Lessons on Web Site Usability by People with Cognitive Disabilities

An event on “Cognition and Accessibility” was held by Standards.Next on September 19, 2009, in London.  There were presentations that focused on usability.  From what I have read in the reports of the event by the presenters, there were two that are of particular interest to me.

One, entitled “Accessibility Beyond Code”, was by Antonia Hyde.  For her presentation, she made two videos, which she calls “exploratory”.  They feature Martin, a man I assume with a learning disability, who attempts to navigate two Web sites; eBay, which he visits often and Amazon, which he had never previously visited.

The Amazon.com video is below.  Note that the one action common sense would say that Amazon would want to make the easiest, that of purchasing an item, is quite difficult for Martin to accomplish.  He makes good points about why that is.

Watch this video using the Easy YouTube Player.

The other presentation at the conference that I found of particular interest was entitled “Lessons Learnt User Testing”, and was given by David Owens.  In his notes on the presentation, Mr. Owens makes the following points.

  • Disabilities, including cognitive impairments, aren’t discrete.  Many people have multiple disabilities, which makes using Web sites more difficult.
  • Usability-testing scripts need to use real scenarios and tasks.  They can’t include complex instructions or abstract concepts.
  • Make the source- and the tabbing order run in the direction in which people typically read a Web page.
  • Don’t count on people to know how to use their browsers.  Place helpful objects such as font sizers on Web sites to help them.
  • Place helpful things up front.  Don’t make people look for them.

I shall keep these lessons in mind when constructing the future Clear Helper Web site.  I thank Antonia Hyde, Martin and David Owens for them.

Augmentative-Communication Perspective on Icon-Based, Web Site Navigation

Today, I spoke with Krista Wilkinson, Ph.D., who is an expert in the field of augmentative communication, particularly for people with cognitive disabilities.  Her interests include vocabulary learning and the use of visual supports in communication and education.

I approached Dr. Wilkinson with my struggle to create, for the future Clear Helper Web site, a set of navigation icons that would enable people with cognitive disabilities to find the information they want quickly and easily.

I said I would like to use icons shown by research to be effective  communicators.  She confirmed for me that little research has been performed in this area.  After more discussion, we agreed that icons we have seen in use on Web sites seem arbitrary, or bereft of context.

She explained that even the common use of left- and right arrows on Web sites to indicate previous- and next pages is not contextually accurate in practice.  She said that people with cognitive disabilities can find it confusing that a click to a right arrow does not actually present the next page from the right.  Instead, a new page just appears.

Dr. Wilkinson showed me an augmentative communication device, called The Tango, that uses arrow buttons in a contextually appropriate manner.  Below is a picture of it.  Note the green arrow buttons on both sides of the middle set of icon buttons.Tango Augmentative Communication DeviceWhen a user presses a green, up-arrow button, the middle set of icon buttons revolve upward like a slot machine acts, and presents a new set.  When a user presses a green, right- or left arrow button, the middle set of icon buttons scrolls in the relevant direction, and presents a new set.

Dr. Wilkinson suggested I might make Web pages act similarly when left- and right arrow buttons are clicked.  I can’t think of an accessible way to do that, but I will consider it.

Another suggestion she made would be much easier to implement; left- and right arrow buttons could be paired with a contextually-appropriate sound.  An example of this would be a recording of a page turning.

Again, little research has been performed to demonstrate that the context of icons can be understood, or that the pairing of icons with sound is more effective than not.  I’ll do what I can to experiment with these ideas on the future Clear Helper Web site.  Perhaps, through evaluations by users, and via automated Web-site evaluation tools, the effectiveness of the navigation icons I plan to use could be measured.

Note: No endorsement is intended or implied for the Tango.

Defining Cognitive Disabilities In Relation To Web Accessibility

WebAIM has a good article that defines cognitive disabilities in relation to Web accessibility.  The article is entitled, naturally, “Cognitive Disabilities“.

  • Section / Page 1 discusses why classifying cognitive disabilities by functional disability, rather than by clinical diagnoses, is more useful in terms of Web accessibility.  It then discusses the functional limitations some people experience.
  • Section / Page 2 talks about how to accommodate these functional limitations, and offers some good, specific site-design / accessibility suggestions.
  • Section / Page 3 attempts to demonstrate how people with cognitive disabilities may have trouble with Web site content.  It presents an activity in which it asks the reader to follow a set of instructions, and shows how difficult that can be for anyone.

An important point this article makes is that “In many cases, the techniques for more making web content accessible to people with cognitive disabilities are nothing more than techniques for effective communication.”

IBM Easy Web Browser

Here’s a first.  A company, IBM, has just created a screen reader specifically for its own Web site.  Indeed, the Easy Web Browser works only on the IBM Web site.

Also unusual is that this screen reader is not intended for use by people who are blind; it requires a mouse.  The mouse is used to select a sentence, and IBM’s Easy Web Browser reads it aloud.  The would be quite useful for people with cognitive disabilities or for anyone who has trouble reading.

IBM’s Easy Web Browser enables users to enlarge text, zoom in on parts of a Web page and change background color.  It requires Internet Explorer and Windows.  It is free of charge.

Note: No endorsement is intended or implied for IBM’s Easy Web Browser.

Public computing options for people with cognitive disabilities

New research has just been published in the Journal of Disability & Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, Volume 4, Issue 5.  The article, entitled “Public computing options for individuals with cognitive impairments: Survey outcomes,” examines the availability and the accessibility of public computing for people with cognitive disabilities living in the United States.

The researchers found that, of the facilities surveyed, libraries had the highest percentage of access barriers.  This is disappointing.  Public libraries are a great source of free access to the Web.  If people with cognitive disabilities can’t use them, or have significant trouble using them because of access barriers, then their access to the Web is problematic at the outset.

