This last year, I’ve been happy that engineering teams are asking me to talk about accessibility earlier and earlier in their development process. A few months ago, one team asked me to look at a prototype that was a bunch of images with a few hot spots. I’m used to getting code and running my typical test pass. But, in this case, I couldn’t.
At first, I thought about what it would take to make the prototype accessible, about the HTML that they would need to write. But, this was an MVP (minimum viable product) to get quick feedback on their design. It didn’t seem worth the investment and it didn’t feel agile enough. So, how was I going to get feedback about the usability of the non-visual user experience at the same time they were getting feedback about the visual user experience?
I took the prototype to a friend who is blind and I pretended to be a screen reader. Instead of him interacting with the computer, he told me what keys he would press and I responded as I understood a screen reader would respond.
“To start,” he said, “I would press the down arrow 4 times.”
I responded by reading the first 4 lines of text on the page.
He said, “Hmm. This page doesn’t have any headings or landmarks?”
I broke character for a second, “Yes, it does. It has 10 headings and 4 landmarks.”
“Oh, well the screen reader would have told me that when the page loads and then I would have used that information to get a sense of the layout of this page.” He said.
“Ahhh-ha! Right. Yes, I forgot that part. Let’s start again.” And I returned to my role as screen reader.
For the next 30 minutes we “played” with the site. I learned where I had holes in my understanding of some of the strategies that people use when navigating a new site with a screen reader. I evolved my knowledge about how a screen reader announces certain aspects of a web page.
I went into the session with a list of recommendations I was planning to make to the engineering team. I left with a new list of recommendations and set of strategies to use the next time I play the role of a Screen Reader.
Many thanks to Kelly Ford for collaborating with me on this experiment.
[Note: This is based on the idea of a Wizard of Oz experiment, common UX research mechanism.]