Endless Frustration

Summer in the Pacific Northwest tends to be absolutely beautiful. Temperatures rarely go above 80 degrees. Breezes offer just enough wind to keep things moving. Storms, as much as I sometimes miss them, rarely spoil the day. Mosquitoes and other flying insects are all but absent from the environment. All in all, as I say summer in the Northwest is pretty close to perfect in my book.

 

Notebook in hand, I decided to resolve a minor annoyance to make my summer even better. I have some Rockport sandals I wear just about all the time in the summer. Far and away they are the most comfortable sandals I’ve ever owned and I was looking to replace them because the bottom of one is wearing out.

 

I started my sojourn into sandal shopping at Endless.com. This is Amazon’s entry into the shoe market that, according to press accounts, is supposed to have a large selection, good prices and such. You know all the things that make the main Amazon.com site so popular for shopping online.

 

This was my first visit to Amazon’s shoe shop and it was another quick reminder of how far web accessibility still has to go. We can have all the accessibility guidelines and standards we want, but my experience is still far too often that web sites present a daunting set of accessibility challenges.

 

This isn’t an indictment of Amazon or Endless. I’m reasonably certain that if you asked the web site developers of these sites, or any site for that matter, if they wanted their pages to be accessible they’d answer in the affirmative. Getting to that point is, however, frequently a different story and I suspect that more often than not the web developers have little idea of whether their pages are accessible or not.

 

To me the questions that are important to answer revolve around what contributes to sites not being accessible and what can the entire web community do to improve things. Guidelines and standards are not enough.

 

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that web accessibility is frequently a moving target. The key to success is finding the sweet spot where site flare and pizzazz intersect with browser support of a technology and where those two meet up with assistive technology support for the end result. Frequently this will mean you may not have the absolute latest and greatest but my experience is also that it doesn’t mean you need to have the most basic and primitive web site.

 

Long term things like web aria (accessible rich internet applications) probably hold the key to making the next big leap in web accessibility. That said, there are steps that can be taken today that would improve site accessibility drastically based on my experience.

More awareness and end user testing with assistive technology would help immensely in improving web accessibility. The majority of technical issues that need to be sorted out today are not overly complex when you break them down to their basic components. Starting with the basic building blocks of HTML, and layering the richer experiences you want to create on top of this gets you most of the way. From time to time you’ll find an issue that needs more attention and then it is typically a case of working with the assistive technology industry to add support for a design situation that’s becoming commonplace.

 

That said, you could still easily end up with a site that met all kinds of technical standards for accessibility but that wasn’t very usable. I know that when I work with people on web accessibility our discussions are more productive when we talk about the end user experience that’s being created versus just the technical nuts and bolts of how to address things like alternative text, we make a lot more progress.

 

While this isn’t a comprehensive analysis, in the case of Endless, a few changes would improve accessibility and usability immensely. First off full use of alternative text, something that’s been a persistent problem with Amazon pages in my experience would help. Today there are too many instances of links that read like this:

 

200107210/ref=topnav_beta_b

homepage/ref=topnav_gw_b

homepage/ref=topnav_gw_b

 

Anyone who uses a screen reader is familiar with this sort of link. It represents a situation where alternative text has been skipped.

 

Category selections on Endless for limiting by size, brand, color and such could be created as full links instead of merely accepting mouse clicks. Finally more appropriate uses of HTML headings on category listing pages where the details about free overnight shipping instead of product names are headings today would improve navigation.

 

Technically none of these changes would be complicated. Given that the site is now live there would obviously be a need for more testing before making such changes but I suspect that had someone mentioned these changes at the time the site was being developed, none of these changes would have been refused.

 

We’ll see what sort of luck contacting Endless has in making progress. For now it is off to the nexe purveyor of summer footware to enjoy a bit more of summer strolling.

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