Go Shopping and Let Your Screen Reader Do the Walking
This holiday season, are you dreading long lines, salespeople who are not able to help you, and going from store to store to find that perfect gift? If so, it may be time to consider online shopping. You can shop to your heart's content from the comfort of your home or anywhere else where you have access to a computer and the Internet. These online stores never close.
If you decide to try some online shopping, be sure to use only reputable web sites. Most major retailers have them. If you are not sure about a web site, ask advice from people you know. When shopping online, you will be giving personal information, including your address and credit card numbers. An item may be slightly cheaper, but you do not want to use a site without a good reputation. Check any web site's return policy, because some are better than others. For example, if you order clothes from landsend.com, you can return them to the company or to any Sears store.
What to Expect During Your First Online Shopping Experience
Not all online shopping web sites are easily accessible for people with visual impairments who use screen access technology. Many web sites still use unlabeled graphics, unclear links, and forms that do not speak all the necessary information. If you encounter a web site with significant accessibility issues, try another site. There are many accessible, reputable online shopping sites out there. Try not to get frustrated. It takes time to learn all the skills for online shopping. For practice, try Amazon.com's accessible site, www.amazon.com/access. Search for something specific, such as the name of a CD or author. A full description of the site is presented later in the article. Since it is an easy site to use, it may be a good starting place.
The majority of online shopping web sites contain many links on their pages. Although these links may seem overwhelming, if they are clearly labeled, they can be searched and navigated with a little practice. Unfortunately, some web sites still use unlabeled links, which sound like gibberish when your screen reader reads them. This problem usually occurs when the web site developer has not associated meaningful text with the link (the dreaded "click here" or "learn more" links), or has not provided alt text for an image that is serving as a link.
Depending on the verbosity settings on your screen reader, a great deal of information, including the number of lists, headings, and tables can be read when a new web page loads. This information may be useful when trying to locate items. Each web site has its own specific layout, so while some may use many headings, another may use only lists.
There is usually more than one way to search for an item. Almost all web sites use a search form. Along with that form, there are other ways web sites design search features, such as by department and price. As you familiarize yourself with each web site, you will figure out which method works best for you.
Online shopping is somewhat easier if you are familiar with your screen reader's form controls, including edit boxes, combo boxes, and check boxes. So that you do not have to read everything on a web page, learn your screen reader's navigation keys for headings, tables, links, and finding words or phrases. These hot keys can save you a significant amount of time.
All shopping web sites use some kind of search form consisting of an edit box and search button. Some sites also have a combo box to narrow results during the initial search. There are also links on the page to bring the user to a specific category, such as electronics, toys, or jewelry. All these links have sublinks where there is more specific information about each category. For example, a jewelry link may have links for earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. When you use an edit box for a search, try to be specific, but do not use too many words.
Before you purchase items, you will need to register with the web site or at least provide information on where to ship your items and how you will pay for them. Some web sites require registration while others do not. Once you are registered, many web sites make it much easier to use their sites again to purchase items. You may have to enter only your user name and password, rather than provide all the extra information.
Each site uses different forms for registration. The web site will ask for a user name or e-mail address. You will need to create a password, and most web sites have you reenter the password to make sure it is correct. Your address and phone number will be entered in edit boxes. Sometimes edit boxes for phone numbers have the area code in one box, the first three digits in the next, and the last four digits in the final edit box. Some forms have the entire phone number in one edit box. There is usually a separate line for your city and a combo box for your state. To pay for your items, you need to provide a valid credit card number. Your credit card choice is usually done with a combo box; then there is an edit box for the card number, followed by combo boxes for expiration month and year. There may be check boxes or radio buttons to choose whether you want to receive e-mail information from this web site. Some sites send information about special promotions, such as free shipping or sales. Read the form carefully before you fill it out. There is always the possibility a form control will not speak when you are in "forms mode," because the developer has not used label tags appropriately.
This article looks at target.com, walmart.com, overstock.com, jcpenny.com, llbean.com, and amazon.com's accessible web site. Web sites were evaluated on a computer running Windows XP, Internet Explorer 8.0, and Window-Eyes 7.1.1. Throughout this article, the word, "click," means using a screen reader's mouse left click hot key, rather than the physical mouse. Web sites can change on a regular basis, so they may look slightly different when you visit them.
The advantage of shopping at Target is that it has a wide variety of merchandise, so you have to navigate only one web site. When Target's home page loads, more than 200 links are presented. By using your screen reader's headings hot key, you can quickly get an overview of the page. Although there are many links, they are clearly labeled.
