This is a conference about making technology accessible, especially the web. It is an opportunity for programmers, designers, developers, students, usability professionals, accessibility experts, and end-users to share information and learn from each other.
2019 sponsors include my own program, INDEX, which has free information about programs, providers, and services for people with disabilities in Massachusetts. See DisabilityInfo.org. We build accessible web applications and online courses. See INDEX Technical Services. We also develop mass-scale, artificial-intelligence-driven Web text simplification for people with cognitive disabilities. See EasyText.AI.
Make Web text so simple people understand it the first time they read it.
Text comprises the vast majority of Web content. Poor reading comprehension presents significant challenges to many populations, including people with cognitive disabilities, non‐native speakers, and people with low literacy.
Text simplification aims to reduce text complexity while retaining its meaning. Manual text simplification research has been ongoing for decades. Yet no significant effort has been made to automate text simplification except as a preprocessor for natural-language processing tasks such as machine translation and summarization.
In the short term, my partners and I are improving manual text simplification by creating effective, replicable methods for humans to produce it. We use national and international plain language standards. We conduct pilot studies to see if people comprehend our human-curated, simplified Web text better than typical Web text.
In the long term, my partners and I are developing artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to produce simple Web text on a mass scale. We are training AI with enormous sets of aligned sentence pairs (typical/simple). We will soon start crowd-sourcing the generation of training data.
Using a website search tool is difficult for people with cognitive disabilities. Finding a relevant result is often thwarted by spelling errors they make, their inability to detect them, or a lack of understanding about how to correct them. Determining which search results are best can be equally difficult.
This post is a synopsis of an approach to circumventing such problems. An example has been implemented on a web site of the German Institute for Human Rights, which is an easy-to-read version of a United Nations convention on the rights of people with disabilities. A typically-appearing site search incorporates novel spelling-correction features and a simplified presentation of search results.
The site search suggests spelling alternatives only for words that actually appear within the content of the website. Searches for correctly-spelled words that produce no search results would be very frustrating for anyone.
To enable spelling suggestions, a manually-edited index of syntactically-similar words was created. Point values were assigned for similarities in the number of the same letters and the word length. A higher value was given to alternative words with the same first letter, but that was not essential.
To enable search-word spelling correction within the fewest steps possible, the most-similar alternatives are displayed in a word cloud. Of those, typically three, the one with the highest probability of matching the intended search word is presented in a larger text size.
Example Spelling Correction
The German word for “contact” is “kontakt”. Initiating a search with the misspelled word “kontat” produces a word cloud as shown in the following image.
The developers believe the word cloud makes it very easy to recognize the correctly-spelled word, and to select a search word. I don’t know why the first letters are capitalized.
Simplified Search Results
Search results are presented in plain language. Each has a bulleted, succinct summary of information on the linked page; and a contextually-relevant image to aid comprehension.
Example Search Result
The following image shows a single search result translated from German to English using Google Translate.
One aspect of the search results I do not favor is that links to the search-result pages are not underlined. It is only when the cursor is hovered over a link, such as “Contact” in the example search result, that an underline appears.
I am impressed with this approach. This is the first time I have seen search results presented so simply, and with accompanying relevant imagery. I think the spelling-correction features are also worthwhile. In a pilot study of them, 9 of 34 people with learning disabilities could use the search site independently. I expect the developers will continue user testing. With funding and time, I would like to develop a site search using similar techniques.
Reference for all information about spelling-correction:
I am working on a project to make the website, of a university program for people with learning disabilities, more usable by prospective students. Small groups of faculty and students were shown the first mockup last week. Listed below is their feedback and brief descriptions of a few possible remediation efforts.
Feature the program prominently on the university site’s home page. Students could not find information about the program because a link to its home page is hidden within a drop-down menu.
Display links in navigation menus rather than place them in drop-down menus.
We plan to do so, perhaps indenting the links of subsection pages. (Unordered lists are good for that.)
Within the left-navigation menus of the program’s pages, display a link to the program’s home page. When students got lost within the website, they said they wanted to start over by returning to the program’s home page.
