Accessibility Experiment

By on September 22, 2008 12:02 am

Just back from @media Ajax with a few ideas buzzing around. One based on this comic:

comic about foreignizing a website

It's patently absurd. And yet it's what we do with accessibility all the time, and in some ways the differences between someone with a visual impairment and someone with dexterity difficulties could be greater than the differences between a Spanish and Italian speaker.

Now it's true that, unlike translations, many of the guidelines aimed at one group don't get in the way of other users. But what would we do if we designed pages just for one group of users. GMail and other sites have taken vague steps in this direction. At a very brief glance I can see Standard, Standard+Chat, Basic HTML and Mobile versions. What would GMail for screen readers look like?

So I'm going to take a stab at the thought experiment. Feel free to chip in with some ideas:

Designing for Screen Readers

So you want to create a version of your site specifically for screen readers, ignoring everyone else. What might you do?

Scroll bars are generally bad for sighted people. They hide content, slow things down, and some people find them hard to use. But screen readers don't care about long pages; the scrollbars are invisible anyway. So how about packing the whole site into a single page? Since the graphics are irrelevant, we can skip those, and for many sites still have less to download. The page can then start with a description of the access keys and the user can then navigate really quickly. We could quickly summarize the access keys at each page boundary in case they've been forgotten.

Designing for Dyslexia

Dyslexia is generally less of a barrier to web use compared to blindness, however it is very common and often overlooked. In contrast to the low graphic, high text approach for Screen Readers, some dyslexics think in terms of pictures, and may prefer a layout which uses a standard set of icons to back up common concepts. Many users without this disability may find this approach distracting, and it's certainly going to be annoying to anyone with a screen reader, if the text goes on regular side-tracks reading the ALT text that is only there to back up the text anyway.

Designing for Cognitive Disability

One of the problems with the web, and computers in general is the level of distraction. Distractions are a problem for everyone whatever their abilities, but the problem is exacerbated by disability. I've noticed that as people slow down, they start to look around at their screens using their neck muscles, pointing their entire head rather than just their eyes, and I think it's all about focus. We need a way to narrow our focus to concentrate on the important questions.

It might be possible to have a site where we could "zoom in" on what was important. If you could "zoom-in" to simplify GMail, what would you throw out? Invitations would go, as would links to other services, settings, maybe labels and the 2 sets of buttons that do the same thing. I think many people use email by just seeing their inbox, and maybe search. Ultimately email could be a wizard where you see what's new and that's it. Clearly this lack of detail isn't going to be good for everyone, but having a "simplify it" function could be really useful in many cases.

Designing for Low Vision and Motor Impairment

I don't know, but I suspect that the "zoom-in" to simplify concept is going to require lots of complex layout. In comparison to which, people with low vision or motor impairment want simple layout. They also want to zoom in, but probably just to make the words/buttons bigger. People with low vision often differ in how they need the screen enhanced. Is it black/white or white/black. Have colors gone, or might a flash of yellow help? Often the OS takes care of much of this problem, but websites that use yellow-fade might be helping, or might not, depending on OS settings. Good design for low vision is probably going to let the user select the type of visual aid that helps.

The Real World

I have no idea if any of these ideas would work as expected, but I'd love to see the results of some research in these directions.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the extra work. I think it’s possible to create top notch user experiences by focusing on ability in this way, but it’s probably going to cost more, and it’s not required on order to make an accessible site. Maybe one of the worst outcomes is that someone puts the effort into creating a top-notch site in this way, but then lets the effort lapse and over time the end result is some accessible pages that lag behind the rest of the site. The WCAG guidelines warn against multiple sites for this reason. If you’ve created a genuinely top-notch experience then it’s hard to see a sane person complain that you should be doing a worse job, just for the sake of following a recommendation.