Headings: Who Needs ’em?

NB: Also posted in the new Web Usability website.

This is a story about web page headings and sub-headings: A story that tries to look beyond the absurd distinctions that are sometimes made about the usability and accessibility of web content, to ask who needs headings and why.

Imagine, if you will, a web page containing a 5,000 word article; a large slab of text with many sentences and paragraphs.  Most, if not all, people will find this article easier to read if it is broken up into sections, each identified with an appropriate heading or sub-heading, and for people with disabilities it can be especially important. This is the starting point for our discussion of web content usability and accessibility.

WCAG 2.0 – usability and accessibility

The launch of the first Mosaic browser in 1993 could be considered the beginning of the mass consumption, commercial web as we know it today. The release of the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0) six years later in 1999, highlighted the importance of making sure this fantastic new communication medium was accessible to all, as encapsulated in this oft quoted comment by W3C Director Tim Berners Lee, “The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

Version 2 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) was released at the end of 2008. Two guiding principles during the development of WCAG 2.0 were the need to have guidelines that could be applied to different web technologies, and the need for rules (Success Criteria) that could be reliably tested by machines and/or human evaluators with relative ease.  This desire for a more accurate system of compliance testing meant that the inevitable blurring of the boundary between usability and accessibility was avoided as far as possible when framing WCAG 2.0. “There are many general usability guidelines that make content more usable by all people, including those with disabilities. However, in WCAG 2.0, we only include those guidelines that address problems particular to people with disabilities.” [Understanding the Four Principles of Accessibility]

WCAG 2.0 has three levels of conformance for Success Criteria; ‘A’, ‘AA’ or ‘AAA’, and at least all level ‘A’ success criteria must be complied with before a site can claim conformance with WCAG 2.0. Many governments and organisations concerned with the accessibility of web content now use WCAG 2.0 as the benchmark, requiring all sites under their jurisdiction to conform at a specific level, for example, the Australian Human Rights Commission advocates sites “comply with WCAG 2.0 to a minimum of AA-Level conformance”.

Unfortunately, in the push for accessibility purity by WCAG 2.0, most issues with a taint of usability were pushed into Level AAA, and even the W3C advises, “It is not recommended that Level AAA conformance be required as a general policy for entire sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content”. [WCAG 2.0 Conformance Requirements]

(It should be noted, WCAG 2.0 Success Criteria levels are not direct equivalents to the WCAG 1.0 Priority levels.)

Headings and WCAG 2.0

When it comes to our imagined 5,000 slab of words, there are, as far as I can see, three success criteria that relate directly to use of headings and sub-headings:

1.3.1 Info and Relationships: Information, structure, and relationships conveyed through presentation can be programmatically determined or are available in text. (Level A)

2.4.6 Headings and Labels: Headings and labels describe topic or purpose. (Level AA)

2.4.10 Section Headings: Section headings are used to organize the content. (Level AAA)

The usability of a 5,000 word article for all web users is likely be improved by presenting the information in a number of sections each identified with a heading. Furthermore, the article content will be more accessible to people with a range of disabilities, including some with cognitive and/or learning difficulties as well as people who rely on screen readers to access the web. However, the basic requirement to organise web content into sections is at Level AAA, and so failing to break up our large slab of text with headings would not, in itself, result in a failure to comply with the WCAG Level A or Level AA requirements of most jurisdictions.

What happens at the other end of the compliance spectrum also appears to be interesting in an absurd sort of way. It seems to me that it is possible to comply at Level A with meaningless headings and sub-headings, so long as they use the correct HTML heading mark-up.

What! You might shriek. Well, let me explain. Say our 5,000 word article is presented in sections, each identified with generic heading text that literally uses some meaningless words like ‘heading’ or ‘sub-heading’, but marked up appropriately (i.e. <h1>heading</h1> … <h2>sub-heading</h2> etc). This would appear to comply at Level A (success criterion 1.3.1), since to quote Understanding WCAG 2.0, “The intent of this Success Criterion is to ensure that information and relationships that are implied by visual or auditory formatting are preserved when the presentation format changes.” (Understanding Success Criteria 1.3.1). Or to put it another way, the information available through presentation is also being conveyed programmatically. The screen reader user, like everyone else would know, for example, that something called ‘heading’ is a main heading at H1, and at a lower level in the hierarchy there are items called ‘sub-heading’ at H2. Clearly, headings such as these would be a kind of visual pollution and meaningless to everyone, but the requirement for headings to actually describe a topic or purpose is at Level AA.

As with Goldilocks, something in the middle seems to be just right. At Level AA, headings need to be meaningful, and since a page can’t comply at AA without complying at A, this meaningfulness needs to be programmatically determinable. Meaningful headings will be easier for everyone to understand and will help those who have problems reading to locate the information they are seeking. And for screen reader users, as we should all know by now, HTML heading elements are a vital tool, since it allows them to easily identify, locate and navigate to different sections of a web document.

Of course with our 5,000 word slab of sentences and paragraphs, this middle AA path will only apply if the site author thought to include headings at all. And if they didn’t, people with cognitive disabilities and reading difficulties are likely to be among those who will suffer the most, because meeting their specific accessibility need for meaningful headings, and several other issues, is a Level AAA concern, and so easily ignored.

CSUN 2013

Roger Hudson will consider different aspects of this issue in two presentations at the CSUN 2013 International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in San Diego.

Accessibility is more than WCAG Compliance: Wednesday February 27 at 8.00 am (ouch).

The Forgotten of Web Accessibility: Wednesday February 28 at 9.20 am.

New Web Usability site

For many years the material I prepared was published only on the Web Usability site (www.usability.com.au). A couple of years ago, however I set up this personal blog using Word Press. The blog was originally for publishing the online novel “Freezer” that I was writing and some personal rants and raves. I soon found the Word Press publishing interface much easier to use than the system I was using for the Web Usability site and so increasingly I began putting other material on the blog including usability and accessibility articles as well as videos and research reports.

Have website usability and accessibility spread over two different sites was clearly not the most usable or accessible approach. Well this craziness has finally come to an end with the help of a couple of friends Russ Weakley and David McDonald, who helped me prepare a new site for Web Usability using Word Press.

I plan to continue using the DingoAccess blog, but mainly for personal posts and for information relating specifically to accessibility. The two sites will be integrated, and all the web-related material that I prepare, including videos and articles about usability and accessibility, will now be on the Web Usability site.

I hope you will check out the new Web Usability site and find the information it contains useful.

Is PDF accessible in Australia?

More than two years ago I wrote about WCAG 2.0 and Accessibility Supported, and my fear that, “the concept of ‘accessibility supported’ is not fully understood”. I believe that this “could put at risk the whole move to improve the accessibility of the web.” I am concerned that mixed-messages relating to the status of PDF as a “web content technology” is still causing problems within Australia at least.

I have presented many workshops about web accessibility and WCAG 2 compliance and the issue of “accessibility supported” is at the heart of some of the most common questions I get asked. Specifically, many developers want to know if they are still required to provide an accessible alternative for the PDF and/or JavaScript they include in a site. When answering questions like this I stress, of course, the need to ensure all content is as accessible as possible and the five Conformance Requirements for WCAG 2.0. But at a practical level this doesn’t fully answer the question because Conformance Requirement 4 states, “Only accessibility-supported ways of using technologies are relied upon to satisfy the success criteria”.

Now this would all be fine and dandy if developers were able to clearly identify which web content technologies, when used appropriately, are sufficiently supported by assistive (adaptive) technologies to be considered “accessibility supported” within the meaning of WCAG 2.0. However, when WCAG 2.0 was released in December 2008, the WCAG Working Group and the W3C effectively side-stepped this question, and more than three years later they continue to do so.

“The Working Group, therefore, limited itself to defining what constituted support and defers the judgment of how much, how many, or which AT must support a technology to the community and to entities closer to each situation that set requirements for an organization, purchase, community, etc.”

Understanding Accessibility Support

In Australia, this effectively means handing the decision over to the government regulators, most importantly the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO).

Changing attitudes

When it comes to all forms of disability rights in Australia, the Australian Human Rights Commission plays a key role in implementing the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, which it does (in part) through the issuing of Standards, Guidelines and Advisory notes. The Advisory Note relating to web content accessibility now references WCAG 2.0 and advises all sites move to Level AA compliance over the next few years. The Advisory Note doesn’t explicitly preclude the use of JavaScript (or Flash for that matter) but it does require them to be implemented in a way that is accessible. The attitude to the use of PDF however is significantly different:

“The Commission’s advice, current October 2010, is therefore that PDF cannot be regarded as a sufficiently accessible format to provide a user experience for a person with a disability that is equivalent to that available to a person without a disability, and which is also equivalent to that obtained from using the document marked up in traditional HTML.”

World Wide Web Access: Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Note (Version 4)

The websites of all government agencies in Australia are required to transition to WCAG 2.0, Level AA compliance, by the end of 2014. The Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) is managing this transition through the National Transition Strategy (NTS), and the Government Web Guide provides an overview of what is required in terms of accessibility and which web content technologies can be used:

“Web technologies that claim accessibility support must prove WCAG 2.0 conformance through the use of WCAG 2.0 sufficient techniques

Agencies are reminded that it is still a requirement to publish an alternative to all PDF documents (preferably in HTML). … Agencies must abide by the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes in order to mitigate risk of disability discrimination complaint.”

Australian Government Web Guide: Accessibility (April 2011)

None of these documents appear to explicitly address the question of which web content technologies can be considered “accessibility supported”. However, with the exception of PDF, the Advisory Note and the Web Guide both seem to suggest that, any web technology, including JavaScript, can be considered “accessibility supported” if, for each relevant Success Criteria, there are recognised W3C Sufficient Techniques relating to that technology.

While I didn’t fully agree with excluding PDF, that all seemed reasonably clear until January this year when AGIMO posted an article on their blog about the Release of WCAG 2.0 Techniques for PDF. The main article is short, comprising an outline of the situation and various resources. However, in the comments, various people ask if this means that PDF (when used appropriately) can now be considered “accessibility supported”, to the extent that it is no longer necessary to provide multiple accessible formats. In answering this question, Jacqui van Teulingen, the Director of AGIMO wrote in part:

“As stated, the PDF Sufficient Techniques are now available, so technically an agency can rely on PDF by using the WCAG 2.0 PDF Sufficient Techniques and all applicable General Techniques, and will be considered to be complying with the NTS.”

Release of WCAG 2.0 Techniques for PDF (January 2012)

On the face of it, this comment seems to be at odds with the directive in the Australian Government Web Guide and the advice provided in the Human Rights Commission Advisory Note relating to web content accessibility. And, I suspect, once again there are developers, particularly those working on sites for government agencies, left wondering, or maybe even wandering…

We need clarity

This issue is not just about the use of PDF, but rather the process in Australia for determining those “web content technologies” that are considered acceptable and those that are not. I find it really hard to understand how Flash can be declared acceptable but PDF unacceptable, when both can cause significant accessibility problems when used inappropriately. Surely, it should not be a question of what technology is used, but how it is used.

