Critical Friend

We talked a little in Wednesday’s (July 2nd) meeting about the lack of recognised qualifications to audit or certify a web site as “accessible”. I recalled a customer of my company had asked about the use of a “trusted friend”. Alas, my recollection was faulty and the phrase they had used was “critical friend”.

It is desirable that the system meets the W3C level 2 accessibility standards or conforms to another equivalent standard…
Please supply detail of how you audit your systems compliance to achieve accessibility standards. Do you make use of a ‘critical friend’ in this process if so, please state…

— extract from a request for tender document

I researched at the time the meaning of this phrase, which was new to me, and found the following reference in Wikipedia:

A critical friend can be defined as a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critiques of a person’s work as a friend. A critical friend takes the time to fully understand the context of the work presented and the outcomes that the person or group is working toward. The friend is an advocate for the success of that work.

Wikipedia article ‘Critical Friend’

The concept is very interesting and seems to have been coined in the context of UK local government.

To paraphrase, I might describe a critical friend as someone who is knowledgeable and honest enough to tell you the truth about the bad stuff, but who will, equally, give praise about the good stuff. A ‘consultant’ who is likely to dress up your short comings in fancy praise-sounding words in a fat document for a fat fee will not do.

It needs to be someone who is knowledgeable about the system under review or at least the domain involved. Someone who perhaps has a moral interest in seeing that the system succeeds: both for your organisation as supplier and the end user as consumer, but who can still be paid a reasonable fee for their time.

In the case of an accessibility review it needs to be someone who can look at the whole picture; beyond just the validity of the mark-up and ticking the boxes from the WCAG check-lists. Someone who can empathise with at least some of the challenges faced by people with a range of disabilities. Someone who can understand the use cases and evaluate your system from a functional, goal oriented viewpoint.

It naturally follows that this someone must understand ‘usability’ and the very close relationship between the two disciplines — An accessible site is likely to be more usable and a more usable site goes a long way to address some of the cognitive accessibility issues.

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