The search form is easy to find by using your screen reader's form controls, in Window-Eyes the letter C or Shift-C. JAWS users can use F or Shift-F. The first control is an edit box to type in the item for which you want to search. The next control is a link, so just ignore it and go to the next control, which is a combo box containing categories, such as toys, electronics, and music. Find the category you want and then move to the next control, which is the Search button. For this web site, I entered "Barbie" in the edit box and chose "toys" from the combo box.
I received many search results, but by using my screen reader's headings hot key, there were ways to filter them: by age, character, and price. I filtered by price, and under that heading were several links with various price ranges, including how many search results were within the designated price range. I clicked on the link that said "0-$25." That link also told me there were 94 items that matched my criteria. I could then filter these results further with various links, such as age range and departments.
To read my results, I could navigate by headings until I landed on the Results heading, or use the Find command and search for the word, "results." Once I found them, there were ways to customize the display, including by price, popularity, and number of results per page. Target also offers ways to customize the view by columns. After reviewing my results, I decided on the Barbie Doggie Park Doll--Caucasian. Right under the doll's name was the price. On the next line was a link to add the item to my shopping cart, and under that link was a store search for the doll.
Since I wanted more information, I clicked on the link that had the name of the doll. This link activated a page that had a photograph of the doll and would have had reviews if any were available. To find the information on this page, I used my screen reader's form hot key until I came to the edit box for how many dolls I wanted to add to my cart. By default, the number is 1. From there, I was able to read the information posted by using the arrow keys. Unfortunately, there was no description of the doll. The information did tell me the doll was in stock, and it was available online and at Target stores. To add it to my cart, I found the Add to Cart button, and when the next page loaded, the item was in my cart. Finding this information just involved using the forms hot key to look for the quantity. There are buttons to keep shopping or to check out. Once you are a registered customer of target.com, the checkout process is much quicker.
Caption: A woman uses her screen reader to navigate sites while doing holiday shopping.
Target.com provides customer assistance through e-mail and by phone. The number for assistance by phone is (800) 591-3869. By calling this number, I was quickly transferred to a representative who answered my questions. I asked if merchandise bought on target.com could be returned to any local Target store. The representative replied that some items can but some cannot. I then told the representative I was blind and asked if she could please give me a description of the doll. She gave me a detailed description, including what the doll looked like and what clothes it was wearing.
The Bottom Line
Do not let target.com's many links intimidate you, because items are clearly labeled and organized. Competent phone help is also available if you need it.
Overstock.com's home page opens with 191 links. The items are grouped in lists, such as jewelry, clothing, and electronics. There are many lists and several numbered links to get to view them all. To find the various lists, use your screen reader's list hot key. This hot key will tell you the list number and how many items are in the list. To read the list title, arrow up one line. Within each list category there are many sublinks. For example, for the electronics link, there are sublinks that include televisions, home theatre systems, and DVD players. There are links to view all items in a category and links to view the category's clearance items.
The search form is easily located and consists of an edit box and a search button. To find search results, look for the words, "Your Search," and all results will appear directly under those words. I searched for Barbie and got 180 results in several categories, such as entertainment, jewelry, and electronics. Each category listed how many results were present. For example, entertainment yielded 164 results and electronics had 2. I could sort my results by price, with the low amount being under $5, which had 38 results, and $5 to $10 having 33.
As I continued to look for items and click on their links, I could find the information on an item by using my screen reader's hot key for form controls and find the edit box for the quantity of an item. By arrowing up, I could get more information. There is a place for an item's complete description, but descriptions were not available for many of the items I checked. At the beginning of an item's listing, there may be a brief description. For example, I clicked on a link that said, "Barbie" on my list of results. I thought I would be getting information about a doll, but instead the item was about a Barbie reading series.
I added the item to my cart, with the Add to Cart button. When the next page loaded, I could read the contents of my cart by using the Window-Eyes table hot key. Under the total cost of all items in the cart is a link that ends with Login. If you are a new customer, the first form control brings you to an edit box for your e-mail address. Above the edit box, it says, "Are you a new customer?" The registration form was easy to complete, with all edit, combo, and check boxes speaking.
Overstock.com has a FAQ (frequently asked questions) link. There are also options for e-mail support, live chat, and a toll-free phone number: (800) The-BIG-O. I called customer support and asked if Overstock.com had any actual Barbie dolls. I explained I was blind and there were many Barbie results. The representative was helpful, doing the search for me and reading the descriptions of each doll. Also, as I searched the web site for other items, I found many did have accompanying descriptions.
The Bottom Line
Overstock.com's site is well organized and presents many items. Customer assistance is helpful.
