January 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 1

Access Issues

Surfing By Ear: Usability Concerns of Computer Users Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

Do you get lost on the web? When you arrive at a new web site, do you tend to listen to the home page in its entirety, or do you jump around to see what's there? Are you frustrated by hearing links over and over at the top of every web page? Odds are, you're not alone.

This article presents ways in which people with visual impairments approach and use the Internet and how these ways may differ from sighted users' experience. It also examines differences among individuals with visual impairments. You will probably not be surprised to know that other people think about web browsing as a listening, not a visual, activity.

Although "accessibility" is often spoken about as if it was a one- size-fits-all concept, it is not. There are a number of factors that allow people to gain either more access or less access to web sites. A person's level of expertise and the type and configuration of assistive technology are some factors that contribute to whether a person has "access." For a site to be truly accessible, it must also be usable.

The Policy Research and Program Evaluation staff at American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) conducted usability tests of AFB's web site at several points throughout the design process, and consumer feedback continues to be incorporated into the site's overall structure. We gathered "usability" data (such as how long it takes someone to accomplish a given task and which keystrokes were used for navigation), as well as "users' experience" data (for example, how people with visual impairments conceptualize the web and why they would visit one site as opposed to others). Our emphasis was on understanding how users approach and use a site; what they like and do not like about it; and mainly, for our purposes, whether they perceive it as "accessible."

Give Me Five

Mainstream usability studies (such as Jakob Nielsen's "Cost of User Testing a Website" <www.useit.com/alertbox/980503.html>) have determined that five users will find 80% of the problems at the site level. Consequently, we sought input from at least five users across the range of our constituency and according to the following categories: level of usable vision, level of expertise as a user of computer technology, and type of assistive technology used, as well as by age group and gender. There were a total of 51 testers (25 users in the first round and 29 users in the second round; 3 were repeat testers). Interviews were audiotaped and generally lasted about two hours.

What follows are some general observations about accessibility from a user's standpoint. It shows that web surfing as not intuitive, easy, or fast; that there is a "learning curve" for navigating and searching; and that perceptual issues affect navigation.

Surfing Is Not Intuitive, Easy, or Fast

The point behind Windows and the graphical interfaces of web browsers is to make computer use easy and intuitive for nontechnical users. However, graphical interfaces are not intuitive for individuals with visual impairments. And this fact has implications for both usability and accessibility.

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen says that most sighted users' reports of their experiences surfing the web are positive, even though they can't find what they are looking for or accomplish assigned tasks (<www.useit.com/alertbox/991212.html>). This point is particularly relevant for users who are blind or have low vision. Our testers explained that they were so accustomed to dealing with such highly inaccessible sites that when they found a site that was at all "usable," it seemed incredibly great by comparison.

The whole point about the web is that it is about fast and easy access to information. However, this is not necessarily the case for visually impaired users. As many of you know, the web can actually be more time consuming, cumbersome, and frustrating than other, more traditional interfaces, such as the telephone. In evaluating the location of graphics descriptions, which are placed on the bottom of the page on the AFB site, Nick, a full-time student who uses the Internet every day but still considers himself an intermediate user, said:

It's good. I like them there. You can find more information if you want it. But you shouldn't assume that people want it. Blind people want it to read as clearly and concisely as possible. It is so time consuming; these sites take you so long to use. You want information like that [snap]. So if it's clear, it's much more useful to you. If not, you spend a lot of time listening to things, and it's annoying. I'm the type of person [who] just wants to get what I need and leave.

Not only do you have to listen to far more information to find what you need, but the frustration level is compounded by the fact that you are doing so through the voice of, as one of our testers affectionately put it, Mr. Computer. Although hardware synthesizers perform far better than less expensive (and, hence, more readily available) software synthesizers, listening to synthesized speech all day long is far from soothing. Engineering advances that would minimize the "yammering" by more accurately reflecting the patterns of human speech would go a long way to making surfing more effective and pleasant.

Tom, an intermediate JAWS user who uses the Internet at least once a week, but not every day, explained, "With blind people, … it's phonetic and so we lose some letters. And, also the speech, with Eloquence [a software synthesizer], it mispronounces some things. DECtalk [a hardware synthesizer] is better, but still . . . that could cause problems for people [who are] trying to search." There are literacy issues involved here. If you are used to getting all your information aurally—whether by tape, in person, or via the computer—you may not know how certain words are spelled, often because they are mispronounced by synthesizers (e.g., "suprise" for surprise), thus creating problems for typing an entry into a search engine. Moreover, you can't tell what is entered in the search line/edit box, even if it is spelled correctly, unless you stop and use the spell command. Gary, an intermediate Window-Eyes user, who has been using the Internet for several years, reiterated this point:

The Internet is not easy. You can spend hours on it and not get anywhere. It's a lot easier for sighted people to learn, and a lot of [blind] people are not honest with their web searching. They don't want to admit it because it's an ego thing. Everyone is supposed to be "doing the web."

