Friday, August 31, 2007

History of Online Registration

MeetingTechOnline called to ask me questions for their upcoming "History of Online Registration" whitepaper. While I've told this story several times over the past 9 years, the framework of this interview made me think again about why certain technologies go from novel to standard practice in seemingly short bursts of time.

My History of Online Event Registration

Scott Curry, a friend from Clemson, started in 1997 while I was in graduate school at Berkeley. His experience registering runners for marathons and 10Ks opened my eyes to the new technology of database-driven web sites and e-commerce, and led me to start in 1998. Scott was moving to San Diego as Enteronline became a part of, and I wanted to apply the technology into a field that was more business-oriented than participatory sports. Offering online registration to professional event planners seemed like a good business model: a transaction-based fee structure, recurring revenue from the repeating nature of events, and substantial sums of money being spent in the existing industry.

In the end of 1998, Regweb had a working registration system, B-There was just starting up, Starcite was announced but not launched, Plansoft was selling mainly Windows applications, and SeeUThere was an eVite look-alike. Interestingly, all of these companies are now part of the new Starcite. At that time, most of us were competing against paper registration and in-house systems rather than each other. Cvent, Acteva, Regonline, and others were all right around the corner.

Right after we started, we tried to exhibit at the HSMAI Affordable Meetings show in San Jose. We couldn't get a booth, but we did land a demo with the show manager, George Little Management, who was looking for a vendor to replace their in-house system for the annual International Hotel, Motel & Restaurant Show. I'm proud to say that we've provided online registration to GLM and HSMAI ever since.

Why Then?

Advon asked why so many online registration companies started between 1997-1999. That time period was really a perfect storm for new technology development:
  • Microsoft's Active Server Pages (.asp) and Allaire's ColdFusion (now an Adobe product) changed the World Wide Web by allowing developers to (relatively) easily create web sites and forms that could interact with databases. Thus we could collect registration data online, store it in a database, and then deliver it to meeting planners as reports on demand.
  • More people began to use email and Netscape in their daily life. These attendees asked for event web sites, online registration, and instant email confirmations.
  • Cybercash (now a part of PayPal) and other processors made it easy for developers to integrate online credit card processing into registration forms, without investing in direct connections with the credit card payment network. Now payment for event fees could be collected and confirmed prior to delivering an email confirmation, thus greatly improving events' cash flow and collections.

The result was a situation where people wanted it, technology could deliver it, and the cost to deliver the service was less than the clear benefits. Throw in a few hundred million dollars' worth of venture capital money chasing anything ".com" and you had dozens of start-ups entering the market for online event registration.

Overcoming Early Hurdles

Of course it wasn't that easy, or we wouldn't have seen all of mergers and bankruptcies in this market since 2001. Trust was one of the biggest hurdles I experienced in the early days, as we tried to tell people that we would hold their data for them, but deliver it to them at any time when they needed it.

Back then, the mindset in IT was that security revolved around a physical location - your data was secure when it was stored on your computers, which were safely locked in your office. The idea that someone else should hold your data on their computers was like early banks trying to get people to take the money out of their safes and put it into an "account", which had only a small percentage of cash reserves behind it. Every time I thought we had moved past the trust issue, someone like would close shop in the middle of their customers' events and strand both their money and data in bankruptcy court.

From 1997 to 2007 the trust issue has declined in importance because (1) customers have had ten years of experience with web-based services such as travel reservations, online banking, eBay, and Amazon to get comfortable with the web hosted model, and (2) suppliers like Certain Software have provided service to event planners for over 10 years without stranding their customers.

What have you done for me lately?

Before 2001, the emphasis for meeting technology seemed to be, "What can you do for the attendee?" Thus our business was geared toward providing event web sites with a custom look-and-feel, posting FAQs online instead of answering questions one call at a time, linking to online registration forms with integrated credit card processing, and delivering e-mail confirmations and invitations.

After 2003 the question from most event planners is, "What can you do for me?" They take for granted attendee-facing technology and now focus on back-office processes, security, reliability, and full-functionality (i.e., one system that fits all needs). Thus meeting technology is moving towards integrated registration, housing, travel, program management, budgeting, meetings approval, and RFPs.

What happened between 2001 and 2003 was that 9/11 crushed the travel industry and many event people were let go while budgets for new hires were frozen. Since the group travel business recovered in 2003, work loads have increased while human resources have stayed the same. Online registration products matured to the point that they are expected to take care of attendees, so meeting planners focus on back-office efficiency and productivity.

The effect on registration budgets and full-service vendors

The past decade of work has naturally effected service providers who were in the meetings industry before the Internet technology existed. In many companies, registration technology budgets are going down as organizations strive to replace multiple separate systems (membership management, on-site registration, call center technology, online registration, meeting planning software, etc.) with an integrated system. While they are willing to pay more for the integrated system than they did for any one older system, they expect its cost to be less than the sum of the legacy systems.

Also, full-service event registration companies continue to thrive. There will always be a market for whom a single contact is more important than a single system. These people will pay more to a full service provider who delivers an integrated service that hides the complexity of multiple systems and processes. Our business at Certain sees this in the relationship between some of our customers and resellers. We have customers with their own product license who do everything themselves, while other companies contract with a reseller who has a license with us and provides service on top of our application. But a third and growing group of customers follow a hybrid model, where they have a license with us and manage some events themselves, but also contract with a full-service provider/reseller for other events where the reseller uses their clients' license with us.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Developing a Section 508 Compliance Strategy for Web Site Accessibility

(This post is a continuation of my article on Section 508 compliance for Web accessibility.)