When it comes “accessibility supported”, rather than precluding some web content technologies and not others, I believe the authorities should rely on the existence of Sufficient Techniques for each relevant Success Criteria as the main determinant of whether the use of a particular technology is accessible. That means, for example, if a web document has an image, there is a technique that allows an accessible alternative for that image, and if there are headings, then there is a technique that will allow them to be presented by different user agents, including commonly used assistive technologies.

I think the Australian authorities should consider the approach to the issue of “accessibility supported” (WCAG Conformance Requirement 4) as outlined in the Government of Canada Standard on Web Accessibility:

“Conformance requirement 4 (Only Accessibility-Supported Ways of Using Technologies) defines the ways of using technologies that can be relied upon to satisfy the success criteria. It can only be met by use of the following technologies:

  • XHTML 1.0 or later excluding deprecated elements and attributes,
  • HTML 4.01 excluding deprecated elements and attributes,
  • HTML5 or later excluding obsolete features, or
  • Technologies with sufficient techniques (specific to each technology) to meet all applicable success criteria.”

Government of Canada Standard on Web Accessibility (1 August 2011)

I believe it is time the Australian Government Information Management Office and the Human Rights Commission fully embrace both the spirit and the recommendations of WCAG 2.0. The accessibility of websites should be determined by how well they satisfy the five WCAG 2.0 Conformance Requirements regardless of the web content technology used.

JAWS 11 and IE 9

I recently had reason to investigate why someone using JAWS 11 with Windows 7 (64 bit) and Internet Explorer 9 was unable to identify or select checkboxes in a particular form.  I quickly found that the problems were not restricted to this form and so I initially thought it might have something to do with JAWS or Windows 7. However, after some testing and digging I found the culprit was Internet Explorer 9 and although the problem (bug) is recognised, it does not appear to be well publicised or known: Hence this post.

I test the accessibility of websites and although I can use various screen readers I don’t consider myself to be an expert in their use. For the purpose of this story, I should add that I am sighted, so I don’t need to rely on a screen reader and I am able to see things that may not be reported by a screen reader.

When I first tried to use the form with JAWS 11 and IE9, I noticed that in Virtual PC mode, the checkboxes appeared to be basically ignored when I just let the page read or if I arrowed down the page. I checked a different form with checkboxes and radio buttons, and once again the form inputs were not identified in the usual fashion. In effect, someone relying on the screen reader would not know there were checkboxes or radio buttons on the page.

I then asked a friend, Andrew Downie, who is a competent screen reader user, to look at the forms. All up, Andrew and I tested the two forms on several computers using either Windows XP or Window 7; IE 8, IE 9 and Firefox 9.01 browsers; and screen readers JAWS (various versions), NVDA 2011.2 and Window Eyes 7.5.2.

We found the forms behaved pretty much as you would expect with all combinations of operating systems, browsers and screen readers, apart from JAWS 11 and IE 9 (only tested with Windows 7).

We also found some other anomalies when using the forms with JAWS 11 and IE 9. When tabbing down the page going from one checkbox to the next etc, the checkboxes and radio buttons themselves were not identified, but the content of an explicitly associated label would be voiced. Interestingly, if the checkbox had no label but had a title attribute this was ignored. Even though it was possible to tab onto a checkbox (or radio button), we found that we could not select the item in the usual way (by pressing the space bar). Sometimes, when attempting to select a checkbox, the browser would return to a previously visited page or just shut down.

Clearly, the inability to identify and select checkboxes or radio buttons could be a serious problem for anyone who also happens to use IE 9 and relies on JAWS 11 and yet I can’t remember ever reading or hearing anything about it. With the aid of Google I found a few mentions of this problem including the following release note for IE 9 from Microsoft:

Problems reading web content using JAWS Virtual PC mode.

When reading web content using JAWS Virtual PC mode in JAWS 11, there are two issues you might notice. One issue is that some webpage content and some form controls such as radio buttons or check boxes are missing. The other issue you might notice is multiple blank lines and space characters when reading webpages. These two issues are resolved in the latest JAWS 12 release. Using Compatibility View will resolve this issue in JAWS 11.


I have re-tested the forms using IE 9 Compatibility View with JAWS 11 and they perform normally.

Accessibility Barrier Scores

Many governments and organisations now require websites to be accessible, and when it comes to determining whether these requirements have been met, they often rely on recognised checklists of accessibility criteria such as WCAG 2.0 or Section 508. These checklists are a useful way of indicating whether a site complies with the required criteria. However, they don’t usually provide much additional information when a site does not comply – such as the likely impact this may have for web users with disabilities.

I don’t propose discussing the merits of using conformance criteria and/or user-testing when determining the accessibility of websites, as I canvassed this issue in an earlier post, “Measuring Accessibility.” Except to say, I know I’m not alone in feeling frustrated (annoyed) when I see sites, which are generally pretty accessible, being condemned as “inaccessible” just because of a couple of minor failures to fully comply with one or two WCAG 2 Success Criteria. Likewise, seeing sites being boldly proclaimed as fully “accessible” based solely the experience of one person using one screen reader.

Many website regulators, be they government or commercial agencies, often want a simple declaration about the accessibility of a website: Is it accessible or not? Does it comply or not with the accessibility guidelines that they are required to meet?  This is the reality that faces most web accessibility professionals, as is the awareness that it is virtually impossible to make a modern website that will be totally accessible to everyone. Compliance with a set of predetermined guidelines, no matter how comprehensive they might be, is no guarantee of accessibility, a fact well recognised by the W3C in the introduction to WCAG 2.0:

Accessibility involves a wide range of disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. Although these guidelines cover a wide range of issues, they are not able to address the needs of people with all types, degrees, and combinations of disability.

I know many web accessibility professionals move beyond the ‘comply’ or ‘not-comply’ paradigm by providing an indication of the likely impact particular accessibility issues might have for different users. However this is not always the case. In addition, organisations appear to be increasingly asking people with limited expertise in the area of accessibility to determine if a site is accessible or not. This determination is often only based on whether or not the site complies, for example with the WCAG 2.0 Success Criteria, after testing with an automated tool.

The aim of this article is to contribute to the discussion about how to measure the accessibility of websites, for I know I am not alone in feeling concern about the current situation. To this end, I put forward a suggested scoring system, with the extremely unimaginative title of “Accessibility Barrier Score”. This is just a suggestion that will be hopefully discussed, and not some form of prescribed approach. I am also mindful of the slightly amusing irony of suggesting a checklist to help overcome an obsession with using checklists to determine accessibility, but I hope you will bear with me and continue reading.

At the outset, I would like to make it very clear that this is not intended to be a criticism of WCAG 2.0, for in fact I am a strong supporter. Rather what I am suggesting is a system of identifying potential accessibility barriers and their likely severity. I would like to acknowledge the work of Giorgio Brajnik from Universita di Udine in Italy, and the information and inspiration I have drawn from it, in particular his article “Barrier Walkthrough”. I would also like to thank Sarah Bourne, Russ Weakley, Andrew Downie, Steve Faulkner and Janet Parker for their suggestions, criticisms and advice in preparing this article, but any blame for stupidity or inaccuracy should be directed at me and not them.

Access Barrier Scores (ABS) system

The suggested Access Barrier Scores (ABS) system assumes the person using the system has some knowledge of website accessibility and how assistive (adaptive) technologies are used by people with disabilities to access website content.

Needless to say, the process for determining a barrier score is subjective (more on this later) and it is envisaged the ABS will be used in conjunction with a recognised list of guidelines or recommendations relating to web content accessibility such as WCAG 2.0. It is also anticipated the reviewer will probably use a range of accessibility evaluation tools (e.g. aViewer, Colour Contrast Analyser etc) and some assistive technologies such as a screen reader.

The overall aim of the ABS system is to provide a measure of how often barriers to accessibility occur in reviewed web page(s) and the likely seriousness of those barriers. To achieve this, a range of common accessibility barriers is considered and the incidence (or frequency) and severity of each barrier is scored. These scores can then be used by the owners and developers of sites to identify and prioritize those issues that need to be remediated.

ABS components

The ABS is a checklist with six columns:

1. Barrier Description: Describes the potential access barrier. Suggested list of barriers later in this article.

2. Reference: Accessibility guidelines or criteria relating to the barrier. In this example WCAG 2.0 Success Criteria.

3. Incidence: A measure of how frequently the use of a site component does not meet the relevant accessibility requirements. NOTE: This is not a raw measure of how often an accessibility guideline such as WCAG 1.1.1 Non-text content is not complied with, but rather an estimation of the percentage of times on a page (or in a site) a particular requirement is not met. The result is presented in a five point scoring system:

0 – There is no incidence or occurrence of a failure to make the component accessible.
1 – The use of the page component or element causes access problems up to 25% of the time.
2 – The use of the page component or element causes access problems between 25% and 50% of the time.
3 – The use of the page component or element causes access problems between 50% and 75% of the time.
4 – The use of the page component or element causes access problems more than 75% of the time.

Two examples: First, if there are 10 images and 4 have no alt text, the lack of a text alternative could cause an accessibility problem 40% of the time images are used, so the Incidence score would be 2.

Second, if a site has just one CAPTCHA and it is inaccessible; then 100% of the times CAPTCHA is used could cause a problem, so the Incidence score would be 4.

4. Severity: Rates the likely impact that the barrier might present for someone with a disability. NOTE: This refers to the likely impact for those people that will be affected by the barrier. The impact is rated with a score of 1 to 5, where 1 is a minor inconvenience, and 5 indicates someone would be totally prevented from accessing the site content or functionality. Allocation of the severity rating will of course be subjective, and this issue is discussed later in the article.

5. Remediation priority: This is derived from the Incidence and Severity scores. It aims to prioritize the accessibility barriers so that those which are likely to have the greatest impact can be identified and addressed first. Each potential barrier is given one of the six following ratings (see attached ABS excel file):

Critical: Any barrier that has a severity score of 5 (regardless of the incidence score).
Very High: Any barrier where the severity score is 4 regardless of the incidence score.  And, any barrier where the result of multiplying the incidence and severity scores is equal to or greater than 9.
High: Any barrier where the result of multiplying the incidence and severity scores is equal to or greater than 6; and less than 9 (but excluding any barrier which has a severity of 4 or 5).
Medium: Any barrier where the result of multiplying the incidence and severity scores is equal to or greater than 3; and less than 6 (but excluding any barrier which has a severity of 4 or 5).
Low: Any barrier where the result of multiplying the incidence and severity scores is less than 3.
None: Any barrier that has an incidence score of 0 (regardless of the severity score)

6. Comments: Section for comments by the accessibility reviewer.

The hope is that these six columns combined will provide those who are responsible for ensuring the accessibility of a website with a useful tool that will allow them to easily determine how often a particular barrier to accessibility occurs, how serious the barrier is, and which barriers should be given the highest priority for remediation.

