This post takes a tour by screen reader of the new U.S. government web sites
Using recorded sessions, I analyze my techniques and problems. Sighted readers will experience some of the confusions and frustrations of a visually impaired person trying to learn the interaction and structure patterns of these website’s. Visually impaired users may glean some ways to avoid pitfalls and determine the value of these government information resources for their purposes. I complain about absence of headings, careless links, and tricky interactions beyond my capabilities although I appreciate the effort to provide high quality government information.
Why is “Hear Me Stumble” useful?
I’ve tried this practice several times in the past year with a mixture of consternation and learning. Basically I record myself using a website to the best of my abilities, talking to myself as I go. The results are useful in several ways:
- A historical snapshot of the website under study, the tools I’m using, and my skills is now recorded for posterity.
- I use the recordings to diagnose my own deficiencies and document changes in my own web practice.
- With increasing confidence in my knowledge of the field of accessibility, I try to explain deficiencies in terms that website designers can understand to improve their designs and implementations Ditto, tool developers such as screen readers and browsers.
- The recordings also describe ways of testing that could and should be used before website release to improve the experience for visually impaired users and to meet statutory requirements.
Yes, if you listen to these recordings, you’ll hear a good bit of frustration with my own mistakes as well as some depressing practice, indeed perhaps malpractice, on the part of website designers. In the case of the .gov websites, we’re watching the expanded use of the Internet for citizen interaction so appropriate corrections of certain problems could have a highly amplified effect across the population of U.S. citizens. Fortuitously, if we apply the ‘curb cuts’ principle, fixing certain problems will likely make the websites better for everybody, disabled or not, and we’re all disabled in the long run. Furthermore, the current websites are exhibiting trends using social media beyond the knowledge of many of my generation, the baby boomers and beyond. In effect, many of the populace who need data available from U.S. government websites are those least likely to be able to benefit.
A big caveat here is that these websites are “young” and experimental, sort of like new drivers proud of their licenses and wheels but not fully understanding the rules of the road. Anxious to get their acts in gear, these drivers are sadly vulnerable to mistakes that might make unfortunate hood ornaments out of senior citizens, ignoring limits of other vehicles and pedestrians using the same roads in different ways. Continuous partial attention dictates websites that change every few seconds, seeking to hook users into feeds and social web practices. This is the most important time in the evolution of these websites to instill good sense, modesty, empathy, etc. as well as correcting patterns known to be detrimental, if not outright illegal. Ok, end of lectures I’ve given many times to teenagers, especially as I become more wary as a non-driver in a cell phone and vehicular world.
An audio tour of WhiteHouse.gov
First, go to http://apodder.org/stumbles to retrieve the two recordings in MP3 format, a total of around 60 minutes.
On May 29, 2009, President Obama and government officials released a cyber security policy statement that I sought to find on the website. The main events described in the recordings were:
- I took a “headings tour” of the website, trying to build a mental outline of sections and subsections wherever I heard like “Briefing Room heading 2”. This heading outline seems improved over my January explorations, but perhaps I’m only more familiar. Here is how whitehouse.gov looks to the WebAim WAVE analyzer. Notes: this link will show the current version of the web page not what I say on May 29. Also this is the established accessibility tool, not the newly announced Google W A V E.
- I was thrown off by the slide show at the top of the page. Once I hit the cybersecurity story, the next time I traverse this section the story was about the Supreme Court nominee. Earlier, I had stumbled over the 1-2-3-4 series of boxes but not connected them with the slide show. This time, a fairly good eyesight day, I could see the images were changing.
- So, listening to the recording, I ask myself, why I didn’t use the search box I found at level 2. Well, some introspection revealed I have been tricked too many times by website searches that bury what I really want in favor of getting me to products or just plain showing irrelevant material. I did try the search for “cybersecurity” the next day and indeed find the relevant references, but cannot determine whether the search would have yielded good results immediately after the announcement. I also found some silly references in the additional results about some conversations with the press secretary. Next time I will try the search, correcting my behavior.
- Several times I ran across uninformative links like “Read this post” and “Learn more”. Since I often traverse a page by link, reading one of these links is annoying. I must read backwards through the text to find the subject of the link, muttering to myself “learn more about —- what?”. This is symptomatic of a website design that hasn’t been tested with a screen reader by a member of the web site team. Ok, maybe these web designers like to hear “learn more” repeated six times in a row, but, come on, why not rewrite the text to attach the link to something meaningful and distinctive.
In summary, visually impaired users must come to terms with a slideshow that regularly changes the content of the page without any evident alert (that I could detect). The heading structure helps traverse the page but isn’t entirely intuitive. Link texts are annoyingly un informative and should be changed if the white house web designers want better usability. This web user will give the search box a try earlier next time, recognizing the inevitable need to sort through results but hoping for the most important and relevant content to be highlighted.
