the work and help its team become familiar with SharePoint Server. It engaged Digiflare, a Toronto-based interactive agency that specializes in blending innovative web design with the latest technology. As a member of the Microsoft Partner Network, Digiflare has a great deal of experience using SharePoint Server to deliver powerful, eye-catching web capabilities. “Digiflare provided design expertise but also helped us with our information architecture, meeting WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards and building content templates for our users,” Mains says.
Out-of-the-box accessibility features include:
WAI-ARIA support. SharePoint Server supports the WAI-ARIA, which stands for the Web Accessibility Initiative-Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite. ARIA provides the ability to provide a contextual meaning of a screen element that would generally be seen as meaningless. It also enables screen reader software applications and other accessibility tools to interact with web pages. Screen reader software interprets what is being displayed on a computer screen and re-presents it to the user with text-to-speech, sound icons, or a Braille output device.
“SharePoint Server is really a developer’s paradise,” says Jonathan Gan, SharePoint Architect and Specialist at CNIB. “In addition to the out-of-the-box accessibility features, it has great overall web functionality. When we start working on the intranet, we plan to also take advantage of its application integration capabilities.”
Chris O’Brien, SharePoint Specialist at CNIB, adds, “Office SharePoint Server 2007 was a dynamic platform, but SharePoint Server 2010 ramps it up to another level. I love the reusable workflows in SharePoint Designer 2010. I’m not a Microsoft .NET developer, so the ease of being able to create a workflow in SharePoint Designer and reuse it is a really great timesaving functionality. I also like the publishing features and layout, which are really fantastic. It’s a really robust platform. There’s not much you can’t do with it if you have the right resources.”
CNIB and Digiflare worked together for three months, from July to October 2010, when CNIB went live with its new Web 2.0–based, interactive, and fully accessible website. Accessibility Showcase
The CNIB website is a showcase for accessibility and contemporary web design and functionality. Everything on the site is equipped with screen reader software and can be navigated by using a mouse, keyboard, or assisting devices. CNIB proudly lists the many accessibility features on its site and even offers assistance to other organizations that want to make their websites accessible.
“We’re pushing the envelope for accessibility,” Seaton says. “For example, we have rotating banners on our home page, and they’re completely accessible. We’ve been able to incorporate many features that sighted sites have and still be accessible. Most people think that accessible sites are unattractive, but ours is an example of achieving design, accessibility, and utility all at once.”
Below is a summary of the site’s key accessibility features.
Content Publishing and Search
Alternative image text. Images on the site have alternative text attributes, which means that image content is also described in text. This enables images to be understood by text browsers and assistive technologies, such as screen readers.
Accessibility is a big part of the CNIB web success story but not the entire story. The development team also used SharePoint Server to simplify the complicated content publishing process. Previously, new content was handed off from creator to IT team to webmaster; now, content creators can post their own content. “We used SharePoint workflows to simplify content publishing,” says Mano Kulasingam, Director of Professional Services at Digiflare. “Marketing team members can log on to the site using their single sign on password and create or update content. Then, a workflow is triggered and content is automatically routed to designated approvers. Once approved, content is filtered through the IT staff and automatically posted.”
To date, more than 250 CNIB employees have been trained to post content. They even have a SharePoint user group where they pose and answer questions and learn new things.
CNIB also uses the built-in search capabilities in SharePoint Server to help visitors find information more easily. “Many CNIB business groups have created lots of microsites for special events or marketing campaigns,” says David George, Director of Business Development at Digiflare. “Previously, site visitors had no way to search across all those sites. But SharePoint can search everything on the site, which makes a visitor’s experience much more fruitful.” Communities and Intranet
CNIB plans to build online communities for people of different ages who are visually impaired, parents, caregivers, CNIB volunteers, and other groups with common bonds. Each community will offer online discussion groups, blogs, guest speakers, personalization features, and more. CNIB staff members will be able to share their expertise with communities, answer questions, participate in discussions, and moderate online support groups.
||SharePoint Server is really a developer’s paradise. In addition to the out-of-the-box accessibility features, it has great overall web functionality.
