Case Study – Ford For All! Embracing Diversity in Design

A few weeks ago I was asked by a colleague to look into diversity issues on a number of our client’s UK recruitment Websites. These issues had been brought to the forefront by the intervention of an independent expert (Mike Brading of Insite International), who pointed out that some of the sites concerned would be virtually unusable for people with impaired vision.

I am pleased to report that three of our clients, Land Rover, Aston Martin and Jaguar (all part of the Ford Motor Company — FMC), have decided, quite rightly, to take this very seriously indeed. In fact, they’re going further than just the visually impaired, to embrace accessibility as a whole — people with impaired motion, dyslexia, colour blindness, and much more. As one of the members of the Land Rover HR team put it:

"What would you do if you found that someone in Recruitment or elsewhere in the business was refusing to talk to disabled customers or candidates, or was not allowing them to buy our products or apply for a job? Of course you would step in and rectify the situation — which is why Website accessibility for ALL is such an important issue that needs addressing urgently."

My first task was to look at the three sites and analyse their current state in terms of accessibility — and believe me, it was an eye-opener (if you’ll excuse the pun). I don’t consider any of these sites to be particularly bad, in so far as I can navigate them ok, the designs don’t offend me and they are competently programmed. But putting myself in the shoes of an Internet user with a disability made me seriously scrutinise my own methods of assessment. In many ways, this little task was the most beneficial thing that’s happened to me for a good long while.

So What’s Wrong?

Obviously, we in professional Web development do our utmost to make our sites as accessible as possible. We don’t want people to get annoyed and frustrated using our sites. We consider a whole host of connection speeds. If we use Flash we offer no-Flash alternatives. If we serve video we generally include a transcript as well in case our user can’t view the movie.

But when was the last time you sat back and wondered how a visually impaired person’s screen reading software would handle that Flash navigation of yours? Frankly, it won’t unless you use Macromedia’s new Flash MX — and implement its accessibility options properly (see Accessibility and Macromedia Flash MX movie). And what about those lovely mouse-over effects into which you’ve incorporated sound bites? No good if your user is deaf. And equally useless if they have mobility problems and are restricted to using a specially designed keyboard — they probably don’t even have a pointing device.

We Don’t Think

That’s the problem. We really don’t think. I can appreciate this too. As someone who has lived with reasonably serious arthritis for the last ten years, I know only too well the frustrations. A simple can of deodorant on a bad morning can reduce me to a flurry of obscenities and put me in a foul temper for the rest of the day, because I just can’t press the damned button. There’s nothing more annoying than being unable to operate a normal household object. Of course, the person who designed the deodorant dispenser can use it fine. And so can the person who tested it … and most of the people that use it. But that doesn’t do me any good.

I was reading an article in the November 2001 edition of Ability, a free monthly publication for disabled computer users written by one of AbilityNet’s senior consultants, Bill Fine. It’s a transcript of Bill and a visually impaired colleague, Robin, attempting to use two online shopping sites. At one point in the transcript Robin vents her irritation, saying:

"Some sites are designed to be easy to use and accessible, some seem to have been designed for a designer’s personal gratification, too flash by half, loads of information jammed together and anyone with a special need effectively told to push off."

And just to highlight the sort of problems Robin was having, here is a sound clip of the current Land Rover careers Website in MP3 format. Now go and look at the site, www.landrovercareers.com. As you can tell, in its current state there’s little chance of visually impaired users being able to successfully navigate this site. And, assuming they manage to get off of the front page, things don’t get much better. The site is set to read the navigation first, which takes quite a while, and is formatted in such a way that when it’s read out by an audio browser, it becomes little more than virtual gibberish. You soon find yourself drumming your fingers and praying for a quick end.

Granted, Robin’s criticism is harsh, but probably not too far from the truth in some cases. How easy is it really to do a simple, text-only version of a site that you’re working on? We all know it’s a piece of cake! In my case I get the copy written for me by a writer. The tricky bit is creating all the mouse-overs and style sheets, the Flash elements and the JavaScript. It would take me about another half an hour to then go and copy and paste that text into a standard text-and-links site. It simply never occurred to me before.

Hang on. Why create a second class site?

