Software // Enterprise Applications
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10/9/2003
11:30 PM
Carl Zetie
Carl Zetie
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Usability, Accessibility, and Profitability

It's not only good business sense to make Web sites accessible, it's the law, says Carl Zetie. Listen to users for continuous feedback on both usability and accessibility shortcomings in Web apps and on sites.

The novelty of doing business over the Internet wore off long ago, so you'd think that Web-site designers would get basic usability issues right by now. Think again.

I continue to be amazed at the number of companies that seem determined to make it difficult for potential customers to do business with them. It's bad enough for users who are able to deal with the typical assumptions of Web-site designers--that they can read small fonts, position the mouse precisely, hear audio, and identify often-obscure images and icons. But for browser users with any kind of disability, it's still often hit and miss whether they'll even be able to use a given Web site. The most amazing aspect of the continuing widespread disregard for usability and accessibility is that failure to attend to these factors directly turns away customers. Smart companies realize that usability and accessibility translate into profitability.

There's a glimmer of hope. Many companies are increasingly concerned with ensuring that the applications they provide for their employees and the Web content they publish on their intranets and Web sites be accessible to all users. The pressure comes both from the desire to ensure that all employees and customers can use the applications and information as well as the need to comply with relevant accessibility legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the USA or the United Kingdom's Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

Accessibility isn't just a good idea, it's the law. This focus on accessibility forces companies to think about, often for the first time, how users use and navigate their sites. This means that they have to start considering the needs of different kinds of users with differing abilities--and from there, it's sometimes only a short step into thinking about users with differing tasks and needs. Addressing accessibility can become a backdoor into addressing usability more generally.

Any Web user can point to an endless list of minor and unnecessary irritations in just about every Web site they use. For users with accessibility needs, these irritations become major annoyances or even showstoppers.

Most of my own pet peeves relate to the clumsy design of forms that ask for your name, address, and telephone number. You would think that such a common requirement would be both well understood and totally standardized. Unfortunately, not only is it not so, but many Web sites go out of their way to make it harder than necessary. (And it's costing them money. One online brokerage recently lost my business before I even signed up because "Forrester Research" is too long for a company name, and "Mary Louise," my wife's first name, is unacceptable because it has a space in it.)

The most annoying error is the misuse of pop lists. Many Web sites ask users with a U.S. address to enter their state abbreviation--something every American can do faster than they can think about it--by picking from a pop list. Because the HTML pop list is such an ill-conceived control, you can't just type two characters into it. For example, typing "VA" scrolls you first to start of the "V" states, then back to the start of the "A" states. Typing "V" twice might get you to "Virginia," but no guarantee: Some lists are sorted by state name, some by state abbreviation, and if the list might or might not include the Virgin Islands, all bets are off.

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