Tag Archives: Accessibility

TechCrunch: Data portability is the new walled garden

Michael Arrington says the spat between Google and Facebook over the banning of Google’s Friend Connect is purely and simply about control of users and user information.

“Internet giants know that the days of getting you to spend all of your time inside their walled gardens are over,” he writes.

“So the next best thing is to at least maintain as much data about the user as possible, and make sure they identify with your brand while they are out there not being on your site.”

OpenID is becoming popular with developers as it allows users to log into sites with IDs taken from elsewhere – thus encouraging users not to move all their info wholesale.

Facebook and MySpace, he says, keep users happy and prevent them from moving all their personal info to other sites by allowing some portability so they don’t leave entirely.

“Not too portable, mind you.”

Come hither, cutting-edge news site designers…

…We want to hear from you. Designing search-engine friendly, fast-loading websites that meet best practice for accessibility, adhere to all the latest standards and display consistently across the widest possible range of browsers without awkward hacks is tricky enough. Creating sites that also meet the multi-faceted demands of a news organisation is a higher order of challenge altogether.

But we know you are out there. Whether you be design agencies, or lone guns, get in touch and tell us about your success stories. If you impress us and we think you will impress our readers, we will showcase your work on Journalism.co.uk. Hell, we might even hire you…

Drop me an email – john (at) journalism.co.uk or leave a comment.

Reflections on the accessibility of news websites

From the outset of last week’s series on how accessible the UK’s major newspaper websites are to blind and visually impaired users, we tried to emphasize that this was a subjective study based on the findings of a group of individuals with differing accessibility needs and internet skills.

Some responses to our findings, including that from Guardian Unlimited’s Stephen Dunn, raised the issue that no website should be designed to accommodate just one type of user with one type of accessibility needs – as Alastair C’s aptly summarises in his blog post on our accessibility articles:

In many cases people (site owners) jump to fix those issues one person brought up, not realising they may be hampering others using different technologies.

Pages should be designed to be as universally accessible as possible, not targeted at the moving target of different technologies.

As Alastair points out, accessibility testing for news sites needs to be more than a case study approach to widen the appeal of the site’s accessibility.

In an emailed response to the series, blind internet user Gene Asner, said that our findings were less to do with the inaccessibility of news websites and more a result of blind users lacking internet skills.

…work against unlabelled links and work toward better placement of headings and other ways to make movement faster and easier. But for most sites, the real problem is that blind people simply are not skilled internet users…

The only way blind people will move out of the ghetto of a small number of sites that have been especially designed to be accessible is to learn how to function in the real internet world…

While I agree with Gene that some of the problems we encountered were down to technical problems with our software or user (and we’ve tried to point this out in the accompanying blog posts), users should improve their internet skills because they want to and not as an antedote to the complacency of certain sites in dealing with accessibility issues.

Change among sites may be slow, but studies such as this help to highlight that there are issues with accessibility on news sites, whether or not these issues are shared by all.

Indeed, many of the findings of our series were very close to home, given Journalism.co.uk’s own format as an online news service.

We asked Richard Warren from Userite to briefly assess our own site in a similar manner to the newspaper sites featured. Richard made the following observations:

  1. Our pull down menus only pull down when a mouse is used, which is inaccessible to disabled people who cannot use a mouse, and which create a large number of navigational links for a screen reader user to trawl through.
  2. We need to implement some skip navigation/content links to speed up access.
  3. Our ‘Editor’s pick’ tab takes the user to other websites by opening new windows without warning, which is disorientating for the blind user.

Working on this series elements of the way I write and publish will also see change, for example, linking to words or phrases such as ‘click here’ demonstrates poor accessibility. A sitemap has also been added to our blogging section to aid navigation and we are improving the efficiency of the site’s search.

Standardising the layout of a news site’s pages was mentioned repeatedly by our volunteers as a means of improving accessibility for them. But news sites, by their very nature, change lots of their content daily, hourly and even more rapidly.

Similarly, text-only sites might offer a solution to some problems with accessibility – but is it possible to combine the benefits of a text-only site with an appealing and impressive design?