Proposed barriers

Deciding on the number and nature of issues to include in the list of potential accessibility barriers is a juggling act. It requires balancing the need for a list that comprehensively addresses every possible barrier with the desire to have a list that is not so long that it becomes off-putting and in a sense a barrier to its very use.

I initially wanted to suggest a list that contained no more than 20 items, but this turned out to be just not possible. After some deliberation I ended up with the following 26 suggested common barriers to accessibility, but these are just my opinions and it would be great to get the opinions of others.


  1. Images without appropriate text alternatives (alt text).
  2. Complex images or graphs without equivalent text alternative.
  3. Use of background (CSS) images for informative/functional content without an accessible text alternative.
  4. Use of CAPTCHA without describing the purpose and/or providing alternatives for different disabilities.
  5. Use of colour as the only way of conveying information or functionality.
  6. Insufficient colour contrast between foreground (text) and background.


  1. Failure to use appropriate mark-up for headings and sub-headings that conveys the structure of the document  (e.g. h1 – h6).
  2. Poor use of layout tables.
  3. Unable to increase text size or resizing text causes a loss of content or functionality.
  4. Unable to access and/or operate all page content with the keyboard.
  5. Purpose/destination of links is not clear.
  6. Unable to visually identify when a page component receives focus via a keyboard action.


  1. Pre-recorded audio-only or video-only material without an accessible alternative that presents equivalent information.
  2. Pre-recorded synchronised media (visual and audio content) without captions for the audio content.
  3. Pre-recorded synchronised media (visual and audio content) without an accessible alternative for the video content.
  4. Pre-recorded synchronised media (visual and audio content) without sign language interpretation for the audio content.
  5. Unable to stop or control audio content  that plays automatically.


  1. Unable to programmatically identify form inputs (e.g. through use of explicitly associated labels or title attributes).
  2. Mandatory form fields are not easily identified.
  3. Insufficient time to complete a form and failure to notify time limits.
  4. When an error is made completing a form, all users are not able to easily identify and locate the error and adequate suggestions for correcting the error are not provided.


  1. Difficult to identify data table aim or purpose (e.g. fails to use caption and/or summary).
  2. Unable to programmatically associate data cells with relevant row and column headers (e.g. fails to use TH and/or id and headers).


  1. Page headings, sub-heading  and form labels and instructions are not clear and difficult to understand.
  2. No explanation or definition is provided for unusual words and abbreviations.
  3. Failure to use language that is appropriate for the reading-level of the intended audience.

The attached Access Barriers Scores excel file, contains an ABS checklist with six columns. The checklist is provided as an excel file so that it will be easy for others to add and remove barriers as they wish. The references used in this example are WCAG 2.0 Success Criteria, but could be replaced with another standard.

The ABS excel file should automatically generate the results for the Remediation Priority column based on what is entered into the Incidence and Severity columns.

Questions of subjectivity

Ideally any process which aims to determine whether a guideline or criterion has been complied with should be as objective and repeatable as possible, and this is even more important when the outcome of a court case may rest on the results. However, in spite of the best efforts of the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative, it is often not possible to obtain a completely objective and repeatable results when it comes to determining whether something is accessible or not, or whether or not a WCAG Success Criterion, has been complied with. Many times, evaluators need to make subjective (human) decisions, for example should an image have null alt or a text alternative, or is the text alternative a satisfactory equivalent for the image.

Clearly, the ABS system I have outlined raises questions of subjectivity. At the most basic level, deciding on which accessibility barriers to include is subjective. When it comes to using the checklist, deciding the incidence score is also likely to be subjective to some extent, notwithstanding the suggested percentage of occurrences for allocating the score as outlined earlier.

The greatest area of subjectivity however, is probably associated with allocating a severity score. Ultimately, determining the likely severity of any particular barrier will be a human judgement, and as such, is always liable to be influenced by the abilities, experiences, knowledge and foibles of the person making the decision.  For example, if we take just three potential barriers that all relate to vision: text alternatives for images; colour contrast; and focus visible, the severity score given to each of these may vary greatly depending on your starting point. If you are solely concerned with the ability of screen reader users to use the web, the failure to include text alternatives is a major potential barrier, where as contrast ratio and focus visible are not barriers at all. On the other hand, if your concern relates primarily to diminished colour vision, contrast ratio and focus visible will be more important than text alternatives. And, for all web users, apart from those who are unable to perceive content visually, a failure to make focus visible is likely to be a significant barrier.

The subjective nature of determining the severity of an accessibility barrier is one of the reasons why I believe it is important for anyone using the suggested ABS system (or any other process of accessibility evaluation) to have some knowledge of accessibility and assistive technologies. I provide the following as a general indication of how I would allocate severity scores, while recognising some issues that I might describe as ‘very minor’ could potentially prevent someone from accessing or using a page. As mentioned, these are subjective judgements and I know others may not agree, and in some cases strongly disagree, so I would very much like to hear what you think.

Severity score examples:

1. Very minor inconvenience: Not likely to prevent anyone from accessing content and is not likely to reduce the ability of people to use a page. For example:

  • Failure to identify sub-sub-sub headings with H4 (but all other headings are appropriate).
  • Images that should be ignored by screen readers have an alt that is not a null alt (e.g. alt=”line” or alt=”line.jpg”).

2. Minor inconvenience: Not likely to prevent anyone from accessing content, but could affect the ability of some people to use a page. For example:

  • Failure to identify sub-headings with H# (but main heading(s) use H1).
  • Colour contrast ratio for normal-size incidental text (i.e. not important for understanding or functionality) is between the recommended minimum ratio of 4.0:1 and 4.5:1.
  • Colour contrast ratio for large-scale text is between 2.7:1 and 3.0:1.
  • Link text alone is not meaningful (but destination can be determined from context).
  • Decorative and other images, which could be ignored by screen readers have no alt attributes.
  • Non-essential forms inputs (without title attributes) which use the label element but not the ‘for’ attribute.

3. Average inconvenience: Not likely to prevent anyone from accessing content, but will reduce the ability of people to use a page. For example:

  • Complete failure to use header elements.
  • All images have alt attributes, but text alternatives for content images (not functional images) are inconsistent.
  • Non-essential forms with descriptive labels, but the label element is not used and there are no input title attributes.
  • Link text which is not meaningful (e.g. more) and where it is not possible to programmatically determine the meaning from the context.

4. Major inconvenience: May prevent some people from accessing or using page content. For example:

  • Important form inputs without title attributes or explicitly associated labels.
  • Content images (which should be presented by screen readers) without alt attributes and adequate text alternatives.
  • Colour contrast ratio of normal-size page text is between 2.5:1 and 3.2:1.
  • Colour contrast ratio of large-scale text is between 1.8:1 and 2.2:1.

5. Extreme inconvenience: Will prevent access to sections of the site or the ability to perform required functions. For example:

  • CAPTCHA without any alternative.
  • Functional images (e.g. navigation items, buttons) without text alternatives.
  • Significant functional components that are mouse-dependent.
  • Login form inputs that cannot be programmatically identified.
  • Data table mark-up that does not allow data cells to be programmatically associated with required column and/or row headings.

While deciding the individual scores for each barrier will involve some subjective decision, I hope that using  two scores (Incidence and Subjectivity) in the ABS system will help iron out some of the subjective differences of different evaluators.

ABS Process

As previously indicated, the aim of this article is to suggest a system such as the proposed ABS, which could help experienced accessibility evaluators indicate the relative severity of accessibility issues in web content. The idea is that the ABS would be used in conjunction with established processes for determining the level of compliance with required accessibility guidelines or criteria. It is not intended to be a replacement for a comprehensive program of user-testing.

A typical checklist-style evaluation requires the accessibility evaluator to consider the content of a web page(s) with the aim of determining the extent of compliance with required guidelines or criteria. The ABS process suggests that while undertaking the compliance evaluation, the evaluator approaches the content with an awareness of the likely problems people with different needs and limitations may experience. In this regard, the evaluator “walks through” the content replicating, as much as possible, the behaviour of people with different limitations, for example using the keyboard instead of the mouse, turning off images, and increasing the size of text on the page. They also use a variety of tools to highlight accessibility related page components and APIs, and use the page with a screen reader such as JAWS or NVDA.

When a potential barrier is indentified (for example images without text alternatives), the evaluator estimates the percentage of times that page component is used in a way that will cause an accessibility problem (i.e. what percentage of images have missing alts) and the likely impact the barrier will have for those susceptible to it (e.g. are the missing alts essential for a screen reader user to understand or use the site content).

When the Incidence and Severity scores are entered into the attached excel worksheet, a Remediation Priority rating is generated based on the entered scores. The Remediation Priority rating aims to provide an indication of how significant a potential accessibility barrier might be and, by association the related failures to comply with designated accessibility guidelines. Combined, the Incidence, Severity and Remediation Priority results for each identified access barrier could help those responsible for the accessibility of a website to more effectively target their efforts.


Imagine a simple page that includes the following content:

  • A CAPTCHA without any alternative modality at all, which is essential for progressing to the next page (the only CAPTCHA used (100%) does not provide an alternative so the Incidence score is 4).
  • Five images: three content images have good alts; one content image, which does not relate to navigation or functionality, has no alt; and for the final (decorative) image alt=”line.jpg” (five images, two (40%) with accessibility issues so the Incidence score is 2).
  • The ‘creative’ use of panels of background colours behind sections of the page means that about 60-70% of the content text has contrast ratios of between 3.5:1 and 4.5:1 (Incidence score is 3, but judgement made to allocate a Severity score of 2.5).
  • The page contains 5 links. With 4 links it is possible to determine the link purpose from either the link text or an adjacent sentence, but one link says “details” and it is not possible to determine the meaning from the context (five links, but with one (20%) it is not possible to determine the purpose so the Incidence score is 1).
  • A main page heading with H1, three sub-headings with H2, but there is also a sub-sub heading that is not contained in a header element (i.e. no H3) (five headings, but one (20%) heading fails to use H3 so the Incidence score is 1).

I envisage the proposed ABS being used to rate these issues in the following way:

Barrier Description Reference Incidence Severity Remediation priority
WCAG 2.0 Range  0-4 Range 1-5
Use of CAPTCHA without describing the purpose and/or providing alternatives for different disabilities 1.1.1 4 5 Critical
Images without appropriate text alternatives 1.1.1 2 4 Very High
Insufficient colour contrast between foreground (text) and background 1.4.3 3 2.5 High
Purpose or destination of link is not clear 2.4.4, 2.4.9 1 3 Medium
Failure to use mark-up for headings that conveys the document structure 1.3.1 1 2 Low

In this very simple example, I feel the final Remediation Priority scores provide a reasonable indication of the likely impact of these failures to comply with specific WCAG 2.0 Success Criteria. Clearly the failure to provide an alternative for the CAPTCHA is the most serious issue and is likely to pose the greatest barrier even though there is only one CAPTCHA. At the other end of the scale, the failure to use a header element for just one sub-sub heading, while being a non-compliance issue is not likely to pose a significant barrier to anyone.