Conversion of Text into a Symbol-Based Alternative

As mentioned in the previous posting, one feature of Web browsers intended for use by people with cognitive disabilities is the conversion of Web site text into a symbol-based alternative.

Produced by Widget Software, the image below is intended as a small demonstration.

demo of text to symbolic language

There are also Web sites, such as The Children’s Society, that accompany the text of their pages with a symbol-based alternative.

Widget Software, through its Symbols Inclusion Project, does have some material on Evidence and Practice related to the use of symbols in the classroom.  Yet I can find no information on its site that refers to basic research on the development of a symbol-based alternative to text.

There has been such research, especially within the area of augmentative communication.   However, it is my impression that none has produced significant evidence in support of text-to-symbol replacement on the scale used by the Web browsers and the Web sites designed for people with cognitive disabilities.

Widget Software advertises its library of symbols represents over 29,000 words.  The text-to-symbol conversion is one symbol for each word.  Upon what research does it rely to show that these symbols accurately convey  syntax, for instance?  More investigation into this matter will be the subject of a future blog post.

Note: About Widget Software and its products, no endorsement is intended or implied.

Web Browsers for People with Cognitive Disabilities

So far, I have found three Web browsers intended for use by people with cognitive disabilities.  Each use text-to-speech (TTS) technology, display of Web sites in a simplified format, and/or the conversion of Web site text into a symbolic representation.

  • WWAAC is the result of a Pan-European effort funded in part by the European Commission.
  • EdWeb was developed by The School of Informatics, University of Manchester, England.
  • Communicate: Webwide is a commercial product produced by Widget Software.  Of the three Web browsers, this is the most up-to-date product.

I expect that these Web browsers work best with Web sites that adhere to accessibility standards.  Their conversion of Web site text into a symbol-based alternative will be the subject of the next blog post.

Note: No endorsement is intended or implied for any of these products.

Icon-Based, Web Site Navigation

I have been considering the use of a consistent set of icons throughout the future “Clear Helper” Web site to facilitate the navigation of it.

One ideal for such icons is that the messages or the concepts they convey are proven, through research and extensive testing, to be consistently understood by the users of them.  Accomplishing that is beyond the scope of this project, but may be an avenue for future, grant-funded research.

Another ideal would be the development of a set of navigation icons for use across Web sites.  I had hoped there was already an effort underway.    At the time of this writing, I have not found one.

Listed below are a few sites that attempt to use a set of icons for site navigation, particularly for people with cognitive disabilities.  The success or failure of the sites’ navigation is best judged by the reader.

  • The Consumer Corner section of the California Department of Developmental Services Web site has a clip art and text based navigation menu on the right of its pages.
  • Symbol World, for site navigation, uses very large icons accompanied by short text labels.  Most appear to be unique to page content, rather than being part of a consistent navigation set.
  • Children’s Society, on the right side of its pages, uses a common set of navigation icons.  Hovering the cursor over the icons produces related sound effects.
  • Symbol Rainforest uses photographs as navigation aids.  The use of photographs may be an answer to the criticism that icons are a poor substitute for realistic representations.  (Note: The Symbol Rainforest Web site can not be viewed in Firefox, but can be viewed in Internet Explorer.)
  • Check the Map uses a navigation strip of icons on the bottoms and on the tops its pages.  Most of the icons immediately make sense to me, but the home icon is odd.  Perhaps it would be better represented by an outline of a house.
  • Moorcroft School has a large navigation strip of icons (clip- and line art) on the bottoms of its pages.

None of the Web sites listed above use what I have in mind for navigation.  I do like the combination of navigation icons and related sound effects on the Children’s Society Web site, and will consider doing something similar.

Note: The “Icons” section of a WebAIM article on “Creating Accessible Images” is germane to the creation of Web site navigation icons.

Note: With the exception of The Consumer Corner, the sites listed above are either examples set up by The Widget Software Company or use symbols provided by it.  No endorsement is intended or implied.

Cognitive Web Accessibility Checklist

One of the two purposes of this blog is to document my effort to create a Web site that follows best practices of accessibility for people with intellectual / cognitive disabilities.  So far, the clearest, most up-to-date set of these practices I can find are written by WebAIM.

In WebAIM’s article, Evaluating Cognitive Web Accessibility, principals of cognitive Web accessibility are discussed, and a detailed “Cognitive Web Accessibility Checklist” is provided.  When creating the Web site, I plan to follow this checklist as much as practical and possible.

Of note is a posting by the Curb Cut blog.  Entitled “Access to the Web for People with Intellectual Disabilities“, it refers to older articles on creating Web sites for people with cognitive disabilities, and discusses barriers that keep them from getting online.


Simplified Computer Interface: Litl Webbook

Here is an intriguing possibility for people with cognitive disabilities to access the Web using a simplified computer interface and a significantly simple computer.  The litl’s interface does not use menus, folders, icons or overlapping windows.  Navigating the interface is performed with just a couple of buttons.  The first third of this video demonstrates the interface.

Watch this video using the Easy YouTube Player

This video from CrunchGear: Exclusive video of the Litl Webbook

The computer itself is simplified.  It automatically handles all updates, patches, plug-ins and fixes.  Supposedly, users do not have to worry about viruses either.  The litl is billed as “maintenance free”.  I imagine this too could be a boon for people with cognitive disabilities, indeed for all people, because the complexity of maintaining a computer would be vastly reduced.

The litl Webbook is manufactured and sold by litl, LLC of Boston, MA.  (No endorsement is intended or implied.)