I’m sure you’ll agree that the very least we can do is create text-only versions of sites, but what about designing a site that works in the first place? Sure, the ‘text only’ option is a useful stopgap but at the same time, it’s a bit of a cop-out. The ultimate goal should be to make a site that doesn’t require an alternative. And after all, if you’re genuinely interested in accessibility issues, there’s loads of help out there. Just five minutes on Google will throw up dozens of useful pages and links.

Let’s get our audio browser into action again. This time it’s a sound clip from our Land Rover site supporting a campaign to hire manufacturing engineers. Now looking at the site (this one was designed for a 700×520 pixel window, but it looks ok in a normal browser window), you can tell that what you hear is pretty much what you see. That’s how it should be. The site is set out with an audio browser in mind, so that it will read the more important information first. Also, the links are sensibly named and clearly set out.

There’s no reason why an accessible site can’t look pretty and be just as enjoyable for an able-bodied person to use as it is for a disabled person. It just means that we have to swallow our pride a little and realise that there’s a time and a place to push the boundaries of the medium. We shouldn’t be doing it at the expense of the people who view our work. Stick to showcase environments, like BestFlashAnimationSite.com/ to strut your stuff. Don’t do it on some corporate home page.

But I’ve got to sell this to my client…

Ultimately, in our industry it’s down to the individual client or that client’s representative to make the call on how they want to take issues like this forward. So this kind of stuff is only going to be implemented if the client sees the benefit of the extra time spent. Obviously, then, the first thing to do is convince your client.

Turning Customers Away

You need to point out the business implications of alienating users. This is very easy for an ecommerce site. Going back briefly to Bill and Robin in Ability magazine, Robin rightly points out that you could lose three million or more users by ignoring accessibility. For example, if your client is a supermarket with an online shopping site, this kind of service is fantastic for people who have difficulties getting about — a fair chunk of their market is going to be people with impaired mobility. Ignore them, and your client will lose business.

Do the Right Thing

If there are no immediately obvious business implications, then another angle to play on is corporate responsibility. I’m not suggesting for a moment that your clients will be cynical enough to embark on an accessibility drive purely for the PR, because it’s not about that, and that’s not how you should present accessibility, either. It’s about levelling the playing field.

Your client knows full well that they would get crucified in court if they, as a company, were found to be deliberately discriminating against a disabled person. And I’m sure they wouldn’t dream of it. I used to work as an architectural technician, and if you ignore accessibility to a modern public building, it simply won’t get built. If it does, large fines all round. So gently pointing out that that’s exactly what your client is in danger of doing with their Website might tug at the right nerve, and get them to consider the issue more carefully.

Walk a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes

Another way to highlight the issues is to get your client to experience what others experience when they use a Website. You could perhaps unplug your mouse from your computer, sit the client down and say, "now use your site" — that tends to cause a few furrowed brows. With nothing but the tab keys and the enter key, a Website becomes a whole new experience. Another good thing to do is download an audio browser (such as Simply 2000), load your client’s site into the browser, and switch off the monitor. Then see how well they do.

As I said before, though, ultimately it’s up to the client to make the right decision. You can only guide them in the right direction.

So, is accessibility being taken seriously?

It’s starting to edge its way in. At least, fortunately for disabled users, the businesses that make up FMC in the UK are taking it very seriously. In fact, thanks to Mike Brading who set the ball rolling, they really have woken up to the issues. I just hope that more of our clients are going to take it as seriously as they have.

As for me, I’m a convert. I’m nearly done evaluating Flash MX (perhaps a little later than most but I’ve been busy!) and I’m buying it. And I’m looking forward to making all my Flash content accessible — even if it does still require a plug-in. I’m going to go alt-tag crazy. I’ll start using (the previously dirty words) ‘div’ tags and layers instead of tables — and believe me, once you’ve seen a layered page against a tabled page in an audio browser, so will you. I’m going to do everything I can to make my sites as accessible as possible, even if a client prefers form over function. There’s no excuse not to.

I’ll endeavour to keep you posted on proceedings with my work for FMC in the UK, and before too long I’ll publish an accessibility best practice guide and cheat sheet of my own to help out other developers and put all the pertinent information in one place.

Wish me luck. I suspect I’ll need it.

If you’re genuinely interested, here are some links that will help you:

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