I've been working with a federal government agency to validate Section 508 compliance for their online registration form. Before this process began, had you asked me if our attendee-facing web pages were Section 508 compliant, I would have replied, "Absolutely, yes." But working with Angela Hooker ( on this project, I've learned a few things about web accessibility:
  1. You cannot rely on automated testing tools, like WebXact, to insure Section 508 compliance.
  2. You must validate compliance with multiple applications geared toward different audiences. For example, try JAWS for sight-impaired users, navigate without a mouse to simulate motor-skill deficient users, and view pages with a lower resolution for technologically-disadvantaged users.
  3. Complying with the spirit of the law (i.e., to provide universal accessibility to Web content) requires an expert who can show you the end users' experience, beyond strict compliance with the letter of the law.

I also learned that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are both following the United States' lead in web accessibility guidelines, and in the future Section 508 regulations will be rolled into the international standards embodied in the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG). Adopting Section 508 compliance now gives you a head start on interoperability with the next generation of web browsers and platforms (such as iPhones and tablet PCs).

Specific Issues with Section 508 Compliance

Over the past month, I've identified and resolved a few issues with our Section 508 compliance of the online registration forms:

  • We disabled a client-side Javascript function, which hid payment fields that did not apply to your selected payment method. Although this area passed the WebXact screening, the script confused the JAWS screen reader and resulted in content being read out of order.
  • We added text and hyperlinks designed specifically for blind users. We inserted these instructions in a white font color (on a white background), so that they would be "invisible" and not detract from the experience of sighted users.
  • We replaced a web mail interface with a simple "mailto" link. The web mail interface had the same look and feel as the registration form, but opening an e-mail message in your client application (such as Outlook) made us 508-compliant.

Looking at the bigger picture, however, we don't want to have to deal with Section 508 issues one form at a time. So I've been working with our IT, Development, and QA groups in order to develop a systematic approach to build, maintain, and audit Section 508-compliant Web applications.

Developing a Company Policy for Section 508 Compliance

The goals of our Section 508 compliance policy are to:

  • Meet U.S. Federal regulations for our public sector clients (comply with the letter of the law)
  • Produce Web sites that are universally accessible (comply with the spirit of the law)
  • Educate our staff on Section 508 requirements
  • Adopt international standards for more consistent development of Web applications

Why be Section 508 compliant?

  • It is a law for U.S. federal government (and many state/local government) agencies, representing about 25% of both our current and potential customer base.
  • Section 508 compliance is spreading beyond the public sector, becoming an internal requirement for major corporations and non-profit organizations
  • Section 508 regulations are being merged into the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) and ISO standards, so compliance with these HTML standards help us operate on future web browsers and platforms (PDAs, phones, etc.)
  • Section 508 is a design standard for universal accessibility, just as PCI Compliance is a design standard for financial data security. Following Section 508 guidelines can help multiple developers in a globally-distributed work environment produce consistent, quality HTML code.

Section 508 Compliance Policy

Our policy for Section 508 compliance is:

  1. 100% compliant on the registrant-facing side (i.e., Forms and Web Sites)
  2. Strive for compliance with documentation and Help files, or offer a 508-compliant option
  3. Strive for compliance on Admin side (intranet application), but not at the expense of harming the UI experience for sighted users.

"Strive for compliance" means that where possible on the Admin side and Help files, we should write HTML to the standards of the W3C WCAG and Section 508 guidelines. These standards are international best practices and insure maximum interoperability of HTML as the web moves to new browsers, mobile devices, kiosks, etc. So all images should have ALT tags, all form fields should have ID attributes with Label tags, all data tables should have header descriptors (as defined in the standards), all HTML should be checked for syntax errors such as end tags and tag nesting.

But for areas where meeting 508 compliance would result in an inferior UI for sighted users, we can make an exception in the admin side and Help files. An example here is the Help files "Table of Contents", which is not 508 compliant but has a much better UI for sighted readers through its dynamic interface.

In cases where compliance will not be achieved, then we should try to offer a 508-compliant alternative. For example, Robohelp allows us to save Help files in a separate 508 compliant format, which we can add to our Certain Support Center for vision-impaired users.

Section 508 Compliance Implementation

Many teams will work together to build, maintain, and certify our Section 508 compliance.

Developers and QA engineers:

QA Testing:

  • For as many releases as possible (i.e., if automated and feasible), we should validate Section 508 compliance on a "sample" form and web site with Watchfire WebXact (included in HP Mercury testing tool)
  • This automated tool is a good first pass for testing - it gives the specific line number of problems, along with a proposed solution for the developer

Note that the automated testing tools may return "508 Compliant" when a web site is not truly compatible with the advanced screen readers that disabled users actually employ. In order to comply with the spirit of the law, further User Acceptance Testing is needed.

User Acceptance Testing (UAT)

In order to comply with the spirit of accessibility, UAT should follow the guidelines outlined in Section 3 of Jim Thatcher's tutorial for checking the accessibility of our web pages.

  • With major releases, or once per quarter, UAT should run through a comprehensive "standard" form and web site with the JAWS screen reader (the 40 minute version is adequate for this) - this exemplifies how vision-disabled users experience the web site
  • UAT should navigate the sample form and web site without using a mouse (using Tab and keyboard only) - this exemplifies how motor-disabled users experience the web site

Compliance/Audit (IT)

One deliverable from the audit is for the consultant to produce a Section 508 compliance report for sales to be able to give to clients and prospects instead of having to conduct multiple internal audits one at a time.