May 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Opening e-retailers` eyes

(Page 2 of 3)

Retailer sites haven`t been held as directly accountable for accessibility. But short of a body of law specifically compelling them to be accessible, retailers have plenty of other reasons to make their sites accessible, advocates say. For one, blind Internet users, representing current and potential online customers, are greater in number than many realize.

The National Federation of the Blind says 1 million U.S. citizens are blind, with as many as 10 million falling into the category of blind or visually impaired. The group expects that number to double as the baby boomer population ages. That number, Schade points out, does not even include the larger number of web users with motor difficulties or other disabilities that might benefit from other types of assistance in using retail and other sites, for instance, voice recognition software for those who can�t use a keyboard or a mouse.

"By not working toward accessibility, a huge potential market is missed completely," says Schade. "If a site is not accessible, users simply cannot use it, even if they want to. It`s like locking your shop`s door to millions of potential customers."

Being aware of the need for accessibility on retail web sites is one thing; getting many of today`s existing sites there is another. Often retailers looking at accessibility don`t know where to start in determining how to make their sites accessible, or in gauging what it will cost them in time, effort and money.

"The number one problem is a lack of understanding among developers about how to do this. There just isn`t a special course on accessibility taught in schools," says Jim Thatcher, an expert witness for the National Federation of the Blind in the Target case, and a private consultant. Thatcher, a retired IBM engineer, spearheaded that company`s campaign to bring accessibility to its web development efforts.

Company culture

Thatcher also cites a couple of other reasons for why retail and other sites aren`t more accessible, such as company culture. Of IBM, Thatcher says, "It`s a top-down company. It`s easier when the executives say, we`re going to have accessible products. With companies that are less top-down, it`s harder to instill accessibility in the development of the web site."

The cost of creating access on a site is another factor. Accessibility advocates make the point that developing web pages that are also accessible doesn`t cost much more than developing a web site that is not accessible. Many of the design principles that support accessibility, for instance, selecting colors with strong contrast, also improve general usability for all site visitors.

The relative parity in cost may be true when web pages are in the development stage. But millions of retail web pages are beyond that stage; they exist as already-developed entities. Making pages accessible by retro-fitting rather than new construction is a more expensive proposition, Thatcher acknowledges.

"If you have a large web site and you suddenly want to make it accessible, that is a huge challenge," he says. Changing individual pages can become expensive in terms of the developer hours required. "With very large sites, multiply any number of web pages by just a few minutes and you have a problem," he adds.

That said, he adds: "Many very large retailers are working hard to make their sites accessible."

Because of ongoing consulting relationships with several of them, Thatcher would not disclose names but does cite one with which his relationship is public.

Checkpoints

Under a 2004 settlement with the State of New York, following an investigation by the New York Attorney General, Priceline.com, along with Ramada Inns, agreed to implement accessibility standards authored by the World Wide Web Consortium to support assistive technology such as screen reader software.

Thatcher, the appointed auditor for the Priceline case, monitored Priceline`s progress toward accessibility for three years under the agreement. He`s been back at Priceline`s request since the original three-year agreement concluded.

For retailers who don`t know what to do first, the guidelines by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium are a place to start. The Section 508 accessibility standards, another set of guidelines, overlap them to a degree but each contains items not in the other.

The two sets of guidelines advocate measures such as ensuring in the development of an accessible web page that equivalent dynamic content is updated when dynamic content is updated; and ensuring that information conveyed with color is also available without color, such as through context or developer markup.

So-called Priority One checkpoints in the Web Accessibility Guidelines are those that must be satisfied by web sites, or groups such as blind users will find it impossible to access information on the web page. Priority Two guidelines should be addressed by developers or some groups of users will find it difficult to use the site; Priority Three guidelines may be addressed by developers to maximize a site`s accessibility.

Figuring out what makes a web site accessible is one issue, but the design challenge faced by e-retailers looking to increase access goes beyond that. Many retailers believe that part of what distinguishes their site from others is advanced imaging that lets online shoppers spin or rotate product images, try on apparel using a 3-D model, or fill an online kitchen with virtual appliances. But if they want to pursue accessibility, those retailers must find the balance between pushing the envelope in adding dazzling new features that may not lend themselves to that goal, and building a site that works for as many people as possible.

No separate site

A strategy of creating a separate accessible text-only version of a site may be seem like an answer, but Eric Damery, product manager of the JAWS Screen Reader manufactured by Freedom Scientific Inc., disagrees. "The trouble is that people don`t maintain them and they don`t stay current," he says. "It`s far less expensive and more practical to incorporate good design using the right tools."

Some rich media applications are accessible to blind web users that use products such as JAWS for Windows. If the video is marked up correctly on the page, JAWS can communicate to users that a Flash-based video is present on a web page, indicate its basic content, and users can launch the video to hear anything audible, Damery says.

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