The JC Penny web site's home page contains 190 links. These links are clearly labeled, and a user can search categories by using their screen reader's hot key for lists. The list hot key read the list number and how many items it contained. By arrowing down, I was able to find the list title, which was presented as a link. Under that link were sublinks for different sections of the department. There is a site search form that is easily found and consists of an edit box and a Search button.
To review this web site, I went looking for a skirt. Since I am five feet tall, I needed to find a skirt in a petite size. By reviewing the site, I used my list hot key and found the list for women's clothing, and under that list, I found a link for the Petite Department. I could have typed in the words "petite skirt" in the search form, but since it was so easy to find the link to the Petite Department, I chose that method.
When the Petite Department's page loaded, there were combo boxes to shop by size and/or brand. I selected my size from the combo box, and when I pressed tab to check if there were other form controls, a new page loaded that contained items in my size. There was no Submit button or link. The same was true for the brand combo box. I could filter my results further by item, such as pants, skirts, and tops. The results were displayed in a table format, which was located by using the find table hot key.
Additional combo boxes were displayed to choose color and skirt length, along with the same combo boxes for size and brand. Each result seemed to have identical links except the first link said the name of the garment, and the link just below it said the name of the garment and its price.
Once I found a skirt, I clicked on its link and looked for form controls to give me options for color and quantity. The skirt's description was above the combo boxes and just under the words, "print this page." The description was good, but it did not give the length of the skirt. All I knew was the skirt came below the knee because that is what I chose from the combo box for skirt length. Under the Add to Bag button, there are links for other garments that may be of interest. Under those links, there are product reviews, if available. As I looked for other skirts, frequently after only about one or two minutes, when I used Alt-Left Arrow to go back to the results page, I got the message the web page had expired. This message can be frustrating, especially if you have to go through several pages to get back to your results.
Once I finished shopping, the Shopping Bag link was clearly labeled. When I reviewed the bag's contents, I found the description of the items in the bag was good. There is also a check box at the end of each item's listing to remove the item. To have an item removed, check its box. Form controls are needed to find the button that says, Apply Changes.
The Check Out button is clearly labeled, and JC Penny gives the user the option to become a registered shopper or just to provide the necessary information for the current order. Registration and checkout are straightforward.
JC Penny provides online help. There is also a toll-free number 7 days a week, 24 hours a day (800)-322-1189. I called customer service to inquire about the length of the skirt I liked. The original representative could not find the answer, so she checked with a supervisor who had the information. Also, items purchased online can be returned to any JC Penny store.
The Bottom Line
This web site is relatively easy to navigate, and customer support was helpful. My main frustration was I was sometimes unable to go back to my results page, because the page expired very quickly.
Walmart.com is another site that contains many items and categories. The online shopper is presented with 461 links on walmart.com's home page. The search form consists of an edit box and a button that says "Find." There is one list that gives the store's departments, such as electronics, jewelry, and apparel. Farther down the page, these departments are listed in more detail. For example, the electronics link has links for audio, iPods & MP3 players, and cell phones. The only way to find information is to tab through the various links, search for a word, or use your screen reader's links hot key and figure out what the link's name should be. There are no lists or headings to get there quickly.
I used the search feature and looked for the Creative Zen Stone MP3 player. In the search box I typed "Creative Zen Stone." The easiest way to find results was to use the Find hot key for the word "results." There were no headings, lists, or links to get there more quickly. I was informed my search did not have any exact matches, but there was a list of partial matches. The results were clearly displayed and could be narrowed by department, price, brand, or memory capacity of the player. I chose to view all the Creative products. When the next page loaded, there were still opportunities to filter the results by such parameters as memory capacity and color of player.
Each item in the results list was clearly described, including shipping price, availability in Wal-Mart stores, and the player's features. Activating a player's link brings shoppers to a page to add the player to their cart. To find this answer easily, use form controls to find the Add to Cart button. Arrow up and down to read additional information and other recommendations. There may also be customer reviews.
After I activated the Add to Cart button, it appeared the same page loaded again. I was back to the same button and could not find a link to determine whether my product was added. Arrowing up, I determined the item was in my cart. I could have searched for the words, "most recently added." There were options to edit my cart, check out, and so forth. The checkout process is straightforward.
Wal-Mart's Help section can be found at www.walmart.com/help. There is a link for help with registration on the registration page. Phone help is also available by calling (800) 966-6546. The representatives are helpful. I asked a question about an MP3 player, and the representative found the answer and was courteous.
The Bottom Line
This site takes a bit of extra work to navigate. However, it has many products and is known for having low prices. Live help is available if you need it.
