You may be following all the right accessibility guidelines for yourwebsite but can visually-impaired users actually find their way around easily, asks Jenny Craven.

This article is from the May 2003 issue of Update.

There are moral, economic and legal reasons for ensuring a website does not exclude any users, whether through a disability, a particular need or hardware/software reasons, as an article on web accessibility and design in the January edition of Update1 pointed out.

In the article, Juliet Owen provided some simple steps to help people ensure their websites can be accessed by as many people as possible. But if the accessibility message is to reach everyone (and not just preached to the converted), awareness-raising activities (articles, conference papers, seminars) are vital.

The question of awareness levels was explored in a supporting study for DISinHE (now TechDIS), undertaken by the Centre for Research in Library and Information Management (Cerlim) between 1999 and 2000.2 An email survey was sent to 100 UK higher education library website developers (taken from the contact details on the library home page) with a set of questions to help identify whether university library web page designers were aware of accessibility issues and, if so, whether best practice was being followed. Questions relating to accessibility checking methods were asked, as well as how useful the designers found them. Finally, bearing in mind that contact details were generally provided via the library home page, respondents were asked about the level of user input which was taken into consideration when developing the site.

There was only a 30 per cent response rate to the survey. This was adequate to provide indicative results, but was still disappointing. It was also tempting to make assumptions about the reasons for the poor response, as each site was tested for accessibility (using automated tools), and this revealed many accessibility errors, such as poorly contrasting colours and a lack of alternative text for graphics. Among the 30 per cent who did respond, there was evidence of general awareness of accessible web design issues. However, it was clear there needed to be more development in this area, including general awareness-raising events and training in the design of accessible websites, not just for the staff involved, but for managers and policy decision-makers.

Thankfully, awareness does appear to be growing, due in part to an increase in articles and papers on accessibility issues, spurred on by legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Special Educational Needs & Disability Act 2001. It is hoped that interest as well as awareness is growing, as information providers and web designers realise that it just makes good sense to try and ensure all users can enjoy the benefits offered by web-based information resources.

A copy of the DCMS/Share the Vision publication Library Service Provision for Blind and Visually-impaired People: a manual of best practice3 was sent to all UK public and academic libraries and all academic departments offering library and information studies courses. It was also available to download from the National Library for the Blind website.4 The manual focuses on service provision for people with visual impairments, but sections on accessible web design (Chapter 14) and on assistive technologies (Chapter 13) should be of interest to anyone involved in the design, development or selection of accessible websites.

Another example of help in this area is the RNIB’s Campaign for Good Web Design.5 This works on many levels to promote universal design. It offers advice and accessibility audits to banks, shops and public services, as well as working with commercial web design companies such as Adobe and Macromedia to ensure that mainstream web authoring tools are offering accessibility options.

Accessible web design does not have to be boring design. As Owen points out, ‘accessibility does not have to compromise the visual design of a site’. One of the key messages of the RNIB campaign is that ‘accessibility should not stifle innovation’. This was brought to life at the recent Visionary Design Awards, run by the National Library for the Blind. Web publishers and designers were invited to submit their websites, which were judged on their level of accessibility for all forms of access technology, taking into account the experience a visually-impaired user might have if visiting the site for the first time. Winners included: Whichbook net;6 Local Heritage Initiative;7 and Guardian Unlimited.8 Further details about this award can be found on the NLB website.9

Test for usability as well as accessibility

If guidelines and recommendations for accessible design are followed (or alternatives offered when absolutely necessary), interesting, interactive, accessible sites can easily be created, or inaccessibility errors corrected, often at little cost. However, there are a number of other considerations that must be taken into account before a site truly meets the requirements of universal access. Owen touches on this area: ‘Following guidelines is not enough to produce a site that is fully accessible for the intended audience. It is useful to talk to your users.’ Even if you follow accessibility recommendations, the importance of involving real people cannot be stressed enough.

Involving users in accessibility testing is often referred to as testing the usability of a site. How actual users interact with the site is looked at rather than using an automated accessibility checking tool. A simple explanation of the difference between accessibility and usability is described by Howell10 as:

  • accessible = technical guidelines (e.g. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines);11
  • usable = experiential (user testing to complete a task).

One complements the other and both should, wherever possible, be conducted on a regular basis.

Usability issues were the focus of the Non-Visual Access to the Digital Library (NoVA) project,12 funded by Resource and undertaken by Cerlim between June 2000 and July 2002. Following Cerlim’s previous work on the Resources for Visually-Impaired Users of the Electronic Library (Reviel) project, which included feedback from a group of visually-impaired people on the accessibility of a variety of online resources, it became apparent that navigation is a major problem within digital library resources. The NoVA project was subsequently undertaken to explore the usability of web-based resources, with a particular focus on blind and visually-impaired users. The aim was to develop an understanding of the searching or browsing behaviour of users who could not read or interact with a screen without the aid of assistive technologies (such as a screen reader or screen magnification) or having to be very near the screen.

Usability experiments

A sample of 20 sighted and 20 blind and visually-impaired people helped with a series of usability experiments with searching and retrieval tasks, and subsequent use of digital content. Four information-seeking tasks were set using four web-based resources: a search engine; a library Opac; an online shopping site; and a directory of internet resources. Tasks were consistently set so that comparative analysis could take place between the sighted and visually-impaired users.

