For the past two months, WebAIM has been conducting a Screen Reader survey to get a feel for how users deal with various types of web content. There were 1121 participants, 95% of them being blind and/or low vision, and the remaining consisted of testers and/or web designers who use screen readers for evaluation purposes. The abilities of the participants in terms of computer and screen reader proficiency varied, but 44% said they were advanced and very proficient. About 74% use jaws, 23% Window-eyes and the rest using other listed software. As far as web browsers, most used IE 7, with Firefox being the second choice. If you go to the WebAIM: Screen Reader survey results link, you can read all of these demographics, as well as the breakdown of all the results. I found the results very interesting and overall am right there with the majority of the participants.
One of the biggest surprises was that heading structures are more important to most Screen Reader users than once thought. The more expert the user, the more important heading structure became. Personally, I navigate by headings whenever possible. I will look for those first thing when visiting a web page and get a little sad when they aren’t present. Another fascinating result had to do with text only versions of web pages. Only 24% use them when they are available, and the more expert users did not use them much at all. My take on it, there are some sites that I will absolutely use the text only version, a main one being Amazon.com. While I can function just fine on the main page, graphics and all, the text only version takes out a lot of the unnecessaries and gives me what I need quickly and more efficiently. With Amazon’s site, the text only version is the same as the version used by mobile devices and that works very well. That said, not all text only versions work well, and some leave out vital content that if used, you would not have access to.
The survey also asked about PDF files being used. The results were even. Those with expert experience with computers, Screen Readers and Adobe found no problem with PDF content on a site. To me, if a PDF file is designed correctly, it can be very usable and yes accessible. The same goes for flash content. As I have said here before, there is good flash and not so good flash, but not all flash is inaccessible.
One of the biggest issues was about immages. Do you tag and describe all immages, logos and photos or not? What is necessary and what becomes downright annoying with long drawn-out descriptions? If the immage is for mood, you know to cause you to have really strong feelings about the site’s content, can you describe that picture and have a blind person feel that mood? Personally, not for me. It’s like having someone describe America’s Funniest Home Videos to you, you just don’t get what is so funny most of the times, or at least I don’t. If the descriptions are short and to the point, then I welcome that, but it is not of utmost importance to me. Logos, I’m sure they’re pretty and fun to look at, but I really don’t need them described, except to specify that it is a logo. Photos however, I would like to know about. I’d like it to tell me I’m looking at a photo and then have a short description of the picture. If you are viewing the Guide Dogs for the Blind website with jaws, you can hear short descriptions of some of the photos displayed. One of my big reasons for wanting these descriptions is so that if I am talking to someone about a web site, I can say that there are some great photos of, say Morgan Watkins and his guide dog on that page, or whatever the picture may be. Still, short and to the point descriptions, please.
Overall, the results of this survey can be a guide but not a standard. Everyone has different preferences, just like people have differing opinions on what is visually appealing to them. If web designers simply follow the main guidelines for accessibility, they can decide for themselves on the differing perspectives and still make an accessible usable web site. It is great that WebAim has taken the time to do this kind of survey, because even if you only learn one thing you didn’t know, you are that much closer to making the internet more user friendly and accessible to all.