L.L. Bean's home page contains 247 links and a search form consisting of an edit box and a button that says, "Go." There are many headings and lists. Moving around the page by headings will give the item category, but will not tell you if the items are for men, women, children, and so forth. The same can be said for moving around by lists. Either way, you would need to arrow around to determine who these items are for. Of course, you can use your screen reader's links hot key and type M for men, W for women, and so on. All links are clearly labeled.
For this review, I searched for a sweater to give as a gift. The word "sweater" went into the edit box. By performing a search for the words, "search results," I could check what L.L. Bean had to offer. The first results were for men's and women's cashmere sweaters. A few lines farther down the page was a list of how many sweaters were available for men, women, and children and which were on sale. I was looking for a sweater for a woman, and the web site said 46 sweaters were available. If I had written "women's sweaters" in the edit box, I would have gotten to my desired selection more quickly.
L.L. Bean allows the user to choose how the search results are displayed by a combo box. Options include newest, price low to high, price high to low, and recommended. Once the choice is selected, hitting the enter key will organize the results. By using form controls to find the combo box, you are automatically just above your results.
Reading the search results can be tricky. If you arrow down, you will discover the results are in groups of tables. If you tab through links or arrow down, it will sound like the name of each sweater is repeated. In fact, this is not the case. Ignore the second read through. The next section of the table is the price, so you have to count how many lines down the table the item is that you want to check, and then you can locate its price. For example, the women's North Haven Sweater was the first on the list. Arowing down, it was the first price listed. With sighted assistance, I also discovered there were star ratings, but they were presented as an unlabeled graphic.
If you find an item of interest, click on its link, and when the next page loads, look for the word, "data." Below that word will be information about the garment, including a description and any reviews or star ratings. Within the description is a link for more details. Item selection is done with combo boxes for size and color. Pants also have an inseam combo box. There is an Add to Bag button. Below the item's information and Shopping Bag button are several other suggestions to purchase.
To view the contents of the shopping bag, activate the Shopping Bag link. When the new page loads, use form controls to find the edit box for an item's quantity. There are options to make changes to the items in your bag. Below the contents is information on the estimated cost of shipping and buttons to keep shopping and check out. L.L. Bean's checkout procedure is straightforward.
L.L. Bean has a FAQ section, e-mail help, and phone assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at (800) 441-5713. The phone assistance is excellent.
The Bottom Line
This web page can be a bit cumbersome to navigate, but phone assistance is available if you need it.
Amazon.com's accessible web site makes finding items relatively easy. The home page opens with only 18 links. The web site's search form consists of an edit box and a search button.
Toward the bottom of the page are links for books, DVDs, music, electronics, and more. The music link brought up a list of Amazon's top sellers. The second item on the page was Soul Book by Rod Stewart. Under the title was information about the price and shipping cost.
Clicking on the link brought up a page with the same information on the previous page plus reviews and a link for product details. This page had information on the CD's release date and Amazon.com's sales ranking. It also had a list of tracks, but offered no way to listen to snippets of the songs (a feature that is available on the main site). The Add to Cart button is easily accessible.
Once the initial search results are displayed, the search form offers options for refining the results. I put the word, "earrings," in the search form. A list of different earrings appeared on the next page. There was a combo box for sorting my results, but not all the options worked. I performed another search using the word "Lego" in the search form. This time the Sorting combo box allowed me to sort by best selling, but not other options, such as price or average customer review.
Amazon is also linked to other retailers. For example, it is linked with Sephora for certain beauty products. However, all the information and controls are provided by Amazon, so there are no accessibility issues.
When checking out, be sure to check the shipping costs. Many of Amazon's items are available for free shipping if the total cost of all your items is $25 or more. If the item is available for free shipping, this information will be included as part of the item's description. When you are ready to check out, the Place Your Order button is way above the place to make shipping changes. By default, Amazon does not automatically give the discount. You must go farther down the page to Shipping Speed and activate the button under it. Doing so will bring up a page where you can select shipping through radio buttons. The top button is for free shipping. Once you have made your selection, activate the Continue button.
You will be brought back to the page for checkout. There are options to make any changes to your order, including the quantity of an item, a different credit card, or any gift options. If you are satisfied everything is correct, activate the Place Your Order button.
Amazon has a page with help topics but does not offer live help.
The Bottom Line
Although Amazon does not have live help, it is easy to navigate and use. Because of its wide range and list of products, it is best if you have some idea of what you want to purchase.
Online shopping is convenient and can be fun. Take your time going through web sites. Sometimes using a search form works better, and sometimes it is easier to search by links. Having a competent customer service representative can make your shopping experience a lot less frustrating, if you have a question or problem. Although Amazon's web site does not offer live help, it is an easy site to use. If you plan on buying gifts for the holidays, start shopping early.
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