So over to designers, accessibility experts and our users – what could a news site, specifically our news site, do to make itself more universally accessible?

Accessibility 2.0: The Daily Mail

DailyMail.co.uk was the only website reviewed in our series that contained a link to a text-only version of the site.

Removing the graphics from a page will undoubtedly aid screen reader users, but there is debate over whether this is an appropriate accessibility solution for visitors using assistive technologies.

Our reviewer John said he is impressed by any site that goes to the effort of publishing a text-only alternative and the WC3 guidelines on accessibility suggest text-only sites as a last option: “If, after best efforts, you cannot create an accessible page, provide a link to an alternative page.”

In an article on text-only alternatives, Trenton Moss from Web Credible makes the following arguments against their use:

  1. the text-only version may have its own accessibility issues
  2. it’s a lost opportunity to promote the site’s brand and advertisers
  3. it requires extra time and financial investment to create the alternative site
  4. a text-only site may not hold the same content as the primary version
  5. the internet is about inclusivity – creating a text-only site marginalises users

While The Daily Mail should be commended as the only site to include this link, the offer of a text-only site should perhaps be seen as a stepping stone towards full accessibility and not a final solution.

Accessibility 2.0: The Sun and The Times

When reviewing Times Online and theSun.co.uk for our series on accessibility, we only really skimmed the surface of both sites’ blogging areas.

This was largely because issues of accessibility prevented our user from locating the blogs section on each website. Asking them for their thoughts once I, as a sighted user, had helped locate them would have been misleading.

The lack of a dedicated ‘blogs’ link or section heading on each site’s homepage illustrates the papers’ differing approach to blogging – Sun blogs come under the personalised My Sun area; whereas Times’ blogs are listed in the comment section.

While this means that any user purposefully looking for this section might struggle to find it without prior knowledge, this is an issue of content rather than accessibility. Each newspaper has chosen not to feature a blogs section on its homepage, because this is may not be the content it wants to flag up first.

This is a subjective choice by the publisher, which may not meet the subjective needs of all the audience. So does making a news website accessible mean making a compromise to try and please most of the people, most of the time?

Accessibility 2.0: The Telegraph and The Mirror

As far as rating the accessibility of these sites’ audio/video content for the visually impaired in our articles, our reviewer John had difficulty locating the area on each – an instant barrier to accessibility.

However, it’s worth pointing out that among our Dorton College students Telegraph.co.uk‘s video offering was a big hit. Josh, who is partially sighted, was unaware of the breadth of video content available from a newspaper and found it readily accessible.

That was his take on it – John had another, and it’s likely that every user utilising assistive technology would have a different response to the sites. Newspaper websites would be ill-advised to make alterations to bring them in line with the subjective findings of one person.

What our review does do, however, is serve as a reminder to online news providers that a ‘readership’ is not a homogenous lump, but consists of individuals with their own behaviour and demands. Finding a strategy to best handle all these varying needs is what accessibility should be all about.

Accessibility 2.0: The Guardian and The Daily Express

We knew from the start of this project that there would be some anomalies in our results given the subjective nature of our testing (individuals using different types of assistive equipment with differing degrees of success).

As such, Stephen Dunn, chief technical strategist from Guardian Unlimited, was right to point out that our volunteers had missed the invisible links on Guardian.co.uk, which allow screen reader users to skip lengthy navigation bars. This was likely the fault of our equipment and cannot be attributed to the Guardian site.

Similarly the failure of Express.co.uk‘s Have Your Say area with our user may have been heightened by our users’ unfamiliarity with using such comment areas.

Yet this reiterates the issue touched on in yesterday’s blog post about Independent.co.uk: our blind and visually impaired testers struggled with this section of the site because it was unclear what they were supposed to do from the outset.

This was not an accessibility problem caused by bad links or poorly written code that disadvantages screen reader users, but rather an issue that could affect all visitors to the site. To get the necessary instructions on how to Have Your Say users have to drill into the site before being directed to a registration page.

Combining a quick registration process with a comment form would be a welcome move towards accessibility for all – and would easily boost MyExpress’ subscription numbers.