SharePoint Architect and Specialist, Canadian National Institute of the Blind
CNIB also began to upgrade its intranet to SharePoint Server 2010. Like the public site, the CNIB intranet will incorporate social media features, such as blogs and personalized employee pages (built from SharePoint My Site pages). By upgrading to SharePoint Server 2010, CNIB will be able to simplify and improve the content publishing process and search capabilities, and employees will be able to personalize their intranet pages to expose information and applications most relevant to them.
“Many of our staff members are on the road delivering services to people across Canada,” Seaton says. “We want the intranet to be their home base where they go to find everything they need. We really think it will make our staff more productive and effective.”Benefits
By revamping its website, CNIB has been able to present a more modern, engaging face to the public while still being a model citizen for accessibility.
More Compelling Outreach to the Community
With its new website, CNIB is able to present a more engaging face to all visitors—CNIB employees, volunteers, people who are visually impaired, the media, and members of the public. “Our site is more professional-looking, dynamic, and constantly changing,” Seaton says. “It contains a wealth of information, which is important because one of our main goals is to educate the public. We now have a powerful vehicle for communicating with and educating the public on issues facing people who are blind.” CNIB has seen page-views increase and site visitors staying longer.
The online CNIB communities will give specific CNIB constituents a great place to connect and receive support. For example, parents of children who are blind will be able to find and meet with other parents and children in their area.
“Our website is also a contributing factor in who we can get to work with us,” Seaton adds. “We’re a nonprofit that relies on public and corporate support, and our more professional-looking site encourages people to interact with us on many different levels.”Model Website for Accessibility
The CNIB site is a shining example of the nonprofit’s message that accessible websites do not have to be awkward. “We’ve become the new model and authority for what an accessible site should look like,” Seaton says. “We talk to organizations all the time, encouraging them to make their websites accessible, and now we can speak from experience. We are now able to give them very specific guidance on how to create a fully functional and accessible website without cutting functionality corners.”
By the end of 2011, public organizations in Canada must make their websites compliant with WCAG 2.0, and many are going to CNIB for help in meeting these standards.Seven Times Faster Content Publishing
Before CNIB upgraded to SharePoint Server 2010, it required five to seven days to publish new web content. Now, 250 CNIB employees are empowered to post new content themselves and can do so in seconds. Also, metadata tags ensure that pages are automatically removed when they expire.
“We no longer have to wait for the webmaster to publish content,” Mains says. “There’s more buy-in on the site with our staff, because people now control their own content. Employees are actually proud of our site, and we’re proud of who we are and what we’re doing. Employees are eager to keep the site up-to-date rather than considering it a chore.”Instigator of New Ideas
The reinvigorated website has inspired employee enthusiasm throughout the organization. “Employees’ imaginations are fired up by what they’ve seen on our site,” Seaton says. “In a recent internal town hall meeting where CNIB gathers staff input for new ideas, the majority of ideas that came forward were web-based. Employees are really excited about the possibilities.”
In fact, Seaton has recently increased its marketing staff to implement all the new ideas. “We’re finally able to market who we are, and people are incredibly excited about the possibilities,” Seaton says. “As an example, we have two employees who traveled to Nepal and have been blogging about their work there. Their updates and pictures have been hugely popular. We could never have done something like that before moving to SharePoint Server.” IT Staff Able to Shift 90 Percent of Time to Focus on New Capabilities
While the CNIB marketing staff is growing to implement new web outreach ideas, the IT staff has only added one new staff person. “That’s a very significant point, because to meet this level of demand with our old platform, we would have needed four or five times the number of staff,” Mains says. “Considering everything we’ve done and everything we’re poised to do, we still have only three staff members devoted to web properties. SharePoint Server has completely changed the way we work.”
In fact, the IT staff has been able to reverse its old maintenance-to-development ratio. “Whereas before, 90 percent of our website spend was doing routine site maintenance and mounting content, today, 90 percent of our website spend is development of new capabilities and adding value to the organization,” Mains says.
The success of the web project has raised the visibility and appreciation of the IT staff within CNIB. “Most people consider the IT department to be the ‘business prevention unit’ but we’ve worked as a team to change that perception,” Seaton says. “The marketing and IT teams are much more aligned now; we meet once a week.”
Mains adds, “Our big challenge now is keeping up with all the great ideas that are bubbling up. We’re becoming much more of an advisor to the business, which is what we want to be.”Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010
Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010 is the business collaboration platform for the enterprise and the Web.
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