Thinking accessibly

I recently attended a Web Accessibility Introduction and Awareness seminar run by the Central Office of Information (COI). The seminar was being run as a pilot as part of the Race Online 2012 campaign, headed by the UK’s Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox.

The campaign’s ambition is to make the UK the first nation in the world where everyone can use the web. 4 million of the 9 million people in the UK currently not online are among the most disadvantaged. 39% are over 65, 38% are unemployed and 19% are families with children.

Often poor online accessibility is a barrier to these very people having an enjoyable online experience. The seminar highlighted this brilliantly through a live demo with an assistive technology user, showing the huge impact that doing some quite simple and easy things can have on their user experience.

The day after, and back in work, I came across the usual problem of inaccessible content which requires publication on the web. In this instance it was with an organisation chart. Researching creating an accessible version on the web showed me that discussions of this type were being had in the US in 2001, ten years ago! Is the UK so far behind with regards thinking accessibly? If so, then the Race Online campaign, though clearly a worthy plan, is well overdue.

More information

ambition is to make the UK the first nation in the world where everyone can use the web.ambition is to make the UK the first nation in the world where everyone can use the web.

Lift accessibility

I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to the accessibility of web sites and don’t really get too tired explaining to people why a PDF of a scanned-in document is a no-no. I always assumed that the accessibility of web-sites was still in its relative infancy compared to other industry’s.

Take lifts (elevators!) for example, according to wikipedia:

The first reference to an elevator is in the works of the Roman architect Vitruvius, who reported that Archimedes built his first elevator, probably in 236 B.C.

Yes, you read that right, the lift was invented in 236 B.C.

Obviously lift technology has moved on somewhat and advances and additions have been made over the years since 236BC. Once such advancement is the addition of the audible announcement of the direction of travel, door status and floor position. The reason for this is for visually impaired lift users, who cannot see the electronic display indicating where and in which direction the lift is traveling.

In our building we’ve recently had some of our lifts replaced, it is these new lifts that I have noticed a change in the order of the announcements. They start by announcing the direction of travel and floor number before the lift doors have opened. The only people who can hear these announcements are the people already in the lift, surely they’re much more useful to the people who may be getting on the lift.

I’m probably being a bit picky but I would have thought lifts would come with a standard configuration which had been tested.

Have we learnt nothing in over 2000 years of lift design?

Content owner apathy

[Rant alert.]

My focus is mostly Intranets, however I sit next to our Web Team so often hear their grumblings of discontent, therefore I fairly confident what I am about to write translate to the world wide web as well.

We rely on subject experts to create and write content, often these subjects experts are policy officials with little understanding of what makes valuable web content. Most of the time, publishing content on the Intranet (or web) is a box ticking exercise and something done at the last minute. Very rarely do they think about the web when they are formulating and beginning to write their new policy. Often when you tell them about how people want web content and read the web you are treated to a sigh and a roll of the eyes and told to just ‘publish the content’.

Content owners often give the excuse that they’re too busy and hard pressed to worry about accessibility, well structured content and the user goals of people looking at their content. They’re apathetic to the concerns of us webmasters!

The result: a sprawling website of inconsistent, unstructured content which is too long to read and a nightmare to search and navigate. And who gets the blame for said poor website? That’s right, us webmasters.

[End of rant.]

CAPTCHA if you can

Internet security is always top of the agenda and new security technology is continually being released. Although first coined in 2000 CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) technology has only really become more prominent over the last couple of years. CAPTCHA attempts to distinguish between a computer and human by asking you to type in some hard to decipher random characters represented by an image, the idea being that any automatic spamming bots can’t figure out what the characters are (through image recognition) so therefore can’t register/log in to spam the website in question. It’s more of a reverse turin test because the Computer is testing the human rather than vice versa.

An example of a CAPTCHA image, courtesy of Wikipedia.
A CAPTCHA Image - Thanks Wikipedia

Certainly this is a clever solution to the problem of spamming and mass automated marketing but does it work? Well, no solution can be 100% secure and as some research at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, Canada) suggests CAPTCHA is certainly not.

There are of course both usability and accessibility issues with CAPTCHA. Audio versions of CAPTCHA try to allow users who are visually impaired to pass the “test”. Though there is some debate as to how effective these are due to the background noise required to prevent audio recognition.

My personal experiences of CAPTCHA aren’t all that great; sometimes I have found the characters completely undecipherable and have had to refresh the image (where this is available) until something I can understand is displayed.

I sympathize with the websites as I can see why they are using CAPTCHA, after all who would visit a forum which had been completely overrun with marketing spam? However, is it worth potentially alienating or frustrating users of your site? After all, it is the website (a potential business) which should be convincing the user (a potential customer) to register and potentially spend their money there. Not the user which should be convincing the website that they are suitable to use the website. If a website annoys someone and isn’t usable then they’ll simply go somewhere else. With more and more advanced spam detection available websites should be employing a system which combines automatic detection with pre-post moderation to prevent mass-marketing/spamming.