Accessibility 2.0: The Independent

Carrying out the assessments of the UK’s main newspaper websites for this week’s features on website accessibility for the blind, each site had its own advantages and disadvantages.

In the planning of this project, several web accessibility specialists stressed to me that improving the accessibility of a website for blind users, would improve its usability for all visitors.

This idea applied to the Independent’s site more than any of the others we reviewed. Our volunteers picked up on so many things that put me off browsing the site regularly that I had never quite put my finger on before.

A jumble of section headings on the homepage, links that have no context, the inconsistency of the blogs pages – none of these features improve access to the site for any reader.

A stronger, more standardised design taking these issues into account would be a wise move as part of the site’s redesign and would no doubt encourage readers on the site to stick around longer.

Why the front page is still relevant

When the incremental overhaul of the Guardian.co.uk enveloped the site’s homepage earlier this year there was much talk of the growing irrelevance of newspaper websites having a ‘front’.

Why a front when so many readers/users/visitors/viewers come in though the side door of search and RSS feeds?

Jeff Jarvis quoted figures that as few as 20 per cent of daily visitors get to see it.

Search engine optimisation – that’s the key isn’t it? With ubiquitous navigation from all parts of the site? Yes, truly it’s important. But is that the case for every user of a newspaper website?

Well, up to a point, Sir – as Mr Salter might say.

Let’s take that magic 20 per cent (I have to apologise for not knowing what this figure actually relates to, but I’ll use it as a starting point rather than a crux). Why would a fifth of daily users want to go in via the front door?

Perhaps they’re not fans of the Google hegemony, so avoid its referrals like the plague? Or not tech-savvy enough to master RSS feeds? Or pretty-much only want news from a single perspective, so rely on just one site as ‘the news’?

But what if accessing the news for them wasn’t as simple as scanning NewsFire or banging a search term into Google and quickly scanning a dozen or so relevant links?

What if navigating all the non-uniform sites linked to from Google News was a cripplingly slow nightmare?

What if the architecture of the sites they visit is as relevant – if not more relevant – than the slant those sites put on the news?

Well, if you’re a blind or partially sighted internet user that’s pretty much how it works.

Over the course of this week Journalism.co.uk is running a series of reports looking at difficulties blind and partially sighted users have accessing leading UK national newspaper websites.

To this end we asked a number of volunteers to show us, first-hand, the common problems they face. During our assessments the value of a homepage became strikingly obvious.

Our volunteers tended to start their internet news searches from the homepage of a favoured news site, rather than a search engine.

Our principal volunteer John Allnutt told us that he tended to glean his news from the BBC News site as it had simple navigation that he was used to using and its accessibility information was easily available.

Nothing so strange in that. Most people have favourites. But the tendency to surf differing sources of news isn’t common, we found, amongst those with visual impairment.

It became clear that once a user had got used to the unique and sometimes esoteric navigation of a news site, using screen reading technology, then logic prevailed. It’s easier and quicker to just go to the site where you know all the idiosyncrasies and curios, rather than getting stuck in the frustrating hamster-wheel of figuring out the complexities of other sites.

Furthermore, many news sites don’t have standardised design throughout, making it harder still to jump into a certain section and expect it to be laid out and navigable in the same way as the rest of the site. Easier then just to enter through the home page and to use that as the fulcrum to all your movements around the site.

Our observation isn’t just limited to the individuals we worked with on the project.

Trenton Moss, director of Web Credible, a web usability and accessibility consultancy that helped us in the early part of the project, told us that this is a common phenomenon.

Blind and visually impaired individuals will continue to use these sites in spite of their flaws he told us, perfecting use of the imperfect navigation of a single or a few sites from the homepage to access news online.

There is no ubiquity of design that would allow the blind and visually impaired user to easily float between news sites and utilise search engines as the easy and quick route to news they want.

Ubiquitous design across a range of news websites isn’t something that’s likely to happen soon, if ever.

It’s because of this that front pages remain important as a point of entry for navigation and an easily accessible summation of all that is important.