Returning to this idea that individuals have a positive experience, despite outward difficulties navigating, people testing the AFB site were well aware of their tolerance to and acceptance of high frustration levels. Herman, a JAWS user with no usable vision, who used the Internet mainly for job searching, said: "No site you go there and boom, you learn it like that. It's all a learning experience." Eileen, an intermediate user, who is a student and uses the Internet every day, elaborated, "Every site takes time to learn, so once you learn a site, and if it's easy to get into, then users will return again and again." As she pointed out, navigation for visually impaired users often relies on memory as much as technique. In other words, the "learning curve" is an issue of memorization, rather than of navigation; it is knowing a site that makes it highly usable. Since there is no uniformity from site to site, it was not uncommon to hear beginning and intermediate users complain that they can't get around a site they used to like because it was redesigned or its content was rearranged or changed.

The role of the user's "human contribution" to making sites more usable, and hence more accessible, is present in other ways as well. The perception of what a web page is, as well as your "mindset," may vary, depending on whether you approach surfing as a listening or a visual activity. Miguel, a user of screen magnification with little usable vision, illustrated how training needs differ between visually impaired and sighted persons because the perception of what appears on the screen differs. He said:

A sighted person can look on the screen and kind of walk through things pretty easily; they see the whole picture. When we go to a web site, we aren't seeing it. We're seeing it in little bits and pieces, so we're having to kind of formulate what is really there and what it all means. So sometimes when you go to a new site, it's meaningless… . And that can be really frustrating.

This is particularly true for people who lost their sight before they ever saw a web page. They first have to develop a conceptual sense of what a web page is.

Noreen defined herself as a beginning screen-reader user. She noted that most sighted users today are unfamiliar with DOS commands, let alone specific speech software programs. She called this "a different mindset:

"OK, but I think that's really a frustration for people to be able to get the help they need, especially if you have a sighted person who's trying to help you and to communicate to you what you do to get something done, because you're using a totally different mindset than what a sighted person is used to using with it." What Noreen was really talking about was using computers as an aural as opposed to a visual activity.

Scrollers and Searchers

People with visual impairments seem to use two approaches for navigating web sites. The first is what I refer to as "scrolling": either listening to the pages in their entirety or scrolling through the page by links using arrow keys or other strategies. The other approach is "searching": mining for the information you need. There are several factors that influence the way you approach a web site, including whether you are already familiar with the site—its layout and content, how much time you have at a particular moment, whether the content really catches your interest, and your temperament. It is also related to your level of expertise.

More experienced users explained that searching with targets in mind is better than browsing. If you know what you are doing, it is less time consuming, less frustrating, and can therefore make sites easier to navigate. Consequently, web sites may be more or less usable, depending on which approach you use. The AFB site, for example, worked better for "scrollers," partly because at the time we were still using a text-string, as opposed to a keyword, search, and partly because certain features that were designed to aid navigation instead contributed to the redundancy that listeners heard and tended to confuse beginning and intermediate users.

Having what is known as the "main navigational links" across the top of each page is a helpful navigational aid for sighted users. Yet, for screen-reader users, it means having to listen to those links every time a page loads. For example, on the AFB site, users would hear "Change Colors, Search, About Us," and so forth at the top of the home page, at the bottom of the page as a footer, and even a third time if they pulled up a list of links or selected the site map. This redundancy is not only annoying, it interferes with navigating, as Eileen said:

What I find difficult, and [in] talking to a lot of people, when you go into a web site, especially if you are hitting a link and going into a link, sometimes they read you the top of their whole itinerary all over again; every time you go into it, you hear it again, and again. When you're not sighted, you just think, "Where the heck am I? Did it click in? Didn't it click in?" Meanwhile, if you're in there for an hour or two, you're listening to this thing every time you hit something.

There's No Place Like Home

In our test, many users did not realize their search had been successful because, before they were presented with the results, they heard the main navigational links and, consequently, didn't know that a new page had loaded. Similarly, because some users of assistive technology can get lost on a page and within a site so easily, our testers would frequently use the Home button (rather than the "back" button, or paging back) to orient themselves. When they selected "Home," it would repeat the main links; some users couldn't understand why it didn't take them home (when it was just repeating the links), so they would hit it again, and since it is on the top of the home page, they would hear these links again. It was, in the words of one user, "an endless loop of death."

The Bottom Line

To make a site accessible, it has to be "usable." Users of assistive technology can find some comfort in the fact that the usability model is the mainstay of web site evaluation because it incorporates input and feedback from users into the site's design; theoretically, greater involvement by people with visual impairments should lead to greater accessibility of mainstream sites. Sadly, however, the relationship between access (that is, access to the most advanced assistive technology) and the ability to be able to use it is often limited by economics. Those with the fewest resources are often those who use more out-of-date, older technologies, which work least well with the web.

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