The scores for the remaining three items, image alternatives, links and colour contrast are interesting, in part because failure to provide non-text content and link purpose (in context) are Level A issues, whereas insufficient colour contrast is a Level AA issue.

The failure to provide a text alternative for one content image that is not required for navigation or function within the site and the failure to use a null alt for a decorative image, while not complying with Success Criteria 1.1.1 are not likely to pose a significant barrier to many users who are unable to perceive images. Similarly, an inability to programmatically determine the purpose of one link out of five, while being an irritant for some users is not likely to prevent anyone from using the page/site.

On the other hand, even though the contrast ratio for paragraph text is not a lot lower than what’s required by Success Criteria 1.4.3, the fact that it relates to 60% – 70% of the text on the page means that it could be a persistent problem for some users and is likely to present a greater overall barrier than the failures to comply with either 1.1.1 or 2.4.4.


If you got this far, many thanks for persevering and apologies for the length as this article turned out to be much longer than I expected when I started. The Access Barrier Score system I’ve outlined is a suggested technique for helping to address what I believe is a worrying tendency to equate the accessibility of web content solely on the basis of whether or not (yes or no) it complies with a set of guidelines or criteria such as WCAG 2.0.

No doubt, the suggested ABS system has some rough edges. My hope is that something like this could be used by experienced accessibility evaluators, in conjunction with recognised accessibility guidelines like WCAG 2.0, to help the owners and developers of sites to identify and prioritize accessibility issues. I also believe the ABS remediation results could also help those responsible for a suite of sites (e.g. government agencies, educational institutions, large corporations) to set accessibility targets and provide a standardised method of monitoring the progress of those sites as they move towards meeting those targets.

PS: I had few problems entering this into WordPress so I hope it has remained reasonably accessible.

Measuring accessibility

There has been much discussion, and some arguments, about how to determine the accessibility of websites. Unfortunately, this is often polarised around two simplistic choices: A compliance/conformance based approach that usually involves a checklist of criteria; or, some form of user testing by people who have different disabilities and/or who rely on different assistive technologies. Both approaches have their strength and limitations, and neither can provide a reliable declaration about the accessibility of a site on its own.

For the individual web user, the accessibility of a site depends on many factors and how they interrelate. The obvious starting point are the personal barriers to web access that the user faces; these might for example, be technological or environmental limitations, or a physical disability that might necessitate the use of an assist device, or cognitive, learning or language problems that make the content of a page hard to understand.

Next, we need to consider the actual quality of the website code as well as the ability of the user-agents (such as browsers and assistive technologies) to present the content of the page in a way that the user can perceive. And finally, how skilful the user is in using the browser and/or assistive technology they rely on to access the web. With regard to this last point, it is often erroneously assumed that most people know how to use the accessibility features of a browser or computer operating system, and all assistive technology users are expert users of their technology.


Over the years, the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) have developed sets of guidelines to help codify what is required to produce and render accessible web content, including:

Many web developers are aware of WCAG and some strive to produce content that complies with these guidelines. However, few are aware of ATAG and more importantly UAAG. Since conformance with the UAAG is largely beyond the control of developers, even well meaning and very dedicated developers cannot guarantee the content they produce will be fully accessible to all.

User-agents like screen readers rely on accessibility APIs, for example Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), to expose objects, roles and states within the content, for example to identify a checkbox and whether or not it has been checked. However, this only works when the accessibility API is recognised by the user-agent(s) and this is not always the case.

This problem has been compounded by the rapid advances in web content technologies and techniques over the last few years and relative slowness by user-agents to keep up with these advances. Consider for a moment the increasing adoption of WAI-ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) and HTML 5, both of which offer some exciting accessibility features. The dedicated, and some might say valiant, work by Steve Faulkner from the Paciello Group over the years has highlighted the variable support by browsers and screen readers for some of these advanced features. For example,

  • ARIA Role Support (March, 2009) outlines how MSAA exposes ARIA roles by different browsers
  • HTML5 Browser Support (July, 2011) contains a table, which is regularly updated, that provides a good indication of how well new HTML 5 features are accessibility supported by browsers
  • JAWS Support for ARIA (October, 2010) documents how JAWS (10+) supports ARIA.

Evaluation tools

There are a wide range of free and not-so-free tools that can help determine compliance with accessibility guidelines by individual web pages or a collection of page. For example, and in no particular order of preference:

  • Web Accessibility Toolbar (WAT) contains a wide range of tools to aid manual examination of web pages for a variety of aspects of accessibility.
  • WebAim WAVE online tool for use with single pages. It is quick to use and provides results which are easy to understand
  • HiSoftware Compliance Sheriff contains an Accessibility Module that enables automated monitoring for site wide compliance
  • Deque Worldspace FireEyes for accessibility compliance testing of static and dynamic web content. An Enterprise version is also available
  • Total Validator online tool for validating pages against accessibility guidelines a Pro version is available for site wide testing

Although all these tools are useful and I use some of them regularly, in my opinion none can be replied up alone to reliably indicate either the degree of compliance with a specific set of guidelines or the overall accessibility of web page(s). The results obtained by automated testing tools like these need to be interpreted and confirmed by human evaluators.

Testing times

The risk of litigation, combined with political and moral pressure, has focussed increasing attention on the importance of ensuring websites are accessible. As a result, site owners, designers and developers now face the tasks of deciding what is the most efficient and reliable way of evaluating the accessibility of their sites.

As mentioned earlier, there are two general approaches for determining website accessibility: conformance review and user-testing. Ideally, any thorough accessibility evaluation should involve both approaches, but the constraints of budgets and time often mean that this is not possible. One feature common to both approaches however, is the importance of using an experienced accessibility evaluator who has an understanding of the potential barriers that people with disabilities might face and how these can be addressed. I now want to briefly consider the pros and cons of the two approaches.

Conformance review

Conformance reviews are the most common way of assessing the accessibility of websites. In general, this involves someone with expert knowledge checking whether the site as a whole, or more commonly a selection of pages, comply with a predetermined checklist of criteria such as WCAG 2.0. The assessment process is sometimes also referred to as a ‘manual inspection’ or ‘expert review’.

The selection of pages to evaluate is very important. Giorgio Brajnik and others from Universita di Udine, Italy reported in the paper “Effects of Sampling Methods on Web Accessibility Evaluations” (PDF) on a study that showed the use of predefined pages (e.g. home, contact, site map etc) may result in an inaccurate compliance result for 38% of checkpoints.


  • Able to identify a large and diverse range of non-compliance issues that might cause problems for a variety of potential end users and/or technologies.
  • The checklist items often provide a clear indication of what is required to rectify non-compliance.
  • Easy to incorporate into the different phases of the site development process and this can be particularly useful in an agile or iterative development environment.
  • Relatively quick and easy to implement when compared to user testing.


  • Totally dependent on the quality of the checklists or guidelines used. In my opinion however WCAG 2 is pretty good in this regard.
  • Tendency to view accessibility from just the perspective of whether or not a site passes or fails a number of checklist items, and may fail to adequately consider how easily or effectively the site might be for people with disabilities to use.
  • Particular difficulty with issues that blur the boundary between usability and accessibility, for example site structure (e.g. is it shallow or deep), which can be particularly relevant to older web users or those with cognitive disorders.
  • Does not involve real users doing real tasks in real time.

User testing

User testing usually involves a group of users with different disabilities, and different levels of skill in using the internet and their required assistive technology, undertaking a series of typical website tasks. The actions of the test participants are observed (and recorded) by the evaluator with the aim of identifying the accessibility barriers that maybe encountered.

Although task-based user testing for usability and accessibility share some common techniques, there are significant differences. For example, context is likely to be more important when evaluating accessibility since web content often has to go through transformation processes in order to be accessible. The output of these transformations (e.g. text alternatives for images, text to speech via a screen reader, speech to text as captions, magnification, extraction of links and headings on the page etc) has to be rendered in a way that retains the meaning and integrity of the original content while also meeting the needs of a diverse user base.  In the article “Beyond Conformance” (PDF) Giorgio Brajnik from Universita di Udine, Italy, explores the differences between usability and accessibility and why context is crucial when evaluating accessibility:

“Context is more crucial for accessibility than it is for usability. Besides being dependent on users’ experiences, goals and physical environment, accessibility of a website depends also on the platform that’s being used. It is the engine of a transformation process that is not under the control of the developer. In fact, accessibility of digital media requires a number of transformations to occur automatically, concerning the expression of the content of the website”


  • Evaluator is able to observe people encountering (and hopefully overcoming) real usability/accessibility problems in real time.
  • Accurately identify problems that actually prevent specific groups of people from accessing web content.
  • Test participants are able to rate the severity of the problems they encounter and identify those that are likely to be catastrophic.
  • Likely to generate highly valid results for people who have the same disabilities.


  • Difficult to recruit test participants with different disabilities.
  • Hard to obtain a test cohort that is large enough to canvas the range of assistive technologies and participant skill levels in using those technologies
  • Depends greatly on developing test scenarios (scripts) which are appropriate for test participants with different requirements.
  • Difficult to correlate and prioritise the problems encountered by a diverse group of people with different requirements who use different technologies
  • The testing process is expensive and time consuming

How inaccessible is it?

Many governments and organisations now require websites to be accessible. In most cases, compliance with this requirement is determined by conformance, either formally or informally, with predetermined guidelines/rules such as WCAG 2.0 or the US Section 508. In Australia for example, the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO), requires all government agencies to comply with WCAG 2 at level AA by the end of 2014, and the Australian Human Rights Commission has indicated that it will use WCAG 2 when considering the validity of a complaint made under the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act. I looked in more detail at the adoption of WCAG 2 by various countries in an earlier post, “Adopting WCAG 2” (June, 2009).

WCAG 2 provides for three levels of compliance, Level A, Level AA and Level AAA, with the recommendation not to require Level AAA conformance “as a general policy for entire sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content”. As a result, most jurisdictions that use WCAG 2 require websites to conform at either Level A or Level AA.

It appears that many regulators appear to adopt a pass or fail approach to the use of Guidelines, Checkpoints or Success Criteria and don’t factor in the potential severity of non-compliance with individual criterion. Nor is the likely impact of non-compliance with different criteria compared. To take an extreme example: A site which fails to provide text alternatives for all images, fails to comply with the Level A Success Criteria 1.1.1, as does a site with just one or two missing image alts on say one page.

Is a site which fails to comply with two Success Criteria any less inaccessible than one that fails to comply with five? And, what about a site that fails badly to comply with the Level AA Success Criteria 1.4.3 (e.g. has a contrast minimum of 1.5:1 for navigation items), should we consider this to be more or less accessible than another site that contains minor infringements of just a couple of Level A Success Criteria?

In a future article, I plan to look at how both the incidence and likely impact (severity) of accessibility barriers might be incorporated into the accessibility conformance review process.

‘Fluro’ Colours

My attention was recently drawn by Jenny Bruce to the relatively large number of sites that use bright ‘fluro’ background colours for navigation menu items and buttons. The combination of these ‘fluro’ background colours and white text often fails to meet the minimum colour contrast requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, whereas, when the text colour is black the contrast ratio is acceptable.

