Unintentional Unusability

By Mike Maddaloni on Friday, May 25, 2007 at 07:12 AM with 5 comments

Have you ever had a hard time using a Web site? That frustration where you feel you should be able to do something a certain way on a Web page? I did not ask for a call of hands as I am sure everyone reading this has experienced it, no matter your level of experience with the Internet. This is compounded when someone else has no problem using the Web page.

My good friend Peter forwarded me an email exchange he had with LinkedIn’s customer support, where he reported about changes made to the presentation of the list of your connections. He is unable to read it… as JAWS is unable to read it. JAWS is screen reader software that Peter uses to not only access the Internet but to use his Windows PC. For example, when he presses the Start button, a voice that sounds a lot like the electronic voice of Stephen Hawking reads every item on the menu, and continues reading as he uses his computer.

This software is essential for him as he has retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, an eye condition that has significantly reduced Peter’s eyesight. RP did not hinder Peter from getting a masters degree from Harvard, travel the world solo to do the research for his masters thesis or run the Boston Marathon. However I have personally witness him, and JAWS, have a hard time find the “buy” button on many eCommerce Web sites.

In his dialogue with LinkedIn, Peter inferred that their changes to the My Connections page were an intentional error on their part. We talked afterwards and I shared with him my take that I was extremely confident that it was not, and most likely they did not even consider people who use screen readers or test for them when they released these changes. I am not bashing fellow Web designers and developers, but merely am pointing out what is a difficult part of this industry – developing Web sites and Web applications that are truly usable by all users on all devices. Getting a Web site to look and function the same across Internet Explorer and Firefox is just scratching the surface on this issue.

It was with Peter in mind that I decided not to use captchas on The Hot Iron and instead use manual moderation of comments. I have had Peter try Web sites with JAWS to test their usability. Where this one issue with LinkedIn has held him back a bit, he is able to use all other functions on the site and is growing his connections. This is something to keep in mind as people define their potential target markets for their Internet-based businesses.

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