Few experiences are as necessary–or humbling–as learning from your mistakes, whether it’s getting back a geometry test or turning on the spelling-check feature and seeing a sea of red enumerating all your errors. The same principle carries over to Web-site construction. UsableNet’s Lift Onsite 2.0.1, a diagnostic tool that catalogs the potential usability pitfalls in your Web site, manages to balance pitiless thoroughness with a user-friendly guide on how to correct problems.
The first order of business when using Lift Onsite is to define exactly what “usability” is. It can mean anything from a painless user experience to compliance with section 508, the federal regulation that applies the Americans with Disabilities Act to Web sites. Fortunately, Lift Onsite comes with an extensive and customizable rule set, the criteria by which the site is checked. The default settings let you test your site either according to 508 regulations or by Lift Onsite’s default usability definition. Be warned that this definition is quite strict. For example, one rule recommends that anyone with a Web site built around framed pages also provide a complete alternative for no-frames users.
Yet Lift Onsite allows users an extraordinary degree of customization. You can elect to turn rules on or off, and weight them with a rating of 0 to 4; the higher the number, the more important it is that the rule be followed throughout the Web site. Saving different rule sets is easy, which is handy when you work on multiple sites with different usability criteria. However, Lift Onsite is a diagnostic tool, and it still depends on human know-how. Although the software tries to explain everything, understanding and fixing usability violations requires familiarity with both W3C recommendations and current conventional wisdom about usability and accessibility. Also, Lift Onsite can check only static Web sites housed in a hard drive. People who create dynamically generated Web sites must supplement Lift Onsite with a subscription to UsableNet’s Web-based service, Lift Online.
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For professional Web-site developers who need section 508 compliance, this tool is invaluable. For Web developers who also act as their own quality assurance department, Lift Onsite is a handy way to check flaws and learn best-practice guidelines. However, for recreational Web heads, this might be overkill.