An event recap—Hearing the Web: Incorporating Accessibility User Testing into the UX Process

UXPA Boston’s March monthly meeting was one of the most interesting meetup topics from the past year. It has already encouraged us to think more about accessibility as we prototype, and how we can translate suggested approaches to design, development, and client teams beyond alt tags, image filenames, and titles.

Hosted at the Carroll Center for the Blind, Accessibility Services Coordinator Bruce Howell began by describing the services that this private non-profit offers to 5,000 people a year:

  • tools and training for visually impaired elderly in their homes;
  • services for students in mainstream school;
  • campus and community rehabilitation programs;
  • and a brick and mortar store that offers low vision products, adaptive devices and technology for the blind.

Bruce then demonstrated what it is like to browse the web using JAWS, a screen reader tool developed for people who are unable to see screen content and navigate with a mouse. The speed at which the reader was initially set, (which is apparently typical for most users) was far quicker than the risk and side effect warnings at the end of a pharmaceutical commercial—an instant reminder to keep web content pithy. Bruce gratefully decreased the speed so that we could understand how the reader interprets the sites underlying code.

Clear headings

Clear heading styles make content scannable for a sighted person, and can also be listed by a screen reader to help the visitor decide which content they might like to read. Not only should we strategize the proper usage of meaningful headings in our wireframes, but they must be used consistently in design and implemented as intended during development. We are then responsible for teaching our clients about proper usage of these headings as they enter and update content in their CMS.

Skip links

This was a new technique to me, though after a bit of research has been around for quite some time. Skip links provide a quick way for people using screen readers or navigating with a keyboard to jump directly to page content instead of needing to scroll through all navigation options and elements that precede this region. Certainly a best practice for implement in development, and also an element that could benefit from unique styling from the rest of the navigation by the designer.

Meaningful labels

Bruce used a specific shortcut to read all of the links on the page when demonstrating what not to do. There were 63 altogether and one after the next we heard “link, read more”, “link, read more”, “link, read more”. A good reminder to provide contextual labels within the html which can be hidden using CSS. We also saw that executing a page change just with an on screen selection (perhaps a drop down or checkbox) without requiring a submit or apply button can easily result in confusion.

Accessibility user testing and audit resources

We frequently test our prototypes prior to design, but with the $1,000 price tag of JAWS and a steep learning curve we have never tested with users that rely on this type of tool to navigate the web. We were happy to hear that the Carroll Center for the Blind offers user testing and accessibility audit services. Not only is this a great revenue stream to support the organization, but a valuable resource for the UX community.