An audio tour of recovery.gov and data.gov
Sorry, I just have to rant here. Neither page has significant headings. So, how am I supposed to know what’s on the page without reading line by line? Find my way to the action parts of the page? Ever regain respect for an agency that doesn’t know the mantra — It’s the headings, stupid!!!”. Is this HTML malpractice?
Whoops, I’m mixing metaphors. Is this reckless driving? driving without a license? Certainly, there’s no certification of 508 or other stamp of approval, just wishful reassurance that “we’re trying on accessibility, really” and “we’re a new website, don’t expect too much”. But, hey, this citizen says, why not pay attention to the dozens of websites that and even you tube videos that advocate headings. What about running your pages through validator’s and getting clean reports from nationally recognized accessibility gurus, like WebAim WAVE report on recovery.gov and WebAim WAVE report on data.gov accessibility.
Comments on recovery.gov
I did not have a specific task here, so just wandered around.
- The text size adjustment option bemuses me. My browser does that for me. Reading the increase or decrease text size labels are tedious if the page reads from the top. More problematic, is that the text size graphics and buttons are off the displayed section of the page in my browser in some circumstances. In other words, someone who needs them might well not see them off to the far right.
- Those pie charts and graphs in the slide show look interesting but they go too fast for me to zoom or magnify. Sigh. This website, indeed the whole U.S. government if its going to work this way, needs a chart explainer or some gentler way of providing data. The timeline is so cool, too bad I cannot use it. I can see it scroll by but how do I read it?
- A popup tries to notify exit from recovery.gov. In my browser setup, I have no speech notice, just a box hanging on the screen with a Close button if I can find it. In the recording this threw me off. Why is such a notice needed, anyway?
- PDF documents may be standard with a free reader, but they are not pleasant for visually impaired users. I personally almost always crumble a PDF into its TXT form if it’s worth reading for transport to a mobile reader. Actually, I did not encounter any PDF format files to download and try but I’m sure they are there somewhere.
- Note: I just discovered more “Learn more” links on the News page. See above.
Comments on data.gov
This page is mainly a large search form. Now, I’m a veteran web and data searcher, but this one got me.
- The text is flat without headings. A heading for each part of the complex form would make the difference between usability and frustration. Turn those section titles into headings, please, please.
- Components of the form appear not to be labeled properly, if at all. Nothing new here, just good practice for a decade or so, and really important for a person with a screen reader to know what a form field is doing there.
- I got hung up in an unfamiliar, and perhaps nonstandard, kind of form. A list of agencies with check boxes is encompassed in a scroll window. This wasn’t apparent to my screen reader so I heard a lot of naked “check box” phrases unless I used line up and down. Since I didn’t know what I was in, I could not find the search button. Looking again the next day, I found the button, decoded that I needed to get out of edit into browse mode to finish the search. I declare this just plain tricky. The technical problem is many agencies that could be represented in a list except that multiple selection from a list is also hard., although standard.
- Ok, so if I did get a search performed, how usable are the search results? I did not find an easy way to jump to the search results, nor to navigate through them.
Uh, oh, this is an unhappy camper! How do other technologists feel?
Yep, I really don’t feel very comfortable or welcome at these web sites, despite my tax dollars at work. Granted the websites are juvenile in stages of development and that much work has gone into creating the back ends to deliver the data to the web pages. It’s really exciting that citizens may become data analysts, exploring trends and comparing communities, in the spirit of Jon Udell’s blog on ‘strategies for Internet Citizens’. It is also admirable that so many semi-commercial and open source software products are being tried, albeit without a strong accessibility requirement.
But still, so many sensible, well known rules seem to have been broken that it’s hard for me to believe that accessibility is high enough priority I can feel better about future improvements. Consistently using headings is so simple, it’s sad to see the trade-off of a standard accessibility practice with the greater glitz of scripted slide shows which further mess up accessibility.
I’m just plain disappointed in the Obama administration’s approach to web design.
And I’m not alone, e.g.
Webaxe podcast analyzing recovery.gov and
Jim Thatcher’s analysis of whitehouse.gov,
developers of accessible interactive components,
critique of recovery.gov platform software
. There are people around the country making a living from building accessible websites. There are training programs, such as John Slatan Access U and WebAim Training. Why isn’t this expertise being used in the premiere U.S. websites?
Does feedback matter and how is it solicited and used? Will these websites improve?
For a broader perspective on transparency, currency, and other qualities, check out
Grading the White House from Washington Post, which needs an accessibility panelist.
This 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 here is the uplifting message of the curb cuts principle.
For repeating results, I was using NVDA screen reader from NVAccess, version 0.6, Firefox version 3.0.x, Windows XP, Neospeech Paul voice, and PlexTalk Plus as audio recorder. See WebAim tutorial on NVDA accessibility testing describes some of the NVDA operations.