Jenny also made the observation that it can be very difficult to convince people not to use white text against ‘fluro’ background particularly since, “many ‘regular’ users – i.e. those without known vision colour contrast problems – say they find white text against these colours to have better contrast and/or to be more aesthetically pleasing than black.”

This all got me thinking and so I decided to look a little more closely at these colour combinations under different conditions. I started by preparing a swatch which combines white (#ffffff) or black (#000000) text with the following background ‘fluro’ colours:
Orange: #FF6600
Green: #6E9800
Pink: #FF0084
Blue: #529FD6
Purple: #9966FF

As we know, WCAG 1.0 and WCAG 2.0 have different colour contrast requirements and use different methods for determining compliance with those requirements. However as a general rule, it appears that in most situations designers find the WCAG 2.0 requirements less constraining:

WCAG 1.0 requirement

Checkpoint 2.2: Ensure that foreground and background colour combinations provide sufficient contrast when viewed by someone having colour deficits or when viewed on a black and white screen. [Priority 2 for images, Priority 3 for text].”

Two formulas are provided to help determine if the contrast in colour brightness and colour difference between the foreground (text) colour and background colour is sufficient. When using these formulas with WCAG 1.0 Checkpoint 2.2, the W3C recommends the difference between foreground and background colour brightness be greater than 125, and the colour differences be greater than 500. The result is often presented in this format 135/507.

WCAG 2.0 requirement
WCAG 2.0 is different to WCAG 1.0 in that there are two Success Criteria relating colour contrast and several exemptions are identified. The following Success Criteria applies to most situations:

1.4.3 Contrast (Minimum): The visual presentation of text and images of text has a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1, except for the following: (Level AA)

  • Large Text: Large-scale text and images of large-scale text have a contrast ratio of at least 3:1;
  • Incidental: Text or images of text that are part of an inactive user interface component, that are pure decoration, that are not visible to anyone, or that are part of a picture that contains significant other visual content, have no contrast requirement.
  • Logotypes: Text that is part of a logo or brand name has no minimum contrast requirement.

The WCAG 2.0 contrast ratios are determined with a complicated algorithm that measures the relative luminance of the text letters. For most text the minimum contrast ratio is 4.5:1. For large-scale text (more than 14 point bold or 18 point not bold) the minimum ratio is 3.0:1.

Colour contrast tests

I tested the colour combinations using the WAT Colour Contrast Analyser (which can be downloaded from the Paciello Group site) using both the WCAG 1.0 and WCAG 2.0 algorithms. The results were:

Fluro colours with white and black text
White on orange
WCAG 1: 119/408
WCAG 2: 2.9:1
Black on orange
WCAG 1:136/357
WCAG 2: 7.2:1
White on green
WCAG 1: 133/503
WCAG 2: 3.4:1
Black on green
WCAG 1: 122/262
WCAG 2: 6.2:1
White on pink
WCAG 1: 164/378
WCAG 2: 3.8:1
Black on pink
WCAG 1: 91/387
WCAG 2: 5.6:1
White on blue
WCAG 1: 113/310
WCAG 2: 2.9:1
Black on blue
WCAG 1: 142/455
WCAG 2: 7.3:1
White on purple
WCAG 1: 121/255
WCAG 2: 3.7:1
Black on purple
WCAG 1: 134/510
WCAG 2: 5.7:1

I feel several interesting observations can be made about these results:

  1. While all of the examples using white text fail to meet the WCAG 2.0 minimum contrast ratio of 4.5:1, all examples using black text exceed this requirement with the lowest score being 5.6:1.
  2. With WCAG 1.0 the results are less clear cut, with some of the white and black text examples meeting and failing to meet the minimum requirement of 125/500. Also, four of the WCAG 1 black text examples failed to meet the minimum requirement.
  3. The difference between the WCAG 1.0 and WCAG 2.0 results for black or white text on the green and blue backgrounds appear to be particularly interesting.

Not everyone has perfect colour vision

I was also interested to see how these colour combinations might be perceived under other conditions. The following tables give the results for these colour combinations when viewed in greyscale (converted with WAT colour tool), and as they might be perceived by someone with deuteranopia (a form of red/green color deficit). The deuteranope simulation was done using Vischeck.

Fluro – greyscape with white and black text
Background colour GREYSCALE
White text
Black text
Orange WCAG 1: 119/357
WCAG 2: 3.5:1
WCAG 1: 136/408
WCAG 2: 5.9:1
Green WCAG 1: 133/399
WCAG 2: 4.3:1
WCAG 1: 122/366
WCAG 2: 4.9:1
Pink WCAG 1: 164/492
WCAG 2: 6.8:1
WCAG 1: 91/273
WCAG 2: 3.1:1
Blue WCAG 1: 113/399
WCAG 2: 3.3:1
WCAG 1: 142/426
WCAG 2: 6.4:1
Purple WCAG 1: 120/360
WCAG 2: 3.6:1
WCAG 1: 134/405
WCAG 2: 5.8:1

Greyscale comments

  1. With WCAG 2, when the colours are converted to greyscale all of the contrast ratios are higher than they were with the actual background colour, and in the case of white on pink it greatly exceeded the minimum requirement. However, with the black text all the ratios were less than they were with the background colour and in the case of the pink background failed to meet the required ratio.
  2. With WCAG 1, neither the white or black text met the minimum requirement when converted to greyscale, although the white on pink and black on blue were close.
Fluro – deuteranope simulation with white and black text
Background colour DEUTERANOPE
White text
Black text
Orange WCAG 1: 100/407
WCAG 2: 2.4:1
WCAG 1: 155/358
WCAG 2: 8.7:1
Green WCAG 1: 131/460
WCAG 2:3.8:1
WCAG 1: 124/305
WCAG 2: 5.5:1
Pink WCAG 1: 103/323
WCAG 2: 2.8:1
WCAG 1: 152/442
WCAG 2: 7.4:1
Blue WCAG 1: 110/284
WCAG 2: 3.1:1
WCAG 1: 145/481
WCAG 2: 6.8:1
Purple WCAG 1: 119/284
WCAG 2: 3.1:1
WCAG 1: 136/481
WCAG 2: 6.5:1

Deuteranopia comments

  1. With WCAG 2, when deuteranopia is simulated none of the white text and background colour combinations came close to meeting the required contrast ratio of 4.5:1. With white text, the greatest problems appear to be with the orange (2.4:1) and pink (2.8:1) backgrounds. However, with black text the required contrast ratio was greatly exceeded with all the background colours when deuteranopia is simulated. Interestingly, with black text the highest ratios were for the orange (8.7:1) and pink (7.4:1) backgrounds.
  2. With WCAG 1, the results for the deuteranopia simulation were similar to those obtained with the actual background colours, except that with both the white and black text none of the results met the minimum requirement when deuteranopia is simulated although green on white, black on blue and black on purple are close.

The attached powerpoint slides contain screen shots of the colour swatches and how they appear in greyscale, and when the conditions of deuteranopia and protanopia are simulated. These are the most common forms of impaired colour vision perception.

In conclusion, the results obtained when testing these colour combinations using the WCAG 2 algorithm appear to be more consistent than is the case with the WCAG 1 formulas, particularly when the colours are presented under different conditions. Also, people with deuteranopia are likely to experience significantly greater problems when white text is combined with these ‘fluro’ colours when compared to the rest of the population. But, when black text is used the ability of people with deuteranopia to perceive a difference between the foreground text and these background ‘fluro’ colour is likely to be improved.

Improving Web Accessibility for the Elderly CSUN Slides and Transcript

At the CSUN 2011 conference I gave a presentation called “Improving Web Accessibility for the Elderly”. The presentation considered how many people over the age of 60 use the web, how much they use it and why they use it. It outlined some common issues older web users encounter and the general lack of awareness by them about how they can control the presentation of web content.

My CSUN 2011 presentation reported on the results of research into the use of the web by older sections of the population that I am currently doing with Peter Hindmash and Russ Weakley. Two articles containing some findings from this research are also available on the DingoAccess blog:

Mature Age ICT Users Online Survey Results

Mature Age ICT Users Survey 2 (Results of physical/real world surveys)

Following the PowerPoint slides (via Slideshare), there are extensive speaker’s notes which provide a pretty good transcript of what I said for each slide. These notes contain links to several online resources that were referred to in the presentation.

Speakers Notes

Slide 1
Thank you for coming

This talk is in three sections:

  • In the first, I will be looking at how many people over the age of 60 are going online and what they are doing.
  • In the second, I plan to outline some of the issues we have identified that serve as impediments or barriers to greater use of the web by older users
  • Finally, I want to suggest some possible solutions and hopefully leave enough time for us to discuss them at the end.

At the outset, I would like apologise if some of you find the title of my talk, “Improving Web Accessibility for the Elderly” a little offensive.

Slide 2
It can be difficult trying to find the correct words to use when considering this subject:

Older or elderly, mature or senior, all mean much the same, but not to everyone.

I caught a bit of flak recently for referring to people over 60 as elderly. But as someone who is chronologically enhanced, if you like, I fall into the age category that I am considering, and …

Slide 3
I am not particularly worried by the terms older or elderly, but most certainly it is not my intention to cause anyone any concern.

Slide 4
I am primarily concerned with early “older baby boomers”, that is people who are now mainly in their sixties, and those from what is sometimes described as the “silent generation”: Although I am not too sure why the word “silent” is used for a generation that struggled through the great depression and World War 2 and gave us the quiet retiring Elvis Presley not to mention Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg as well as great leaders like Martin Luther King.

Slide 5
This talk is basically about the whys and hows of Internet use by people over 60, but not him of course, because as we all know Elvis is pumping gas and living in a caravan park somewhere way out west where the web does not reach.

During this presentation I will be drawing on some research I am doing with a couple of friends, Peter Hindmarsh and Russ Weakley, into the use of the Internet by this section of the community.

Slide 6
76% of the adult online world is under the age of 55.

If we exclude people under the age of 18, the “PEW Internet and Lifestyle Generation 2010” study found that 13% of the internet users in the US were older boomers (that is between the ages 56 and 64) and a further 8% were over the age of 65.

These numbers are lower than the percentage of the total adult population represented by people of these ages.

Slide 7
However, the proportion of people within this age group who are going online is increasing all the time.

In the US, the “PEW” surveys have shown a significant increase in the percentage of people over 65 who use the internet, rising from 15% in 2000 to 38% nine years later.

Slide 8
In Australia, similar growths in web usage by older sections of the population have been reported. The Australian Bureau of Statistics survey of 2006-07 found 28% of 65-74 year olds were web users, up from 20% in 2004-05.

But in spite of this increasing rate of use, the majority of people who are baby boomers or older are not online.

Slide 9
In developed countries like Australia and the US, government and business is increasingly looking to the Internet for service delivery.

Undoubtedly the internet and web offers some clear benefits in terms of cost and improved efficiency. However as more and more essential services go online, there is a real danger that a significant number of older people may be unable or unwilling to access them.

