Obama whitehouse.gov accessibility almost on target

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. The w3 Semantic Data Extractor link above produces the error message:

    Using org.apache.xerces.parsers.SAXParser
    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
    reference.

    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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. Headings? Schmedings!
  6. Overall, I still like the page layout and spaarceness of front page content with links to blogs and agenda issues for more details.
  7. 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.

Other reactions?

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11 Responses to “Obama whitehouse.gov accessibility almost on target”

  1. slger Says:

    Comment to whitehouse.gov

    whitehouse.gov usability is weakened with links to outside sites that lack accessibility commitments. Youtube has no accessibility statement, is badly cluttered, and does not subdivide search results. Its player is difficult to use without vision. Videos may be posted without captioning or transcripts. Please use the power of whitehouse.gov to raise industry standards, starting now by proclamation with remediation work to be completed within six months.

    Other feedback not yet submitted:

    Is a TXT only version of the web site worth the effort? for which users? In some accessibility discussions, this practice is deprecated largely because such sites quickly lag behind the HTMl versions. More modern engineering advocates progressive enhancement which based on simple text content. Furthermore, search engines and writers link content now have two versions to content with.

    PDF posted on the web rarely uses available accessibility. This visually impaired user downloads PDF, then saves as TXT or runs a batch filter to output PDF as .txt files. Rarely is any structure of the document lost because structure, such as headings, was not injected as tags when converted into PDF. Sadly, most PDF documents are really simple text imprisoned in a complex container that is difficult to use within a browser and suffers from updating fixation. HTML is usually preferable for reading to PDF or office documents that cost real $.

  2. emmadw Says:

    This got me thinking & so I’ve just run the automated tests offered by “Juicy Studio” (for readability) and the Wave one for more general accessibility on the Whitehouse home page & compared it with the results for the Number 10 home page (I’m British).
    The readability for the Whitehouse is 8.90 (weird, must have changed the content, as about 10 minutes ago, it was 9.something & I just tried to check it!) Number 10s is 7.36 (not changed – but it is Friday evening, guess Gordon Brown’s knocked off for the evening!)
    Generally, the lower the number, the more people can read it.

    On accessibility, Wave reported 5 errors for the Whitehouse page & 1 for Number10, though conceivably Number10’s is “worse” (it’s no field label for the search field for the whole site, where the Whitehouse missing ones are alt tags to photo libraries; so, potentially less useful to someone using a screen reader than the site search. Not that you’d know that – you’d just know it was a mystery link)

    Number 10 also has links to sites like YouTube, which , as others have pointed out, isn’t as accessible as it could be (though they have now got the option to have captioned videos, so getting better)

    Guess both need to pull up their socks 🙂

  3. slger Says:

    Terrill Thompson drills down into the HTML of the comment form to explain the difficulties I had.

    http://terrillthompson.com/2009/01/contacting-whitehouse-with-screen.html

    Another observation is the failure to provide sufficient focus support for using whitehouse.gov without a mouse.

    Note: the flaws we are pointing out are not esoterica but rather well documented in web standards and accessibility blogs such as http://webaxe.blogspot.com (WebAxe).

  4. slger Says:

    I changed the title of this post to be more specific about accessibility as the quality of interest. Having confused myself about reviews of whitehouse..gov dating back to 2001, the title seemed to require reference to Obama rather than those past presidents.

  5. slger Says:

    Revisiting whitehouse.gov a week after launch, I find a few new problems. Reminder: flaws may be in the website itself, subject to change at any time, or in my browser (FireFox 3, the screen reader (NVDA), or my mental state.

    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:

    Using org.apache.xerces.parsers.SAXParser
    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
    reference.

    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.

  6. slger Says:

    This post gives a nice sense of the visual design of the main page.

    http://blogger.ceoxi.com/2009/02/whitehousegov-redesign-change-
    has-come.html

    The blogger also points out other accessibility issues like unconventional search box positioning. disagreeing with the observation about the bottom navigation table, this was easy to find for me and has, or had, a skip link at the top.

    Nice phrase: “change we can validate”!!

  7. emmadw Says:

    Just to add to it, The Queen has a (new?) website – http://www.royal.gov.uk/ – which doesn’t quite get validated with an HTML validation: http://www.htmlhelp.com/cgi-bin/validate.cgi?url=http://www.royal.gov.uk/&warnings=yes&input=yes&spider=yesd&hidevalid=yes
    and 4 errors from wave: http://wave.webaim.org/report?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.royal.gov.uk

  8. slger Says:

    Oh, my, so many similar problems at recovery.gov. Dennis and Ross analyze this website on Wexaxe podcast on practical accessibility.

    The pie chart ALT is nonsensical, navigation is awkward, and the underlying javascript code is irregular. However, the site has potential and looks pretty good, they say.

    Come on, Obama team. Let’s get the best and the brightest up there to D.C. to get these front page websites on track for citizens with vision problems. These sites should be models for the rest of the government in not only style but usability.

  9. jimthatcher Says:

    Before posting http://jimthatcher.com/whitehouse.htm I should have researched more thoroughly what others have been saying about whitehouse.gov accessibility. The issues you raise here, headings navigation, form labels, and the inaccessible feature panels at the top of the page (numbers 1 2 3 4) are crucial.

    As an avid Obama supporter, I have struggled to get the campaign, and now the administration to address accessibility for over two years. The responses have been disappointing. Up until the item I just put on my web site – all those efforts have been private. I am finding that there has been quite a bit of discussion – and there should be more.

    Oh and then there is recovery.gov – as you mention in your last comment – they have incredible problems. I am planning on working on that in the next few days. If you send me an email address (through my contact form, http://jimthatcher.com/contact.htm) – I would be glad to forward a detailed report on whitehouse.gov that I have tried to get through to the people responsible for the White House web site.

  10. slger Says:

    Here is a superb detailed review of many problems with whitehouse.gov by accessibility consultant Jim Thatcher.

    The most disappointing current problem is that headings are so badly used and so important to screen reader users.

    Let’s save the U.S. a few $k and follow Marco’s advice using screen reader NVDA in the FireFox browser to reveal some heading, list, and dynamic content problems.

  11. Hear Me Stumble Around White House, Recovery, and Data GOV web sites « As Your World Changes Says:

    […] post updates and illustrates ‘As Your World changes’ post on whitehouse.gov from January. Rationale for my headings rant is post on “Let’s all use our headings!”. And […]

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