Super Bowl Time!
Can football fans with vision loss easily navigate the popular sports web sites?
Super Bowl XL is just a few days away, and football fans around the world are logging onto sports sites to check out the stats, read up on the players and predict the next big winner. Whether you're rooting for the Steelers or the Seahawks, accessing information on the teams is key to following the sport. But what if you're a football fan with vision loss? How easy is it to navigate sports sites and find the latest information on your favorite players and teams? The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) set out to answer that question by evaluating three popular sites: NFL.com, ESPN.com,and SI.com.
Using Window-Eyes, version 5.5—a popular and well respected screen access program—AFB reviewed the sites for overall accessibility of site content, and the ease and efficiency with which information could be found and analyzed. What AFB discovered is that all three sites are very cluttered, and have several design problems that make them difficult to navigate with a screen reader.
When a page is built without regard to proper web design, the technology that keeps users with vision loss on the web falls apart, and screen reader users aren't the only ones affected. The same good techniques that make web pages accessible to people who use assistive technology benefit users of other devices as well. For example, people with...
- slow Internet connections
- devices that do not show color
- devices such as cell phones that have tiny screens
...all make use of design features such as alt-text and keyboard access.
For this evaluation, AFB didn't emphasize each usability problem—such as an untagged graphic, unlabeled button, and unusable combo-box. Instead, the evaluation focused on whether screen reader users could perform essential functions associated with each site.
Though all three sites were difficult to navigate, SI.com scored more points than the others in the access department. NFL.com was found to be difficult, but possible to navigate for frequent site visitors with extensive knowledge of screen reader software. And ESPN.com was found to be the least accessible of the three.
For both the novice and the dedicated sports fan, the web is a natural place to turn for information on favorite teams. But for football fans with vision loss, visiting www.nfl.com is a mixed experience. When viewed in totality the site can be satisfying to the football fan who is experienced in the use of access technology. But for the novice or first-time visitor, the site falls short.
NFL.com's home page is vastly complex with almost 200 links. The majority of these links are properly labeled in a manner which clearly describes them. Regrettably, the site doesn't make use of headings—a common technique web designers use to separate sections of pages and point to information in categories. Headings help orient screen reader users to a page, and facilitates site navigation.
In addition, signing up for Field Pass—which allows users to watch games live, tune in to official home team radio announcers, and access pre- and post-game coverage—is inaccessible. The user is immediately confronted by two inaccessible links, which appear to provide pricing options including a free trial. When the first one is selected, the screen reader user confronts a series of unlabeled fields and buttons, leaving him or her bewildered as to how to navigate the sign-up process. This is of particular concern because this is an area where users could be asked for credit card information to complete the transaction, and the highest confidence level must be afforded when critical security issues, like credit card information, are involved.
On a positive note, the site includes powerful features for obtaining data about the teams and players. Searching for stats is easy to do, with check boxes well labeled. However, the display tables summarizing the data are far from useful. Column headings are not announced by the screen reader, most likely because of inaccessible formatting of the table.
More attention to the way NFL.com's pages are designed would make for a fully accessible experience. The complexity of the home page can be a bit overwhelming to the inexperienced visitor. Using accessible design techniques such as headers, helps blind users learn how sites are organized and can make finding particular information easy and efficient. By taking advantage of common accessible design conventions, NFL.com could make its site much more screen reader friendly, thereby helping football fans with vision loss keep track of their favorite players and teams.
If it is true that "first impressions count," visitors to www.espn.com using screen reader technology are left with a very poor impression indeed. The top of the page begins with the reading of no fewer than five indecipherable links. Once past the gibberish, the site begins to provide labeled links.
Like www.nfl.com the home page is vast. Some headings are used, but poor overall structure and a large number of unlabeled links and buttons reduce the potentially helpful layout to a confused collection of items through which the user must pick his or her way to find relevant content.
Searching for football stats begins with a click of the "stats" button. Once the display table is found and navigated it becomes obvious that there is no way to read the titles of the ten columns for each of the 42 rows in the table. The average blind user is unlikely to memorize the ten headings, which sighted users can easily read.
Especially problematic is the extensive use of improperly coded Flash content. Flash is a powerful and highly customizable way to display video and other graphically intense information. Designing it to provide accessibility is a highly specialized process, and www.espn.com strikes out in the accessible Flash game.
Like www.nfl.com and www.espn.com, www.si.com is a vast site that provides access to an equally vast quantity of information. But perhaps because the site's sponsoring organization is a magazine, it is easy to quickly access articles and the latest news in the world of sports.
Although navigation is not facilitated by headings, AFB's reviewers did not have difficulty in comprehending the intent of the site—which was a problem when first visiting NFL.com and ESPN.com.
Linking to an article on SI.com takes you directly to the article. While quite a bit of information appears at the top of the feature, reading the information is quite easy and pleasurable once you've passed the links at the top. But by following a link to "print this article" you are taken to a screen with fewer links and graphics.
Like the tables in the other two sites, tables of stats from SI.com are not well formatted and were not useful. On the other hand, the form to subscribe to the magazine is very usable.
Bottom line, SI.com is the best of the three. The homepage is really cluttered, but the interface is much more intuitive because articles are easily accessible to new visitors. The edit fields in forms are the best of the group, and meaningful content is quickly available.
All three sites were extremely cluttered and had several design problems that made them difficult to use. However, some of these problems could be easily fixed by adding headings and skip links, and properly labeling forms, buttons and graphics. With a few changes in web design, it is possible to make web pages accessible to the millions of computer users with vision loss worldwide. In fact, the Web Access Initiative (WAI), part of the World Wide Web Consortium, offers extensive guidelines for making web pages accessible along with explanations and techniques.
AFB's web site also contains many tricks and tips for making web sites more screen reader-friendly. Learn more.