For me, one of the greatest concerns is the risk that older people may become increasingly alienated from the process of government.

Slide 10
Over the last few months, Peter, Russ and I have been looking at the use of the internet and mobile phones by people over the age of 60.

This research has three main components:

  1. An online survey to gain an overview of the technologies used; what they are used for; and the common problems older web users might encounter.
  2. A real-world survey with participants using the same questions as those in the online survey. In the physical world we were able to eye-ball the participants and so confirm they were of the right age and weren’t just playing around. One of the aims of the real-world survey was to help validate the results of the online survey.
  3. And finally, we did qualitative interviews with the real-world survey participants during which we discussed some of the difficulties they might experience when using the web.

In both the online and physical-world surveys, email was identified as the most common use of the Internet, but in this talk I will be mainly focusing on how they use the web.

Slide 11
But, first a quick comment on the recruitment of participants.

The online survey was promoted through twitter, blog posts and via seniors and pensioners associations in Australia. All of the participants were self-selected and a little over half live in Australia. Of those participants who indicated their age, 70% were between the ages of 60 and 70.

Slide 12
The physical-world survey participants came from two sources:

  1. The community, made up of neighbours, acquaintances and people randomly approached the University of Sydney during the summer program of courses, which are popular with older sections of the community. When the community participants were approached they were asked if they were over the age of 60 and use the internet. People who replied they did not use the internet were not surveyed.
  2. And second, residents of three small retirement villages run by the Uniting Church in Sydney. All the retirement village residents live independently.  During recruitment, these participants were asked if they use the internet and/or a mobile phone. However, for the purpose of this talk I am only using the responses of internet users. The retirement village participants were generally older than those recruited in the community.

Overall, 48% of the physical-world participants are aged between 60 and 70, and 35% are over 80. The oldest physical-world participant was 93 and she uses the web everyday and is one of the more capable users of the technology we interviewed.

Slide 13
When we look at how often the survey participants use the web:

  • 87% of the online respondents indicated they use the web every day.
  • Whereas, the figure was 68% for all the physical-world participants, (as a point of interest, if we look at just the retirement village participants the figure is considerably lower at 33%)

In spite of the differences between the two groups in age profile and how often they used the web, generally speaking what the online and physical world participants did on the web was fairly similar

Slide 14
In both the online and physical world surveys, the participants were given a number of common reasons for using the web and asked to indicate how often each reason applied to them using a scale of three responses: ‘Often’, ‘Sometimes’, and ‘Never’.

This table contains the results for some of the questions as well as the percentage of participants in each category who said they did an activity either ‘Often’ or ‘Sometimes’.

Finding health related information was the most popular activity, with 84% of online participants and 71% of those from the physical world doing it at least sometimes. And, as can be seen from these figures, internet banking and booking tickets were also pretty popular activities.

Overall these results appear to be slightly higher than those obtained in PEW surveys of 2009 and 2010, although the difference is not very great. What is perhaps more interesting, is that the PEW results for each activity amongst the other age categories were also pretty similar, with one big exception, the use of social networking sites.

So it seems to us that in general, people over the age of 60 who use the web, do so for much the same reasons as their younger counterparts.

Slide 15
Today, it sometimes seems that everyone must be linkedin, tweeting or putting something on their facebook wall for an ever expanding list of “friends”. The PEW Generation 2010 Report identified ‘Using Social Media’ as the most popular online activity for the Gen Ys, that is people between the ages of 18 and 33, this group are also sometimes referred to as the ‘Millennials‘.

However, a passing comment in the report about the increase in the number of people over the age of 74 who are using social networks, was really hyped up by the media, bloggers and marketers.

Slide 16
The Management blog, for example, trumpeted “Older Web Users Flock to Social Media” citing a report in the New York Times.

This article boldly declares “adults 74 years and older have quadrupled their social media presence“.

Slide 17
Statistics are a funny thing. What this article doesn’t tell you is that this quadrupling is in fact a move from just 4% to 16% of web users over the age of 74, and that the percentage of people in this age group going online had actually fallen slightly over the same period.

When you read the PEW Generation 2010 Report  itself, you find they take a much more sober approach: Quote, “Younger internet users remain the most active participants in the Web’s social services” End quote, and then a little later, “83% of Millennials use social network sites, significantly more than older generations, especially those over 55: While half of Younger Boomers use social network sites, only 16% of adults 74 and older have done so.” End quote

And, this is 16% of those who are online!

Here are a couple of alternative titles for this article:

“Older Web Users Meander Towards Social Media”. Not quite as sexy. Or, “84% of Older Web Users Avoid Social Media”. Definitely not much hype there, and terrible for marketing the importance of social media.

Slide 18
Not surprisingly, there was a difference in use of social media by the participants in our online and physical-world surveys: 35% of all online participants indicated they use social media sites every day, compared with just 13% of the physical-world participants.

In both groups, about a third of participants reported using Facebook at least sometime; mainly it appears to keep in touch with their family. But when we look at the use of some of the other social networking tools, there are noticeable differences.

  • 63% of online participants reported using flickr compared with just 6% of the physical world participants
  • And, with Twitter it was 28% for the online participants and none of those from the physical world.

The differences in these results may be explained by the simple fact that the online participants were “online”.

Slide 19
During the last couple of years, the US and Australian governments, along with many others, have organised studies, camps and taskforces to explore ways of using the new social networking and interactive web technologies. The aims are often noble and lofty:

  • To increase openness by making government information more widely available
  • And to encourage more active collaboration from people wishing to contribute to public life.

However given our results relating to the use of social media by older sections of the population, as well as those obtained by other researchers, I think great care will need to be taken when moving in this direction, or governments will risk alienating a sizable proportion of the people they are trying to engage.

It might be reasonable to assume “baby boomers” should have little difficulty adopting new technologies.

Slide 20
After all, the formative years for the “older boomers” were marked by an explosion in personal freedom, social experimentation, better education and greater wealth. At the same time there was growing concern for the welfare of others and greater engagement in socio-political processes. Bob Dylan told us “The times they are changing” and Martin Luther King spoke of a better future in “I have a Dream“.

However, when it comes to using computers and the web, the ability of “early boomers” is highly varied…

Slide 21
Although virtually none used computers during their formative years, some as a result of either interest or their work environment became active participants in the personal computing revolution. For many of these computer literate “older boomers” the move to the interactive, interconnected media of the 21st century has not been particularly difficult.

But those “older boomers” with limited exposure to computers can face significant problems when suddenly confronted with the need to “go online” in order to access goods and services that used to be readily available in the physical-world.

As we get older, our capacity to bind information together in memory during encoding and then retrieve those associations at a later time can be impaired.

Slide 22
As a result, the “older boomers” with little or no past knowledge of computers to build on are more likely to find learning how to use these new media more difficult than their computer and web literate counterparts.

Slide 23
Age itself, of course, is not a disability although it is associated with an increase in the risk for a range of disabling illnesses, including Parkinson Disease and Alzheimer,

Also, as a natural consequence of the ageing process there is often a decline in episodic and working memory and our hearing, vision and fine motor skills tend to diminish. These declines are usually gradual and often go unnoticed.

Slide 24
Perhaps one of the most obvious manifestations is the growing arm syndrome experienced by many, including myself. You know, the need to hold a newspaper or map book a little further away each year, until, in my case at least, my arms were no longer long enough and the realisation that I need glasses was finally accepted.

Slide 25
One of the questions in our online and physical-world surveys looked at the difficulties people might encounter when using websites. The participants were asked to indicate if they experienced a range of typical problems, ‘Often’, ‘Sometimes’ or ‘Never’.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise that most people said adverts or announcements that pop-up without warning were the main problem. During the physical-world survey, the vitriolic asides by some participants clearly indicated this mainly related to advertising.

What I found interesting was the relatively low score given to the size and colour of text, with just 12% of online participants and 6% of physical-world participants indicating this was ‘often’ a problem. This just didn’t gel with what I have observed when doing task-based usability tests.

So we decided to explore this issue further in the interview component of our research

Slide 26
The interviews were conducted by Peter Hindmarsh and me and we used this mock-up of a page from an imaginary site for seniors as a discussion prompt.

Now the mock-up clearly has some text size and colour issues, but I should stress that we made it clear to the participants that the aim was not to discuss this particular page, but to get their general opinions of the pages they come across when using the web.

Slide 27
At the beginning of the interviews, we asked the participants to describe some of the main problems they experience when using the web. The responses covered a wide range of issues including quote:

  • Silly little pictures on pages that are about nothing“,
  • All the fancy stuff that keeps moving, I hate that“,
  • Finding the required link for what I am after” (with particular mention of the tax site)
  • and “Lots of main navigation choices, sometimes too many and labels that aren’t clear

End quote.

And of course, advertisements got a fair hammering, while text size was mentioned by 32% of the participants.

Slide 28
However, when the people were specifically asked in a later question if they had difficulties with the colour or the size of text on pages, 48% said that text size was a problem at least some of the time, and 23% mentioned colour.

Slide 29
When discussing the use of text on web pages, the comments from participants included:

  • Size of text is always a problem for me
  • Sometimes words are too small but I have no problem with colour. I just accept what comes up
  • It depends on the colour. I don’t like ‘laid back’ colours.” (by laid back this person meant subtle colours like light blues and yellow)
  • Coloured text on colour background can be a problem

And this final comment in relation to the presentation of text seems to sum up an underlying feeling that many participants had:

  • It’s sometimes a problem: Sites are designed by young people with good vision

Slide 30
When discussing the problems they might have using the web, many of the web users we interviewed appeared to dismiss or discount their difficulties as just a result of getting old. In effect: blaming themselves for the inability of websites to meet their needs.

In my experience, this is in stark contrast to the common reaction of many people with long-term disabilities who rely on assistive technologies like screen readers or magnifiers to access the web. For example, if when I am testing the accessibility of a site, a screen reader user is unable to access the content on a page, they are most likely to say the site is at fault and might even add an explanation such “without any words how am I supposed to know what that image is for!

Slide 31
Most providers and developers of web content appear to give little consideration to the needs and abilities of people over the age of 60: And those who do, often make the mistake of lumping them all together into a single generic group of “the elderly.”

Slide 32
Furthermore, Peter Gregor from the University of Dundee and others contend, quote:

The human interfaces to most computer systems for general use have been designed, either deliberately or by default, for a “typical”, younger user. In a similar way, most research and development in the field of information technology to support people with disabilities has concentrated on the development of special systems, and accessibility features focused on younger disabled people.”
End quote.

In a very interesting article, “Designing for Diversity” these researchers argue that traditional approaches to User Centred Design tend to homogenise user groups in order to more clearly evaluate design decisions. And they assume, abilities, or the lack of them, remain static over time.

Slide 33
It is now clear, that capabilities can vary greatly between individuals and as we get older this variability increases. Furthermore, the capabilities of older people are dynamic; they change over time and these changes occur at differing rates.

