Last Monday I had the opportunity to visit the Test Partners, after an invite by Steve Green, to attend an afternoon of screen reader demonstration. I’m exceptionally glad I went, and it’s a shame I’ve been too busy to mention it sooner.
Firstly, the session concentrated on a specific sub-group of internet users – the blind. Steve made a point of saying that with any project you need to decide who your target audience is as measures to help one group of users may be mutually exclusive to helping another. As such, he stated clearly that within this session (and my feedback below) that the techniques and problems raised are relating to those specifically who are visually impaired and using screen readers.
However, in my opinion, a site that is easy and understandable to navigate for screen reader users probably does go a long way to making this whole web experience easier for a range of people with varying difficulties and user needs.
We ran through JAWS operation. JAWS in particular because it has the market share of screen reader users.
From testing on live sites, it became clear pretty quickly that headers and lists were really, if not the most, important. Properly used headers (semantically correct) give an easy way to navigate to prominent areas of the page and also give instant context.
The logic behind putting navigation buttons into lists also became ever so clear when you hear JAWS inform you that there is a list of 6 links coming up. Not only does that sound like a navigation, you can easily be ready for how far into said list you’re probably going to have to look to get to the section you want (somewhere in a dozen or a hundred links?).
The reason these two things are particularly important is because of the way a blind user creates his or her visual model of how the site works. They can’t just glance at what’s coming or where something is. They must make a top-down mental image of what’s available on the page by running through the entire document (unless they already know the site and can rely on it being the same as the previous visit).
This method of mental navigation shows why consistency and predictability are really vital. I’m not saying that every site should be laid out in an identical way, but subsections of a site should follow a template defined by the initial landing page and navigation should be pretty standardised.
Thinking about this does remind me of a reason why I like microformats and think they may have some potential as accessibility aids and therefore why I’d like to see them utilised within something like JAWS.
Microformats are a way of standardising more specific elements within a page, and I’m sure it would be useful to some if they could have JAWS announce to them that the page they have just landed on has 4 headings, 12 links, a contact and 3 calendar events.
The reason I mention microformats in particular is because it’s something I’ve been giving some thought to for a while in direct association with accessibility and think I’d like to elaborate on in the future. Feedback in this area is especially welcome.
For me though, the most surprising thing was being told that by default, most SR users don’t read title, acronym and abbreviation attributes! A majority of users find it annoying to be given the extra (and often superfluous) information. The lesson learnt here is to make sure that everything that is important to the understanding of a document should be in the actual page copy, rather than hidden away in tag attributes.
There were many other bits and pieces of interest – from reminding us all that display:none is adhered to by JAWS to writing good copy can go a long, long way, and then that access keys (uh oh) aren’t particularly utilised or useful because most sites don’t offer them so they cannot be relied upon.
The thing is – JAWS is a bit smarter than I’ve given it credit for. Saying that though, from the feedback from John, a vast majority of users aren’t advanced users and probably aren’t toggling features on and off to get the most out of a site.
So, there’s two things there – users probably need more training, or at least opportunities to learn how to use websites on their own in some way, but equally as publishers to the web we should be making the best effort to present information – and that’s ultimately what we’re all doing after all – as clearly and as simply as possible.
Web standardistas will already be doing this I’m sure and rolling their eyes at being told yet again, but it’s important not to forget why you’re doing it. It’s not just about being correct for correct’s sake; it’s about giving everyone a fair chance.