Blind to users’ needs

Making the web accessible by disabled people doesn't necessarily make it usable.

Sandy Starr

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Topics Science & Tech

Usability and accessibility are big issues in web design today.

Each discipline has some almost evangelical champions, and each poses significant challenges to businesses. But what is the relationship between the two?

Are accessibility and usability synonymous or distinct? If distinct, are they completely unrelated, mutually incompatible or mutually reinforcing? These questions were addressed at ‘Web Accessibility and Web Usability’, a conference organised by the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) (1) in central London in July 2002, to discuss usability in relation to internet access for people with disabilities.

Julie Howell, RNIB campaigns officer, kicked off proceedings by explaining that ‘accessibility and usability are different’. She then contended that ‘accessibility increases usability, as it increases the likelihood that the site will perform well (quickly, with fewer technical problems for the user)’.

This contention has been at the heart of campaigns for web accessibility in recent years. The argument goes that accessible characteristics of websites are coterminous with usable characteristics of websites, because both usability and accessibility are bound up with simplicity and ease of use. So if you want to make a website usable, you should make sure it is accessible.

But does simplicity always make for ideal usability – or are there instances where an innovative website might be difficult to use, but also hold usability dividends for users prepared to meet the technology halfway? If a website is both complex and usable, how difficult is it to make that website accessible?

Chris Rourke, director of the consultancy User Vision (2), clarified these questions – arguing that accessibility has ‘clearer rules and tools to measure against’, while usability ‘has guidelines’ that are ‘generally more flexible’. In short, there is more room for interpretation when it comes to what makes good usability, than there is with what makes good accessibility.

Rourke argued that usability has a ‘greater effect on bottom-line revenues’ than accessibility. There is less of a financial incentive for companies to build accessible websites than for companies to build usable websites. If a commercial website is usable by the able-bodied majority, then the fact that it is inaccessible to the disabled minority might not have a significant effect on profits.

Catriona Campbell, CEO of the Usability Company (3), told a fascinating anecdote about a prototype ‘accessible housing complex’ built in the USA, which was supposed to be a model of accessibility. Its design features accommodated every conceivable disability, as well as being usable by the able-bodied to boot. But once the complex was built, at enormous cost, nobody wanted to live in it. The building may have catered to the common denominator between all disabled and able-bodied people, but it was less attractive as a place to live in than housing catered to specific individual needs.

The moral? If you try to build a single structure that is accessible by all, then it won’t be especially usable by anybody. While it may seem equitable to accommodate everybody’s needs, this often ends up doing users a disservice. It wilfully ignores the real differences between the needs of the disabled and the needs of the able-bodied.

Simon Norris, from the consultancy Nomensa (4), upbraided some high-profile websites for not being sufficiently accessible by the disabled. Ironically, these included the website of the International Paralympic Committee (5). Norris praised Amazon (6) for its usability, but claimed that Amazon was still inaccessible by blind and partially sighted users, who use screen reader technology to browse the web.

Freelance design consultant and spiked designer Martyn Perks (7) gave the most provocative speech. He argued that while universal access to the web is a laudable aspiration, it can only be achieved with ‘more investment’, ‘more innovation’ and less ‘risk-aversion’ when it comes to developing technology.

Perks argued that the cause of accessibility has effectively been hijacked, as a quick-fix way for businesses to display ‘corporate social responsibility’. As a result, ‘accessibility tends to combine different needs into the same interface’, and ‘interaction can become diminished’ for all users, whether able-bodied or not. Perks cited Extensible Markup Language (XML) (8) as one possible technological remedy to this situation, because XML can ‘separate content from presentation’.

In the panel discussion that followed, Mark Phillips, who works on the supermarket Tesco website (9), asked: ‘Can we use the same design interface for sighted people and for visually impaired people?’ Most of the panellists answered ‘no’. A minority – including Simon Norris, who believed accessibility and usability to be near-synonymous considerations – answered ‘yes’.

Dave Roberts, a senior software designer at IBM (10), was one of those who said ‘no’. He argued that web designers need to practise more ‘abstract design’ – design that does not, at least in the first instance, assume one particular mode of presentation. Technology such as XML can then help to translate this initial design into various modes of presentation – each of which has its own design considerations, and none of which restricts the other.

I asked about the level of innovation and investment that goes into accessibility technology. Does this technology keep pace with new usability technologies – so that, for example, new screen reader technology is equipped to deal with new usability features on Amazon? Or does accessibility technology lag behind usability technology, so that usability technology always has to be reined in, if standards of accessibility are to be met?

Peter Bosher, who has much personal experience of developments in accessibility technology, answered my question. Bosher is blind and is director of Soundlinks (11), a company that specialises in audio and speech access. He told me that accessibility technology is ‘always playing catch up’ with other web technology, because it mostly falls to small companies, lacking in investment, to work on accessibility.

If accessibility were more of a long-term consideration for major technology developers, then disabled users could benefit directly from web innovation, rather than being forced to ask that web innovation stops and waits for accessibility to catch up.

The forecaster James Woudhuysen asked a question about the current tendency to use regulation to compensate for lack of investment in accessibility. He put it to the panel that while the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (12) is largely comprehensible by businesses, further regulation around disability might be less comprehensible and could eventually make it impractical to innovate.

Peter Bosher answered, to thunderous applause: ‘Do not regulate against innovation.’ Bosher pointed out that Macromedia Flash (13) technology, which was almost entirely inaccessible by the disabled to begin with, has recently been made more accessible, and is now of greater benefit to disabled users. New innovations might not always be accessible from the outset, but if properly developed, they will become so.

Web accessibility is an admirable cause, and is essential to realising the internet’s potential to be a universal human communications medium. But this cause can be pursued in two different ways. It can be pursued by bringing innovation down to existing, common standards of accessibility, sometimes through legislation – or it can be pursued by pushing innovation forward into new realms of possibility.

At the moment, it seems that disabled people and disability campaigners are being forced to take the former course. They can only be expected to take the latter course if leading innovators put the necessary work and investment into accessibility to begin with.

Then web design could both employ cutting-edge technology and be accessible by all.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) See the Royal National Institute for the Blind website

(2) See the User Vision website

(3) See the Usability Company website

(4) See the Nomensa website

(5) See the International Paralympic Committee website

(6) See the Amazon (UK) and Amazon (USA) websites

(7) Martyn Perks recently stirred controversy in usability circles with an article published on spiked. See Excuse-ability

(8) See the definition of Extensible Markup Language on Whatis.com

(9) See the Tesco website

(10) See the IBM website

(11) See the Soundlinks website

(12) See the Disability Discrimination Act 1995

(13) See the Flash MX section of the Macromedia website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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