Finding a way round cyberspace Carefully designed sites are essential for disabled internet users - and make sound economic sense anyway
By ALAN CANE
They've got a lie-detector at Bunnyfoot's Oxfordshire headquarters - a big, shiny old polygraph just like the FBI uses in films. Jon Dodd, the company's research director, uses it to measure stress when volunteers attempt to navigate their way around websites under investigation: "We encourage them to swear," he says, helpfully. And they do.
The fact is that most websites are neither particularly accessible nor usable. This is despite having apparently met the demands of the UK's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the 65 rules set out in 1999 to ensure that everybody can benefit from the internet. But the rules were not drawn up as precisely as they might have been. Dodd and Bunnyfoot co-founder Robert Stevens are sharply critical of what they describe as "box-ticking", where a site can appear to meet the guidelines but remains inaccessible and difficult to use.
The guidelines apply to any site offering goods or services, including information. They are advisory rather than mandatory but failure to meet them would count against a site owner in any legal challenge under the Disability Discrimination Act. They exist in theory to ensure that the blind, the deaf, the dyslexic and the physically handicapped are not barred from the internet. Tags, for example, must be embedded in web pages to allow screen reading software like "Jaws" to dictate the text aloud.
Earlier this month the Royal National Institute for the Blind confirmed it intended to support a number of people in discrimination claims against several companies.
Dodd and Stevens refuse to accept that accessibility and usability are problems limited to those with special needs: "Accessibility isn't just a disability issue - it's the future," they say, giving three reasons why.
First, they argue that "disabled" does not mean "less able", pointing to the example of a blind individual capable of listening to a screen reader while entering data with one hand and checking Braille output with the other, while talking on the phone: "Hands up who can do similar things all at once?"
Second, they point out that the number of people who can be disadvantaged by poor site design is much larger than might be expected - certainly much larger than the registered number of disabled.
Third, and most important, a site that is designed well for those with special needs will be just as well designed for the able- bodied. Companies with well-designed websites will see financial benefits out of proportion to the effort involved.
Bunnyfoot - the name was chosen in a whimsical moment - is one of a group of organisations, including the Usability Corporation, Nomensa and Systems Concepts, which take a psychological and scientific approach to website testing and design. They are consultants who do not physically develop websites but offer their services to ensure that the actual creators avoid pitfalls.
Bunnyfoot's research reveals faults in some well regarded sites. Tesco, the supermarket chain, set up a special site for the blind and partially sighted, winning a RNIB "See it right" award in the process. Yet a blind volunteer scanning the site in Bunnyfoot's laboratory voiced a litany of complaints: "You don't get the special offers"; "You can come to a product that just says Soup of the Month"; "It doesn't sell the whole range of products that Tesco does"; Double Club Card points don't apply to the site". A letter from Stevens to Tesco's marketing director, David Clements, raising these points was politely brushed aside: "Thank you for your views on the subject which have been duly noted."
The RNIB's own website has usability faults, as do the big banks'. It took expert users an average of 24 minutes to register online with Egg, the internet bank, against the bank's claim of 10 minutes. Egg, admittedly, asks for more information than other banks, but most special needs users took more than half an hour to complete the form.
Bunnyfoot's research set-up includes the use of eye-tracking equipment, a Swedish infra-red device that enables the researchers to build up a picture of how a normally sighted volunteer looks at a web page. Sadly for online advertisers, it seems that regular web users quickly become adept at ignoring advertisements.
New guidelines that will make it less easy for a site to be labelled accessible by box-ticking are on the way. In the meantime, the Disability Research Commission is auditing some 1,000 UK sites to establish the state of the art in the UK. Miscreant sites identified in the survey are not expected to be penalised this time; but can the accessibility police, polygraph at the ready, be far behind?