Peter Gregor and his colleagues maintain the developers of software systems need to Design for this Diversity by adopting a methodology of “User Sensitive Inclusive Design” that places great emphasis on the variety of user characteristics and functionality.  And importantly, recognises the “Dynamic Diversity” of older members in the community.

Slide 34
Our research underscored the range of abilities among older people when it comes to using computers and the web.  Some of the people we interviewed appeared to have little experience in using the web, while others, including the 93 year old lady mentioned earlier, live online.

However it is a mistake to assume that just because someone uses the web all the time that they are masters of the technology or even know how to do some basic things. For example, several of the every-day users of the web we interviewed, including some who had previously worked in IT, did not know how to increase the size of text on a web page.

Slide 35
During our interviews, the participants were asked what they normally did when they found the words on the page too small to read: 39% were confident they could make the text bigger, describing how they would use the browser zoom or text size controls, and in the case of two participants, they said they used the onscreen text enlarge buttons when they were available.

However, most of the participants had very little idea what to do, and came up with a wide range of strategies they had used in the past.

Slide 36
Some of the comments included:

  • If I have to read it, I will try getting closer to the screen or getting someone else to help.”
  • Go to another site if I can’t read it“. This was a very common response
  • Check my glasses, then I don’t know
  • I copy and paste it into a document and then increase the size

Interestingly several said they knew how to increase the size of text with other technologies with comments like:

  • When using word I can make it bigger, but can’t work out how to do that on the web.”
  • “I can make it bigger with PDF because they have that percentage thing, but can’t do it with websites.”

And this comment from a man in his sixties

  • I have printed out pages that are important and then made them bigger with a photocopier.”

On my DingoAccess blog, there is an article about this person’s experiences (Elderly Person Who Doesn’t Want Email) and how he believes the web has actually diminished his access to government services.

Slide 37
I now want to look at some of the ways we could make sites a little easier for all people to use, particularly those of advancing years. I am going to start with a few general issues and then look specifically at the question of how can we help users control the presentation of content on the page.

I have already referred to the decline in episodic memory and working memory as we get older, and how this can make it difficult for people with little previous experience of using computers to learn how to use the web.

Slide 38
All web users, old and young, find sites with poorly constructed navigation systems hard to use. Good site navigation relies on:

  • Clear labels and signs so the user can find and understand the options available.
  • Good feedback such as changes in colour, or the use of breadcrumbs, so that the user can confirm their actions, see whether they made the right choice, and recover from any mistakes easily
  • And, thirdly reliable functionality or performance – that is, a navigation system that is easy to use and will function with different browsers and devices. Not a system that requires the user to have some additional software installed.

When the online and physical world survey participants were asked to indicate the main difficulties they had using websites, more than 80% said that finding what they were looking for was “often” or “sometimes” difficult.

The diminished ability to encode new memories as we age means that many older web users are likely to find idiosyncratic, “creative” navigation schemas hard to learn and use.

Slide 39
For much the same reasons, when it comes to the design of sites and web pages, consistency should be a key consideration.

The increasing use of templates for web pages means that they often have a consistent ‘look and feel’. However, it is not just about ‘look and feel’; we need to ensure this consistency extends to page elements such as the labelling of buttons and the design of forms and data tables.

An important part of consistency is the need to adhere to web conventions. In particular, wherever possible use the default blue for links and keep them underlined. I know the subtle piece of grey text in the middle of paragraph of black words might look cool, but does it scream “I am a link to more information“? Also, please make the link text meaningful.

Slide 40
When it comes to information architecture, one of the perennial questions is whether or not the site structure should be shallow or deep – that is should the visitor be able to get to everything with just two or three clicks or is it okay to ask them drill down through the site.

Balancing these two views can be even more difficult when viewed from the perspective of what is likely to be better for older users of the web. In general, it appears that shallow hierarchies work better for the elderly, but at the same time we know that older users can become overwhelmed by pages with too much content and confused when there are a lot of choices.

When the online and physical world participants in our survey were asked to indicate if they felt that there was too much information on web pages, about 70% said that this was ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ the case.

Whether your site is shallow or deep, make sure you provide the user with a variety of options: With any reasonable sized site, don’t force the user to only rely on the navigation system. Provide alternative methods for locating information such as a site map or an effective search facility. As one of the people we interviewed put it, Quote:

It is always good to have a complete sitemap; without it, it can be harder to find things.”

Slide 41
There are many online resources about the usability benefits of writing for the web; and the suggestions they contain are important for improving the accessibility of web content for all people, including those over the age of 60.

In summary, it is really about recognising brevity is often the key to understanding and making sure:

  • Your content has meaningful headings and subheadings
  • You write short paragraphs
  • Use unordered and ordered lists to present information
  • And, avoid the use of specialised language or jargon.

Slide 42
As we get older, the ability to perceive the differences between colours, or colour contrast, can fall quite dramatically. For some people, it can decrease by as much as 80% by the time they reach 80, compared to what it is for a 20 year old.

It appears that websites are often designed by people with the 20:20 vision of a twenty year old. And, I am amazed at how many developers still don’t know that there are minimum colour contrast requirements and surprised that they are unaware of simple tools like the TPG Colour Contrast Analyser that can make the process of determining which colour combinations are acceptable so damn easy.

I guess all I can say about this is to make a plea for designers and developers: to think about the colours they use; check the colours they use; and, if your precious combination of colours doesn’t pass muster, well just get over it and pick some new ones!

Slide 43
As we have seen, about a third of web users who completed our online and physical world surveys indicated they had problems with the colour or size of text on web pages at least some of the time. And, about half of those we interviewed said text size was a problem for them. For example, one person commented:

  • Maybe 30-40% of the time the writing is too small

Slide 44
Most browsers now have a variety of controls for either increasing the size of text on the page or zooming-up the whole page. However less than half of the people we interviewed were aware of these browser tools. And I suspect that this lack of knowledge is not just confined to people over the age of sixty.

There are website developers who are concerned about accessibility issues, and some sites do provide users with advice on accessibility related matters like how to increase text size.

Slide 45
This information is often obtained via an “accessibility” link in the footer of the page.

David Sloan and others from the University of Dundee have examined the value of accessibility options and basically found that nearly all of the older people they studied had never changed the default settings of their system and most failed to either notice an accessibility link on the page or recognise its relevance. (Source: Accessibility statements are inaccessible to older web users)

Slide 46
During our interviews we also asked participants what they thought the accessibility link might mean.

Only 10% of the participants appeared to have even a basic idea about what the term might mean in relation to the web.

Here are some of the responses

  • Don’t know what accessibility means, don’t think I have ever seen that before“.
  • Never seen it and no idea what it means.”
  • I have seen the word, but don’t know what it means in the context of a computer.”
  • So small it just looks like it isn’t important, you know the fine print.”

And here is a suggestion as to the meaning of the word “accessibility”.

  • How easy it is to find things – you know access information.”

Slide 47
As you know, some sites also provide onscreen tools for adjusting the size of text. So we also asked about these and only two of the people we interviewed recalled ever seeing tools like this before.

The value of these tools has been questioned by others before, including Roger Johansson some years back in the article “Scrap Text Resize Widgets”.

Slide 48
During the last few minutes of my talk I want to gaze into a crystal ball and briefly look at options for helping older users overcome some of the problems we have discussed and thereby gain greater confidence in using the web.

Slide 49
In the article, “The Potential of Adaptive Interfaces as an Accessibility Aid for Older Web Users“, David Sloan and others talk about the fundamental challenges in supporting older people who acquire an impairment gradually over time. He nominates three:

  1. Making a person aware that they have accessibility needs
  2. Making them aware that a solution exists to accommodate those needs
  3. And providing them with that solution

In his article Sloan explores the role that could be played by automated and semi-automated adaptations. He outlines a concept that would effectively bypass the first two points by having technology at the system level identify the problem, be it diminishing vision or control of the mouse, and then automatically make adjustments to the system or interface to meet these changing needs of the user.

This is a very interesting article and a recommended read, however in it the authors recognise that there are some key issues that still need to be addressed and the concept still has a way to go.

Slide 50
I would now like to briefly mention three other ways users could be given greater control over the presentation of web content and I acknowledge the assistance in preparing this section of the talk from two developers who do care about these things, Chris Bentley and Russ Weakley.

Slide 51
First off, we could just leave it up to the browser.

Modern browsers have a range of ever more sophisticated tools that visitors can use to control the presentation of content. With Safari for example, clicking the “Reader” button in the address bar pops-up a version of the actual page content in resizable black text on a white background. Decorative images and advertisements are stripped out but so is the navigation.

Slide 52
A second approach I would like to suggest is the use of an integrated personal preference tool.

In this concept, developers would place a standardised personal preference widget or tool at the top of the page. This tool could be used by site visitors to choose their own font style and size, and the colour combinations. These preferences would travel with the user through the site and could be retained for when the person visits the site again in the future.

In the dichotomous analogy of ‘give them fish’ or ‘teach them to fish’, this is the ‘give them fish’ approach and while it might be an effective way of giving more control to site users, the one draw back is that it relies on sites having the widget. If the user goes to a site without this widget, they will be no better off.

Slide 53
The final option will also require the use of some sort of widget or device. Except in this case, the tool would be used to automatically identify the operating system and browser that are being used and then deliver advice on how to control the presentation of page content that is tailored to each user’s specific environment.

There is no real reason why a web user needs to know what operating system or browser they are using, but as we have seen there are good reasons for people to know how they can use the browser to control at least the size of the text on the page.

This is more in keeping with the ‘teach them to fish’ approach, for if enough sites have a tool like this, users should over time gain the confidence to use their system to change the presentation of page content regardless of whether a site has the tool or not.

Slide 54
What ever approach is taken, two of the fundamental questions raised by David Sloan, which were discussed earlier, remain like the elephant in this room: First, making a person aware that they have accessibility needs; and second, making them aware that a solution exists to accommodate those needs.

As we have seen, the gradual onset of impairments as we age is often ignored by older people. And, many of those people who are aware of their diminished capabilities don’t know where to look to find the solution.

The answers to these questions I believe are to be found in raising community awareness of the problems and providing readily identifiable access to the solutions.

In marketing terms, it comes down to better branding. We need the tools, but just as importantly we need a sexy icon and a good catch phrase that people will remember.

Slide 55
Thank you and we have enough time for comments and questions.

Mature Age ICT Users Survey 2

The results of the second survey into how people over the age of 60 use information and communication technologies (ICT) are now available. This phase of the project involved surveying people in the physical-world and one-on-one interviews with them about some of the problems they experience when using the web. There were some differences between the results obtained in this physical-world survey and the results of the online survey about the same topic reported on earlier, particularly in the use of social networking tools. However, when it comes to the overall, general use of the web there appears to be many more similarities than differences.

The physical-world surveys and the interviews were conducted by Roger Hudson and Peter Hindmarsh in the first two months of 2011 and they have jointly collated the results and prepared this article. The results are available in a down-loadable excel file that can be accessed from the Mature Age ICT Users Physical-World Survey Results page.

