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WCAG 3.0 – What to Expect

This year, W3C announced that they were planning to release Web Content Accessibility Guildines (WCAG) 2.2 in late 2021. As many teams began digesting what to expect from WCAG 2.2, W3C announced they were releasing the initial draft of WCAG 3.0, a restructuring of W3C’s accessibility standards with the primary goal of making them easier to interpret and more comprehensive. 

For many at work maintaining accessibility, this year began with understanding the changes in WCAG 2.2. Yet, with the announcement of WCAG 3.0, many organizations are trying to ensure they’re preparing for the multitude of changes WCAG 3.0 will bring.   

What to Expect from WCAG 3.0  

WCAG will mean something different 

The first change to embrace with WCAG 3.0 may seem insignificant.    

Starting with 3.0, WCAG will no longer stand for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.  Moving forward, WCAG 3.0 will stand for W3C Accessibility Guidelines. This change in meaning is designed to, at its core, to move away from content and allow its new guidelines to be applied more broadly.  

W3C’s Goals for WCAG 3.0 

W3C has outlined concrete goals for WCAG 3.0, which focus on making their accessibility guidelines: 

  • Easier to understand. 
  • Cover more user needs, including more needs of people with cognitive disabilities. 
  • Increase flexibility to address different types of web content, apps, tools, and organizations. 

These goals, matched with the changes to WCAG (still in draft form), match with some of the more significant changes in WCAG 3.0 when compared to WCAG 2.x 

High-level changes in WCAG 3.0 versus WCAG 2.x 

WCAG 2.x WCAG 3.0 
Success criteria Outcomes
Level A, AA, AAA Bronze, Silver, Gold 
Non-interference requirements Critical errors 
Techniques Methods 
Principles Removed

While some of the above are self-explanatory (Principles are removed, Techniques inherit more of a Methodology definition), the significant changes proposed so far focus on Outcomes, Levels of Accessibility, and Critical Errors.    

These changes in terminology seem intentional at a high level, showcasing W3C’s desire to make their guidelines easier to understand while also baking in the idea that accessibility is an ongoing process (Outcomes versus Success Criteria) that has a pinnacle level of conformity (Gold versus AAA).   

Outcomes in WCAG 3.0 

As shown above, Success Criteria in WCAG 2.x are redefined as Outcomes.  

Outcomes (in their current form) are statements defining what users need from specific types of content (imagery, captions, headings, etc.).  More critically, Outcomes move away from the isolated idea of Success Criteria and its focus on pages but drive home W3C’s desire to focus on accessibility as a process and the importance of its inclusion in the user journey.  

Another change that is included in Outcomes is their scoring.  Instead of being strictly Pass or Fail, Outcomes will be rated from 0 to 4 and averaged across all available outcomes.  This average will provide an organization with their overall level of compliance, rewarding organizations that focus on their average score and not just the score of a primary page or experience. 

Bronze/Silver/Gold Levels of Conformance in WCAG 3.0 

Probably the change bearing the most discussion in WCAG 3.0 is its abandonment of the current A, AA, and AAA levels of conformance and the adoption of a new trifecta of conformance: Bronze, Silver, and Gold.   

The levels keep some of their current approaches from a high level, A & AA being concentrated more into the Bronze level.  Similar to current conformity, obtaining a Bronze level will still require testing your experience element by element, component by component. 

Silver and Gold seem to take the current AAA level and build on a more holistic approach testing an organization’s entire digital journey to obtain Silver and Gold conformity.  This aligns with one of W3C’s outlined goals of increasing WCAG’s flexibility to address different web content types, apps, tools, and organizations.  As their draft grows sharper and more defined, it’s safe to assume these levels will put more teeth to their more holistic guidelines to ensure that organizations are looking at their total digital footprint beyond the entry-point requirements of bronze. 

Critical Errors in WCAG 3.0 

WCAG also does away with the vague Non-Interference Requirements and instead adopts a more assertive definition of critical errors for each Outcome.   These critical errors carry with them a more severe implication than just in their naming.  A website with critical errors can not conform to WCAG 3.0 at any level until resolved, giving organizations a much more precise level of acceptance criteria than past versions of WCAG. 

WCAG 3.0 is looking for feedback 

You’re sure to see more breakdowns of WCAG 3.0 as their draft evolves.  Currently, W3C hasn’t provided the desired timeline, so while new and exciting, these guidelines are likely far off from any level of final approval.  Yet, keeping ahead of accessibility guidelines is advantageous, especially given how transparent W3C has been with their desired new direction. 

 Better yet, they welcome public feedback.  If you are interested in adding your input to W3C’s WCAG 3.0 draft, provide public feedback for WCAG 3.0 via W3C’s GitHub repository