All the resources chosen were, to a greater or lesser degree, accessible according to the WAI guidelines. This was done because the purpose of the usability testing was not to highlight a lack of accessibility features, but rather to test sites that should — in terms of accessibility checkers — be reasonably accessible.

All the resources chosen did, however, display degrees of parallelism in their design. This refers to the use of tables and frames to enable the user to perform complex selections across categories (search facilities, navigational links, blocks of text, graphics, etc) all in one page. Usually such designs assume visual capabilities, as when a user glances from a menu frame to a text frame.

Linear navigation

If features such as frames and tables are properly labelled according to the WAI guidelines they should, in theory, be accessible. But usability may be a different matter. A sighted person can quite easily navigate within multiple sections of a page in a complex, non-linear or parallel manner. They might, for example, interact with a search facility to type in terms, or a drop-down menu to select between choices, while at the same time reading areas of text promoting specific services. To a non-sighted person, particularly someone using a screen reader, it may be necessary to navigate the page in a more serial or linear manner, one frame at a time, with the navigational order often dictated by the design of the web page, which assistive technology (such as a screen reader) interprets to read out content in a specific way. This may result in the need to backtrack a long way (again in a linear manner) in order to reach the desired point (and then maybe track forward again).

The NoVA project results revealed that, when web pages are designed to be searched in a non-serial or parallel way (i.e. using frames or randomly placed links), the navigation process is made considerably longer for people using screen readers, as they are often forced to search or browse in a linear or serial way.

The usability tests confirmed that it takes a visually-impaired user significantly longer to search or browse for information on the web — particularly if they have little or no sight. This is perhaps not surprising, but it was also revealed that the time taken for, and the success of, a searching or browsing task can vary considerably depending on the design of the site. For example, if good navigational links are provided in an appropriate and logical order, someone using a screen reader will be taken on a more direct route to the information they require, rather than having to track back and forth trying to find relevant information or links. Appropriate use of language also aids navigation. One user commented: ‘I knew it was a hypertext link, I just didn’t know where it was taking me to.’

Training issues

The usability tests showed that, although people using the latest versions of assistive technology were offered navigational shortcuts to speed up the search and browsing process (e.g. listing hypertext links or alphabetical sorting), not everyone was aware of these features. Those with more experience with the assistive technology they were using were often more successful with the task. It was also noted that some users did not have access to the latest technologies and so were unable to take advantage of such shortcuts. Careful consideration must therefore be given to the layout and navigation of a site and to the different assistive technologies used. Since success in navigation can also depend on experience with the assistive technology, there are training issues for both users and trainers.

At the end of each task, users were asked which resource they would have chosen to look for the information required. Users from both groups preferred sites with simple, easy-to-use interfaces, that provided reliable information. Favourites included non-web resources, thus highlighting the continuing need for a hybrid mix of traditional and digital resources.

The following recommendations from the NoVA project final report12 aim to address both accessibility and usability issues and to help designers and providers of web-based resources to move a step further towards universal access and design:

  • Web page design. Take into account not only recommendations of the W3C/WAI, but also encapsulate user behaviour lessons from the NoVA project and elsewhere.13
  • Assistive technologies. Libraries and museums should invest in up-to-date technology. However, older versions should not be discarded without an audit of user requirements in each service. Providers need to be aware of the trade-off between functionality and familiarity. Web designers must also be aware of these issues and must not assume that everyone has the latest version of software available.
  • Training. The findings of the NoVA project and parallel research should be used to inform accessibility training relating to assistive technology, for example training library and museum staff in relation to open access computers with assistive technology. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on training for both users and trainers.
  • Universal design. Unless there are pressing reasons not to do so, all developers should adopt universal design as their underlying aim.
  • The appropriateness of digital approaches. In auditing the accessibility and usability of web pages, service providers should explicitly consider whether non-web alternatives — including human intermediaries — are needed.


1 J. Owen. ‘Making your website accessible.’ Library & Information Update, January 2003.

2 J. Craven. Electronic Access for All: awareness in creating accessible websites for the university library. University of Dundee: DISinHE, 2000 (

3 L. Hopkins (ed.). Library Services for Visually-Impaired People: a manual of best practice. Library & Information Commission Research Report 76. Resource, 2000.


5 Royal National Institute for the Blind, Campaign for Good Web Design (





10 J. Howell. ‘Web Accessibility and Web Usability: what’s the relationship and why does it matter?’ RNIB presentation, 5 July 2002 (

11 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. World Wide Web Consortium, 1999 (

12 J. Craven and P. Brophy. Non-visual Access to the Digital Library: the use of digital library interfaces by blind and visually-impaired people. Library & Information Commission Research Report 145. Centre for Research in Library and Information Management, 2003. Available to download in Word, PDF or HTML from the project website (

13 For example, K. Coyne and J. Nielsen, Beyond ALT Text: making the web easy to use for users with disabilities. Nielsen Norman Group, 2001.

Jenny Craven is Research Associate, Centre for Research in Library and Information Management (Cerlim), Manchester Metropolitan University (

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