This article is mainly concerned with how many people use the web in general (and social networking sites in particular) and for what reason. It also considers the use of mobile (cell) phones by the survey participants. The problems mature age users have with the web and the results of the interviews will be presented in future articles.


Our research into use of the web and mobile phones by people over the age of sixty has three main components:

  1. An online survey of ICT uses to gain an overview of the technologies they use, what they use them for, and common problems they might encounter.
  2. A real-world survey with participants from the same age group using the same questions as those in the online survey
  3. Qualitative interviews with the real-world survey participants using mock-ups of a web page to stimulate discussion about difficulties they have when using the web.

Online survey

The online survey was conducted during December 2010 and January 2011. The survey was promoted through twitter, blog posts and via seniors and pensioners associations in Australia including various computer clubs for seniors in different states. As a result, all of the participants were self-selected and they came from the entire age range of the survey (60 to 85+). Of the participants who indicated their age, 70% were between the ages of 60 and 70 and 6% over the age 80.

94% of the survey respondents use the internet every day, with the most common use being to send/receive emails. 87% indicate they use web every day.

More information available in the Mature Age ICT Users Online Survey Results

Physical world surveys

When preparing this project we decided to include a physical-world survey component where we could control the recruitment of participants to ensure they were of the right age, something that clearly was not possible with the online survey. We were curious to see what differences there might be in the results obtained from the participants recruited online and those recruited in the physical-world.

In addition, the physical-world survey provided an opportunity to undertake a qualitative survey with the participants to discuss the difficulties they experience when using the web and their general ability to control the way web content is presented.

The physical-world survey participants came from two general groups:

  • Community – (16 participants). About half of these contacts were made through neighbours and acquaintances. The remainder were approached randomly at the University of Sydney, this included members of the university staff, people visiting the university grounds and people attending summer courses.
  • Retirement village (total of 22 participants, 15 use internet and mobile phone, 7 use only the phone). These participants are residents living in independent apartments in three retirement villages run by Uniting Care Aging in Sydney. We are very grateful for the assistance of the Volunteer Coordinator for making this possible.

Unfortunately, there was an inconsistency in the recruitment of participants. When the community participants were approached they were asked if they were over the age of 60 and use the internet. However, with the retirement village we asked if they used the internet and/or mobile phone. As a result, the retirement village participants include some people who don’t use the internet (these results are clearly identified in the attached excel file).

Summary of results

There are significant differences in the age profile of those people who did the survey in the community and those participants from the retirement villages: 88% of the community participants are between 60 and 70, whereas only 14% of the people from the retirement village are in this age group. 60% of retirement participants are over the age of 80.

Overall, 74% of the physical-world internet users use the internet everyday (53% in the retirement villages) and the most common use is email. 82% of the community participants use the web everyday compared with 33% of web-users in the retirement villages.

However, in spite of these differences, the overall survey results from the two groups were generally similar, and so for the purpose of this summary they have been combined to give a total respondent pool of 31 people, with 48% aged between 60 and 70, and 35% over 80. This is quite different to the age profile of the online participants outlined earlier.

Comparison of results

The following tables provide the percentage of responses to particular questions for the online survey and the results obtained by combining the responses from the two physical-world surveys.

What do you mainly use the web for?

For this question, the participants were provided with a number of common reasons for using the web and asked to indicate how often each reason applied to them using a scale of three responses: ‘Often’, ‘Sometimes’, and ‘Never’.

This table contains the results for some of the questions relating to web use and indicate the percentage of participants in each category who used the web for an activity either ‘Often’ or ‘Sometimes’

Web Use (percentage of participants)

Online (n=124)

Physical world (n=31)

Keep up with the news



Keep in touch with family and friends



Personal genealogical research



Find health related information



Online shopping



Online auctions



Internet banking 71 52
Book tickets 66 48
Pay bills 66 52

When it comes to online transactions, the purchase of travel and accommodation services seems to be the standout with those participants who indicated they have shopped online: It appears that 97% (this seems suspiciously high) of the online participants and 60% of physical-world participants have booked travel and/or accommodation online. The number of online grocery shoppers was smaller that we expected with just 15% of online participants and 10% of physical-world participants indicating they had purchased groceries over the internet at least sometimes.

The survey participants were asked to indicate their main concern about doing transactions online. Three options were provided and in both the online and physical world surveys the greatest concern was clearly related to the security of financial details with about 54% of participants in both groups selecting this option.

Social media

Not surprisingly, one big difference in the responses to the online and physical-world surveys relates to use of social media. 35% of all online participants indicated they use social media site(s) every day, compared with 13% of the participants in the physical-world surveys.

Overall, Facebook and YouTube appear to be the only social media tools that hold any real attraction for those over the age of sixty. There is an interesting difference in the use of Twitter with 28% of online participants indicating they use Twitter often or sometimes, compared to none of the physical-world participants.

The survey participants were asked to indicate how often they used social media for different purposes, once again using a scale of three responses: ‘Often’, ‘Sometimes’, and ‘Never’. This table indicates the percentage of participants in each category who said they used social media for an activity either ‘Often’ or ‘Sometimes’

Use of Social Media (percentage of those who use social media)

Online (n=85) Physical world (n=12)
Keep in touch with family 79 50
Keep in touch with friends 84 83
Organise events 35 17
Post photos or videos 73 25
View videos made by others 86 58

Mobile phone usage

The online and physical-world survey contained three questions relating to the use of mobile (cell) phone. Most of the survey participants indicated they owned and used a mobile phone. The participants were asked to indicate what they felt were the main reasons for having a mobile phone using a scale of three responses: ‘Very important’, ‘Slightly important’ and ‘Not important’. The following table shows the percentage of people who considered each reason ‘Very important’

Reasons for having a mobile phone (percentage of ‘very important’ responses)

Online (n=110) Physical world (n=30)
Make phone calls 69 57
Receive calls 74 60
Send text messages 35 43
Receive messages 41 50
To contact in emergency 85 83
Read and send email 12 13
Keep up to date with the news 7 3
Look for sports results on the web 0 0
Look for other info on the web 10 7

What Next

In the next article we plan to look at the difficulties survey participants indicated they had when using the web and social networking sites. Also, we will report on the results of the interviews with the real-world participants and offer some suggestions as to how we might improve the accessibility of the web for mature age users.

A few preliminary observations to whet your appetite:

  • The impediments older people face when participating in the online world probably have less to do with age and more to do with the exposure they had to commuters in general, and specifically the web, earlier in life either through work or play.
  • Many older people experience difficulties using websites but they tend to dismiss this as being an inevitable consequence and getting old and don’t perceive it to be a problem with the site.
  • Most web users do not appear to know how use the browser or operating system to increase the size of text on websites.
  • Very few of the participants interviewed had any idea what the word “accessibility” might mean and only two of the participants recalled ever seeing tools on a site for increasing the size of text.
  • A significant proportion of older web users who find that the size of the text on a page makes it difficult to read are likely to leave the site and look elsewhere for the information.
  • At this stage, it would be unwise for government and business to rely on the web (and social media in particular) as a medium of communicating to this section of the community.
  • Many older people do not use the mobile phone to access email or the web.

We are planning to do some follow up surveys in the near future which will look at specific issues such as:

  • Whether older web users have their own computer or share one with other members of the household
  • Where do older web users get their information about using the technology and support or assistance when they have problems
  • What (if any) particular problems do web users is rural and regional areas experience


I will be discussing the results of this research and the implications for government and business in a paper, “Improving Web Accessibility for the Elderly“, which I am presenting at CSUN 2011 on March 16. The paper will also outline some of the issues older web users have with font size and colour, and canvass various options for how they might be addressed.

Mature Age ICT Users Online Survey Results

During December 2010 and January 2011, we conducted an online survey of information and communication technology (ICT) users over the age of 60. We have completed the initial collating of these results and they provide a snapshot of internet and mobile phone usage by those older members of the population who are able and willing to participate in an online survey. We are making the result of the online Mature Age ICT Users survey available in an Excel file for other researchers to download and use as they wish.

The online survey is the first phase of an ongoing research project being conducted by Roger Hudson, Peter Hindmarsh and Russ Weakley. The overall aim of the project is learn more about the use of the Internet and mobile phones by people over the age of 60, get a better understanding of the problems they encounter when using them, and hopefully offer some practical solutions about how they might be addressed. The other two components of the project which we are doing at this time are:
* A physical-world survey with participants of same age group using the same questions as those in the online survey
* Qualitative interviews with the physical-world survey participants, using different mock-ups of a web page to stimulate discussion about issues they might encounter when using the web.

The online Mature Age Internet Users survey provided useful results from 124 participants after we had removed the erroneous contributions from participants whose minds may not have been fully on the job or who may have been up to mischief. We got contributions from people across the whole age-range of the survey (60 to 85+) with over half the participants aged between 60 and 74. We would like to thank all the participants for their survey responses and comments.

We recognise the general limitations of online surveys such as this and hope that the physical-world surveys will go some way towards addressing them. We also acknowledge that there are some specific failings in the structure of this survey and the wording of some questions. And, with hindsight we realise that we could have dropped some of the questions and there are other questions we could have asked. We plan to do some more online and physical world surveys in the future focusing on obtaining more detailed information about specific issue.

Initial overview of online survey results

As might be expected with a web survey, the vast majority of the participants indicated they used the internet everyday (93%) which is significantly higher than is the case with general internet usage surveys, for example the “PEW Internet and Lifestyle” 2009 survey in the US which found that 38% of adults over the age 65 use the internet at least sometimes.

We are still to analyse the survey results in detail, but one thing is clear the myth that older people mainly use the web to research their family history is clearly that, a myth, with fewer than 10% indicating they often use the internet for genealogical research. It seems to us that in general, people over the age of 60 use the web for much the same reasons as their younger counterparts. In relation to questions about how often they use the web to keep up with the news, to buy books and groceries, to find information, and to stay in touch with family and friends, about 75% of participants indicted they used the web ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ for these purposes. Two possible areas of difference are: Participation in online auctions with 33% of participants indicating they had done so at some time; And, the use of social networking sites and tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, with 54% indicating they use them at least once a week (compared for example with “PEW Generation 2010” survey which found that “73% of Teen and 83% of Millennials (ages 18-33) use social network sites”.

What Next

Peter and I are currently sorting the 39 physical-world surveys and qualitative interviews we conducted and as soon as the results are available I will post them on this site.

We are also planning to write a few more articles which will look in detail at specific areas of interest which we believe have emerged from the surveys and interviews. These articles will consider the similarity and differences in the results obtained from the physical-world surveys and interviews when compared to the results of the online survey. They will also outline some of concerns and difficulties that older users of the web might have and discuss the use of the web and social networking tools for the delivery of government and commercial information and services.

CSUN talk

I will be discussing the results of this research in a paper, “Improving Web Accessibility for the Elderly“, which I am presenting at CSUN 2011 on March 16. The paper will also outline some of the issues older web users have with font size and colour, and canvass various options for how they might be addressed.