I could not resist testing the new Obama whitehouse.gov for my pet peeves and latent hopes.
It was great to find an Obama administration agenda for disabilities. And right there on the home page were the RSS feeds for my enthusiastic subscription.
However, I immediately hit a few accessibility snags that suggest a bit more analysis and alterations would get the techno-government off to a better start.
Overall I like the page layout with site map in the footer, a design goal described in the whitehouse.gov accessibility statement.
My current pet peeve, subject of my own web site improvements and a future blog posting, is the logical page structure presented in well described section headings and a clear page outline. I quickly became confused as I toured the home page using my heading key and hearing the headings and their level. The w3 semantic data extractor profile tells
the story in its own outline of the page’s HTML.
Now any accessibility complaint has several components: the page itself, tools used by the user (NVDA screen reader, for me), the user’s skills (improving), and the user’s mental state and surroundings for perception and processing the page content. I’m confident there is an implementation problem here, although other visually impaired users might not find any difficulty or diagnose differently.
Ok, so I head off to the Contact page, and, whoops, a few more problems. Sigh, my immediate reaction to any form is a sense of impending doom as something always goes wrong and uses up a good part of my day’s energy. First, I could not figure out the actual required fields, so I had to fill all. I was not hearing any label read for each form field so had to tab around to find the field name. Missed the zip code and got an error message after submission. The comment box had a 500 character limit, with notice below the box so I exceeded my quota using the above web link. And I was unsure exactly which item was the submit button, actually labeled “contact us”. Now, this only took a few minutes and was typical of form-filling torture — I survived. Then I made another round to complain, sorry comment, about the form itself.
What is going on here? Is this web site a success or failure for one, picky partially sighted citizen? Overall, I’m pleased at the effort and general concept but disappointed that disability feedback did not fix the flaws that muddled my Inauguration after glow. My constructive suggestions are:
- Untangle and reconstruct the heading structure. A screen reader has an uncanny ability to reveal presence or absence of underlying logical thinking about page parts and their functions and relative importance. That’s the “semantics” in the w3 validator. In the long run, this quality of thinking about page organization will also pay off in maintenance as the web site grows.
- Rework the contact form. It’s doable but should be model of ease and functionality if the government is moving toward increased use of online forms for transactions, information, and oversight. And, by the way, why do I need to supply my zip code to make a comment?
Updates on whitehouse.gov accessibility
January 28 2009 Observations
- I am still befuddled by the Heading outline of the main page. It jumps around phrases like “Peril” to “search” and “blog” . I just cannot envision the underlying logic of the page although I can understand each of the parts when I get there. On the Disabilities page, the heading order read by my screen reader is H3, H2,H4 so I’m a bit confused at levels within the agenda.
- Last week I skipped over some mystery 1, 2, 3, 4 reading. This time I poked around more and discovered these bring up a short description of a feature above the boxes. But this dynamic content is not notified to my screen reader. Similar patterns of web design using this tricky interaction of web page with browser read by screen reader could cause great confusion if the content is really important. Right now, the numbers and features are just a bit of glitch in the way of accessibility.
- I subscribed to blog feeds on my Levelstar Icon PDA but nothing has come through. I need to check whether this is a non-standard feed that is not added properly to my RSS client.
- Just guessing when revisiting the comment page, that required fields are marked by asterisk. But I have punctuation speaking turned off in the screen reader so miss such a notification. As observed in another critique, the form lacks labels where the word Required or Optional might be spoken. This is pretty rudimentary accessibility practice covered in standards. Shame!
- The w3 Semantic Data Extractor link above produces the error message:
Exception net.sf.saxon.trans.DynamicError: org.xml.sax.SAXParseException: The entity name must immediately follow the ‘&’ in the entity reference.
org.xml.sax.SAXParseException: The entity name must immediately follow the ‘&’ in the entity
This might be a minor syntax error on the whitehouse.gov home page or a flaw in the validator. More later on whether other validators work. Also see the very interesting comment comparing whitehouse.gov with the British PM website.
Update Feb. 14 2009
More feedback from a partially sighted pro-Obama citizen using Mozilla Firefox 3 and NVDA screen reader. Let’s make sure only the best web techniques trickle down from whitehouse.gov to the rest of *.gov.
- Good!! The comment form fields now have labels and read like “First Name Edit”. However, I didn’t hear any label for zip code. And I still don’t know which fields are required.
- The 1-2-3-4 boxes for new features displayed in dynamic updates still did not provide any audible notice of change, just a different blurb of text I could see changing on the screen.
- I clicked “watch the movie” for the First Lady talk on “Do the right thing. Either the movie widget is invisible to me by either or seeing or the link failed. A good practice is to always tell the user if a plug-in or external app will launch, if in a new window, or other actions. I do know what’s going on here, sigh.
- Link description is drifting into the poor practice “Read this post”, “Read this post”, “Read this post”, … Why not merge this link with the post title?
- Headings? Schmedings!
- Overall, I still like the page layout and spaarceness of front page content with links to blogs and agenda issues for more details.
- Hey, let’s all import that Aussie free open source screen reader NVDA, buy a little TTS (text-to-speech) voice choir, and listen to our web sites for accessibility, usability, and friendliness.