We will do so. We will also consider adding a button with an image shaped like a house, which students said they associate with a site’s home page.
Do not depend upon breadcrumb navigation to help visitors navigate the site. Students and faculty did not notice the breadcrumb navigation until prompted. Faculty indicated it was useful once they were shown its function.
Do not depend upon links scattered throughout the content. They were not immediately apparent to students when they were asked to find specific information.
Do not depend upon a search box to help visitors. When asked to find specific information, neither the students nor the faculty thought to use the site’s search box. Doing so would be confusing anyway, faculty pointed out, because search results are derived from the university’s entire site, not just from the program’s portion of it.
Do not position navigation menus on the right side of pages. Students and faculty had to be prompted to notice them.
This is unsurprising. Web usability studies based upon eye tracking have shown people look at pages in an F-shaped pattern. One consequence is that they pay no attention to the right side of pages.
Consider consolidating the number of links in the left menus. Only their first few links were read by the students.
Consider reducing the number of choices on each page. For example, the large number of site navigation links were simply overwhelming to students.
We may have to develop a template for the program’s section of the university site that presents significantly fewer navigation choices.
Link course descriptions to professors’ profiles. We had set up course descriptions to be found by drilling down by year, then by curriculum, then by topic. That did not make sense to students.
Use a larger default text size.
Add a lot more pictures, particularly contextually-relevant ones to enhance comprehension of textual content.
Closely associate images to their relevant textual content. Example: The list of faculty includes pictures of them, but it is unclear which photo is associated with which professor’s name and description.
Provide faculty-specific contact information within their profiles rather than in a central location.
Continue to use bulleted lists. Students found such content easier to read; faculty found it easier to scan.
Use a web form, not an email link, for visitors to submit questions and site feedback. Students indicated a web form would be easier for them. A faculty member pointed out that such a link will not work at all unless a visitor’s computer is configured to open email software once that link is clicked.
Determine a way to make program contact info apparent so visitors will contact the program, not the university.
Include content for current students, not just prospective students.
Such content is now in a PDF. We will likely convert it to a web page so students do not need to have special software (Acrobat Reader) to view it.
I am working on a project to make the website of a local university, which has a campus-based program for students with learning disabilities, more usable by them. The current site is designed for parents of prospective students and professionals who serve them. We anticipate our work will make the site easier to use and to understand for everyone.
Over the past few months, an adjunct faculty member has reduced the amount of content, simplified its language, and reorganized it. I created a functional site mockup to demonstrate that work. Yesterday, we showed it to a small group of students, then to a small group of faculty.
Our attempt to separate content into small chunks produced more pages. This exacerbated a problem experienced by the students, which was that navigating the many layers of the site is perplexing. Moreover, faculty indicated frustration with having to click many links to find desired information.
The current first-year curriculum page contains short descriptions for twenty courses. For the mockup, we moved each description to its own page, reducing the curriculum page to a list of course titles. This design requires extra clicks to see course descriptions. As well, the groups indicated the curriculum page is still too long.
We will next shorten the curriculum page by dividing it into sub-pages by topic. One- to two sentence descriptions of the courses under their titles may obviate the need for extra clicks to view more-detailed information. We will know if this has achieved any success only after testing with students.
Overall, I am describing an approach designed to resolve a larger dilemma. How can we provide information about the program in a simple way for students while also supplying a level of detail that may be required by professionals, parents, and even the students themselves? I suppose this is an adventure to find out.
I will detail in a subsequent blog post the other feedback we received. Some of it will reveal the dilemmas I have described are, of course, more complicated.
I believe it is common knowledge that providing feedback while teaching is very important. In particular, positive reinforcement consequent to successful performance is essential for increasing the likelihood a skill will be acquired (that a behavior will occur again). As it is my intention to teach basic Web skills via the Web itself, tutorials must be designed so reinforcing feedback is provided automatically.
It is my hope to approximate on a simple level the sophisticated feedback features that Dr. Janet Twyman, who is guiding me in this project, has had built into software for teaching children to read. From the beginning, she has stressed to me the importance of detecting and reinforcing the pressing of the correct key sequence. I will post the details of this effort as the three of us develop them.