Detailed results from my cognitive Web accessibility assessment of The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America revealed an apparent, related effort on its content. Paradoxically, it seemed there was little on the accessibility of its design.
Textual content is crafted to be readable. For instance, a lot of technical language is used but is followed by attempts at simple explanations. Also of note is that this site conforms to every aspect of readability criteria: line length and height; text spacing and size, etc..
Textual content is also designed so site visitors’ attention is focused on it. White space is used well. Distractions are avoided. Content is written in visual chunks and using lists. The home page is an exception to these successes.
The site met only 25% of design criteria. Indications that little attention is paid to accessibility guidelines are 49 related errors on the home page (as reported by WebAIM’s WAVE). Alternative text for images, which is a basic sign that site designers are aware of accessibility, is generally absent. Misspellings and typographical errors make its rare use problematic.
It is reasonable to assume a significant portion of the site’s visitors are seniors. Those who do not have Alzheimer’s Disease may have cognitive deficits, as happens to all of us as we age. The site’s content creators apparently recognize this. In my opinion, their efforts do not make up for the site’s accessibility design failures.
I think there are two principles that could be used to teach Web searching to people with cognitive disabilities. For the purposes of this post, I am defining “searching” solely as the mechanics of submitting text via a search box.
That search boxes have the same- or similar characteristics, whether they are part of a Web browser, a Web site, or a search engine, means that learning to use them may not be difficult. People could be taught to recognize search boxes and to submit simple searches with them.
Search boxes can easily be recognized / located.
All search boxes are rectangular and have white backgrounds. Many contain the word “Google” or have it and/or the Google logo nearby.
There are exceptions, but usually due to poor design.
Search boxes within the latest versions of popular Web browsers (Internet Explorer 8.07, Firefox 3.6.3, Opera 10.53 and Safari 5.0) are located in the top, right corner of the browser window.
An exception is Chrome 5.0. In my opinion, this is one of Chrome’s accessibility problems.
Fortunately for people who use browsers such as Chrome, search boxes can still be found at the top, right corner of the screen because that is the common placement convention of many Web sites.
Search engines are the significant exception.
Search boxes can be used in the same, 3-step way.
Prepare the search box for text entry by tabbing to it with the keyboard.
Invoke the search with the Enter / Return key.
To use a search box, people need not learn to discriminate between a browser, a site, and a search engine. Recognizing a search box is enough.
A mouse could be used to click inside a search box to prepare it for text entry, but I think the related instruction would be an unnecessary complication. Likewise, people could be trained to invoke searches with a mouse, but such instruction would be confusing for users when encountering a search box without an activation button.
Teaching the mechanics of search-box use may have advantages.
The resultant skills acquisition could generalize to encompass the search boxes of search engines.
Using a browser’s search box would provide consistent interface interaction across Web sites.
Such training would likely require revisiting over a multi-month period of consistent Web activity.
People being trained would need, at the least, basic literacy- and keyboard skills.
Constructing effective search terms and interpreting search results are beyond the scope of the proposed principles.
I am interested in how to teach people with cognitive disabilities to use the Web because that is my intention for the future Clear Helper site.
Anne uses her computer almost solely for e-mail and finding information. This is typical of many people, even those without intellectual disabilities. Perhaps unlike them, Anne has significant difficulty with content she receives and finds.
Anne understands e-mail messages from people who know her. She has been using basic functions of e-mail for years, but still gets confused with them because she is distracted by spam. It is especially difficult for her to differentiate it from legitimate messages and to determine its intent.
Anne has been using Google to learn about medications, and to look up definitions of words within their descriptions. This indicates finding such information is simple enough for her, but the content she finds is not.
It is bad enough that Web content is not written in plain language. Worse is e-mail content designed to deceive. Content comprehension problems put Anne at a significant disadvantage despite her facility with e-mail and Google.
I do not know how anti-spam efforts could be particularly helpful for people with cognitive disabilities. I do know that designing simple Web content is a much easier proposition.