I’ve raved and ranted about what accessibility means to me. That’s my viewpoint, what I know and what I need. I moan about steps at store fronts, narrow isles and ridiculously small lifts.
Online shopping isn’t a favourite of mine, though I do take for granted that at the click of a button I can order my desired item to arrive the next day. It may look a slightly different colour to the image online. I may have misread the measurements or not read them at all. But online I can shop barrier free, just like anyone else.
Or maybe not.
I’ve invited Kirsty form Unseen Beauty to tell all about her online shopping experience.
I love shopping! You could say it’s one of my hobbies. I have a particular weakness for skincare, bath products, and make-up, but really I love buying all kinds of things!
I’m blind, and I use a screenreader on my phone and laptop, which reads what’s on the screen in a computerised voice.
Although I enjoy a browse round the shops with a friend – or my fiancé – he’s a good shopper if I tell him what I’m looking for – I do a lot of my shopping online. It’s convenient and I can do it from anywhere. I don’t have to find the right shop or ask for assistance to locate the thing that I’m looking for in a physical shop. I can take my time reading information and virtually browsing what’s there.
But I encounter problems too. The kind of problems that leave me frustrated, disappointed, or just annoyed to have missed out on a bargain because the site wasn’t designed in a way that’s accessible to me as a screenreader user.
If I really want the thing, I might wait till my fiancé has time and ask him to do the necessary mouse clicks. But not everyone has this option, and we shouldn’t have to do it. Also, if there’s a sale and things are being snapped up fast, there might be nothing left by the time I have a functional pair of eyes around to help.
An accessible website doesn’t need to look any different for the other users, but it does mean not cutting corners with the coding. It also means making sure people who can’t see images and don’t use a mouse have the same good customer experience as everyone else.
The problem is that most people won’t see there’s a problem. It doesn’t stand out visually, but it’s there, lurking in the code, ready to enrage anyone who comes across it that uses a screenreader to navigate the site.
Let me tell you about some of the common culprits that lead me to abandon my virtual shopping trolley!
1. Lack of product descriptions
It’s fine if you want to call your lipsticks things like “flirtatious”, “happy”, or “adventurous”, but what colour does that make you think of? You don’t know? Neither do I, and lucky dip lipstick shades isn’t my favourite game! I know brands want to give their products cool names, but I, and other blind or colour blind people would be so much happier if the product description gave us a clue.
Don’t get me started talking about wedding dress window shopping online – the descriptions tell me nothing about how the dresses actually look!
When faced with this problem, if I can’t ask someone what the colours actually are, I often walk off empty-handed.
2. Unlabelled Links
You have three links, and they’re all labelled as “link” because someone didn’t actually label the link. So which one do you click? I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to click things unless I know what they do. There is probably an image that makes it obvious to a sighted person what the links are for – but that doesn’t help someone who needs links to be labelled correctly in the code.
3. Inaccessible date pickers
Most of the time you just want your shopping to land on your doorstep ASAP, but if you’re buying a birthday present for a certain date, or you don’t want your Mother’s Day flowers to show up three weeks to early, you might have to use a date picker. Drop-down boxes or text boxes where you write in the date yourself are usually fine, but some people use date pickers that only work if you use a mouse. I don’t use a mouse, and if I can’t pick a date, I might not be able to continue to the next step of the checkout process. The wheels came off my virtual trolley!
4. Inaccessible sign-ups
I remember one site where you had to create an account. The account form needed a date of birth, though I don’t know why – it was only a clothes shop – but you guessed it! This meant I couldn’t sign up for the account because there was an inaccessible date picker.
Other problems with account sign-ups can be CAPCHAs. There are ways round the ones with writing that is difficult to read. Some are accessible, such as the ones where there is a sound file, or the ones where you type in the answer to questions like “what’s 4 times 2?” or “what animal has four legs and barks?”. But the “click on any images of buildings” type questions are a nightmare for me because I can’t complete them.
5. Refreshing text
A couple of years ago, a well-known department store thought it would be a fantastic idea to have a message that appeared every couple of seconds telling you about some Christmas promotion. Every time it did, my screenreader lost its place and hopped obediently back up to the top of the page. I know how to make my browser ignore attempts to refresh the page, but not everyone does and it was really annoying!
6. Videos that you can’t stop
To be honest, news sites are the main offenders here, but I have seen some retail sites doing it too if they want to show you a video of someone using a particular product. The issue here is that the sound starts playing and I have to navigate around the site to figure out how to turn it off, if it can be turned off at all. This is not easy when the video is louder than my screenreader and I can’t hear what the screenreader is saying.
7. Important information about the products that is displayed as text
It may look like text, but if it’s an image of text, a screenreader will often just register it as an image. This tends to happen more when people are promoting events or courses, but I’ve seen it being used for products and services too, which is why I’ve included it. There are ways to use optical character recognition to extract text from images, but not everyone has access to them, and they create extra work that I don’t have time for.
8. Updates to the site that make it inaccessible overnight
There’s nothing more frustrating than going to a site that you know and love, only to find that someone gave it a make-over, and introduced updates that made it either more of a pain to navigate, or else completely inaccessible.
9. Inaccessible buttons
This is similar to the link dilemma – do you click unlabelled0, unlabelled1, or unlabelled2? Do you want to take that risk?
10. Inaccessible checkouts
And finally – you’ve negotiated all the other obstacles, your basket is packed full of good things, and you try to check out. But the check-out link can only be activated by a mouse, or there is some element in the check-out process that doesn’t work with a screenreader. This is the most frustrating one of all, because you’ve spent time collecting the items, started looking forward to getting them, but you can’t hand over your money. It’s like turning up to a physical shop and being told the only currency you have is the only one they don’t take.
These things don’t stop my shopping habit, and when I find shops that do take the time to get things right, I’m a loyal customer. My partner knows more about cosmetics and women’s clothes than most guys would want to! But it would be lovely to be able to shop wherever I want, whenever I want, without wondering whether the shop will be accessible, or whether I’ll need to track down some sighted help to get the job done.
Thank you to Kirsty for highlighting the issues she faces when shopping online. Many of these are access features I wouldn’t even consider when shopping. Just like some wouldn’t consider high mirrors or mounted displays being an obstacle for myself.
It wasn’t until I got to know Kirsty and her blog that I realised parts of my own blog were inaccessible to some. I’ve hopefully resolved that now, but we can all take for granted that others needs are the same as our own.
Check out Kirsty’s blog, Unseen Beauty.
You can also connect with her on Twitter