Involving Users in Evaluating Web Accessibility
Web accessibility evaluation often focuses on conformance to accessibility standards such as WCAG. While conformance is important, there are many benefits to evaluating with real people. For example, to learn how your website or web tool really works for users and to better understand accessibility issues. Evaluating with users with disabilities and with older users identifies usability issues that are not discovered by conformance evaluation alone.
This page is part of a multi-page Evaluating Web Accessibility resource suite that outlines different aspects of evaluating web accessibility. It is the second of two pages on including users in web projects. Please read Including Users in Web Projects for Better, Easier Accessibility, which covers broader issues of including users early in website design, tool development, standards, and other web projects.
Even web developers with little accessibility knowledge can find some accessibility issues through a preliminary review. An accessibility expert with first-hand experience of how people with different disabilities interact with the web can:
- evaluate accessibility issues for a broad range of users, which might not be found by individual users;
- help fix any known barriers before bringing in users; and
- focus the evaluation with users on potential areas of concern.
The initial review identifies any significant accessibility barriers to fix before evaluating with users. It also helps define what to focus on for evaluation with users.
Range of User Evaluation
Users with disabilities and older users can be included in a wide range of evaluation activities, from brief consultations to large-scale usability studies. There are many options in between these extremes:
- Informal evaluations of specific accessibility issues can be very simple. For example, ask someone you know who uses a screen reader or someone with other disabilities to find some data in an early draft of a data table. Observe their interaction and discuss the issues.
- Formal usability testing of a website follows established protocols to gather quantitative and qualitative data from representative users performing specific tasks. Formal usability tests can be optimized to focus on accessibility issues.
What type of evaluation you do depends on factors such as the stage in your project, for example, initial investigation of design ideas, testing specific areas of prototypes, or reviewing final designs.
Conducting informal evaluations throughout development is more effective than only formal usability testing at the end of a project.
In most cases, including users in evaluation involves:
- getting a few people with disabilities - and depending on your target audience, older users,
- including them throughout the development process to complete sample tasks on prototypes so you can see how the different aspects of the design and coding could be improved, and
- discussing accessibility issues with them.
Just as with any evaluation with users, whether you include novice, average, or advanced users depends on your target users. For example, if you are developing a web application for accountants inside a company, you probably want advanced assistive technology users. And for a public website to apply for disability benefits, you want novice assistive technology users.
Caution: Carefully consider all input. Avoid assuming that input from one person with a disability applies to all people with disabilities.
A person with a disability does not necessarily know how other people with the same disability interact with the web. They might not know enough about other disabilities to provide valid guidance on other accessibility issues. Getting input from a range of users is best.
Note: In addition to finding accessibility problems, evaluating with users with disabilities usually reveals general usability problems that impact all users, including those without disabilities.
Analyzing Accessibility Issues
Web accessibility depends on several components of web development and interaction working together, including web browsers, assistive technologies (AT), and web content.
Accessibility problems can be caused by one or more different components. For example, if a user who cannot use a mouse has trouble with keyboard access, it could be because:
- the developer did not markup/code the web page properly, or
- the browser or media player isn’t handling the markup properly, or
- the user’s AT isn’t handling the markup properly, or
- the user doesn’t know how to use the browser, media player, or AT’s keyboard access features, or
- the page is poorly designed and it is a general usability problem for all users, including those without disabilities.
Combine User Evaluation with Standards
Involving users with disabilities in evaluation has many benefits. Yet that alone cannot determine if a website is accessible. Combine user involvement with evaluating conformance to WCAG to ensure that accessibility is provided to users with a range of disabilities and situations.
Drawing Conclusions and Reporting
Be careful drawing conclusions from limited evaluations or studies. Results from only a couple of people with disabilities cannot be generalized to apply to all people with similar disabilities or people with other disabilities. See the Caution above.
Include in the reports the scope of the study and the evaluation parameters, such as testing methods and user characteristics. For example, if a study included only participants who are blind, the report should clarify that it did not evaluate conformance to accessibility standards and that it does not apply to all people with disabilities. While small studies often provide useful information, they are not robust enough to provide statistical significance.
Note for usability professionals
When specifically exploring accessibility barriers, the protocol is usually different from a general usability test. For example:
- you would likely use a think-aloud technique with high facilitator interaction;
- data collection would focus on understanding errors related to accessibility barriers, rather than on time-on-task or user satisfaction; and
- tasks would concentrate on specific areas of concern for potential accessibility problems, rather than general site usage.
Note that it is also important to evaluate other factors for users with disabilities. These factors include: General usability, user satisfaction, and other similar criteria.
The More Information section below includes additional guidance specifically for usability professionals.
More Information and Guidance
This document briefly addresses a few points of a very complex topic. Many resources on other aspects of involving users in evaluation are available on the Web.
- Involving Users in Web Projects for Better, Easier Accessibility is a prerequisite for this document. It covers broader issues of including users early in website design, tool development, standards, and other web projects.
- Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design provides guidance on incorporating accessibility throughout design
of websites and other products. The chapter on Usability Testing
- Planning for usability testing for accessibility – determining participant characteristics, recruiting participants, providing compensation
- Preparing for usability testing for accessibility – preparing test materials, ensuring the facility is accessible, setting up and testing the assistive technology, conducting a pilot test, using screening techniques
- Conducting a usability test for accessibility – interacting with people with disabilities, setting up the room
- Reporting usability testing for accessibility – distinguishing between accessibility and usability issues, drawing conclusions, writing about people with disabilities
- White paper: conducting user evaluations with people with disabilities
- Many books, articles, conference presentations, and other resources cover usability evaluation techniques. They include different types of usability testing; test design; developing test protocol including questionnaires, tasks, data collection; conducting pilot tests; and how many participants to include in usability testing. For example: Usability Testing Demystified, sample test plans and forms from The Handbook of Usability Testing, and Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems with a sample usability test, scripts, and forms online.
- There are organizations around the world that specialize in helping recruit people with disabilities and conduct evaluations with users with disabilities.