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— Aug 23, 2013 —

The human element of accessibility

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at Second Wednesday this month, and was even luckier to be given a choice of dates at which I could speak. When I found out that my fellow speaker on my chosen night, Kimberley Tew, would be speaking about accessibility, it was a no-brainer for me.

I wrote a little bit about the issue I see with our knowledge on accessibility a little while back, but what I witnessed on the night absolutely hammered home the true impact of what poorly built site can have on a person. On another human being.

Ticking the boxes

From what I understood, one of the deliverables that Kimberley produces when reviewing the accessibility of a site is a report documenting how the site fares against the WCAG checklists.

"The human element is lost in checklists, and developers perceive WCAG checklists as a tedious to-do list."

Kimberley talked about how these checklists can feel like a bunch of boring tasks to a developer. That we have to try and tick a slew of items off the list if we're attempting to build an accessible site.

As with all reports, at least in my opinion, it can be difficult to visualise the message that it is intended to deliver. Facts and figures layer out in a text heavy document never makes for easy reading. This is where Kimberley uses real people to get the point across.

Introducing Steph

To provide an example of how a real human being interacts with a website through a screen reader, Kimberley was accompanied by Steph Cutler of Making Lemonade.

Steph started off by explaining that she had lost her centre of vision. In terms of using a computer to browse the Internet, Steph was unable to use a keyboard or look at the screen, which also meant the use of a mouse was out of the question. So Steph browses the web through a screen reader, in this case, JAWS.

Side note: Steph told us that JAWS costs around £1,000. One Thousand Great British Pounds. For me, that's a barrier to accessibility in itself!

A relatively simple task

Steph's task was to navigate an e-commerce site which sells coffee, find a discount voucher and purchase the relevant item with the voucher.

As Steph is used to working with a screen reader, the initial speech that came from the computer was unbelievably rapid. Steph had to go into the settings of the screen reader and reduce the speed from 66% down to 26%, just so that the audience could understand what was being said!

Steph was able to navigate the site fairly quickly to locate the point where the voucher was mentioned on the home page. Following the associated link took Steph through to the product page, and this is where things got interesting.

Some interesting asides

Just before I get to the really interesting part, there's a few points that were made after the demonstration that I think are worth sharing. A few audience members were able to asks questions and Steph shared some interesting viewpoints:

  • Skip to content links are important. When landing on a site, skipping to the content allows the user to get a brief overview of the site, which lets them know if they're in the right place.
  • Well structured headings help to give an overview of the content. Although Steph isn't technical, she was aware of how to skip through content by the headings, just as a sighted user would scan a page.
  • Fields marked with an asterisk isn't descriptive enough. The user needs to know what the asterisk represents.
  • Alt tags on images can sometimes get in the way. In the majority of cases, Steph prefers it if there's no alt attribute at all.

Now, back to the demonstration.

A shared frustration

The point at which Steph added the chosen item to the cart, the page updated to inform the entire audience that the item had been added, however, there was precisely zero feedback to Steph.

She moved up and down the page, trying to find out if the item had been added. She expected to be taken to a page that would list all the items she has added, but could still not figure out what had happened, if anything.

Some JavaScript was updating the page to tell us that the item had been added, but not in the context of where the action of adding the item had taken place, but at the very top of the page where the shopping cart overview was displayed.

For what seems like an eternity, Steph struggled to use the page, and we could all see the frustration growing from her facial expressions, and at one point here whole body showed us that she was about to completely give up with a dejected slump of the head and shoulders.

Personally, the urge to shout out and help Steph was hard to resist. Both the audience and I were able to restrain ourselves which was of benefit to the demonstration. Steph will not have around 80 people in a room to help her through a website when she's at home browsing the web.

A little goes a long way

Nothing I have seen in any talk, or at any conference so far, has been as powerful or as moving as seeing someone struggle with a poorly accessible website.

In summing up, Steph said;

"The internet literally opens up a whole world of information. As long as it's accessible"

The moments where you could see the frustration showing on Steph's face when trying to accomplish the simplest of tasks, and the change in body language and tone of voice as she described what she was doing when attempting to buy a product for the umpteenth time cannot be conveyed in a written report.

What may be a tedious task to a web designer or developer means so much more to another human who is unable to complete the single most important task on a given website.

We, as builders of the web, should not see the WCAG guidelines as a checklist to run over towards the end of a project. This can make it feel like a tedious to do list once most of the work is done.

But if we can make accessible sites as standard, bring the methods for creating accessible websites in to the core of what we build on a daily basis, then the completion of the checklist becomes a satisfactory thing, almost a certificate of the good groundwork that had been laid at the start.

We're all human, is it really such a big ask to spend a little more time to help those who have to access the web with assistive technologies?