We spoke with Ranti about museum website usability.
What would be your top three reasons for improving access to museum audiences?
Improving accessibility provides an equal opportunity to all users, increases diversity and if funding for the website comes from a government grant, it is a legal requirement.
What technical and philosophical challenges need to be overcome to improve accessibility?
First of all the culture of the organization plays an important role. Creating an accessible website is a business decision. The leadership team in some organizations might be unaware of the issue of compliance until it is pointed out. Re-designing a website can present significant technical, usability and financial challenges. Improving accessibility offers an opportunity to educate peers within an organization as well as provide equal opportunity of access.
Please share what in your view, are the critical elements that are necessary for improving usability?
First of all, the mission and goal of the organization is central to improving accessibility.
Knowledge of one’s audience is critically important. Exhibit designers know what adaptations they need to make in order for all people to enjoy their exhibitions. In the same way, web designers need to understand their audiences and their needs. Are visitors coming to the website primarily for information? To explore the collection?
Creating surveys is essential as is posing questions to users and testing how they use the site. Testing is an ongoing process as technology and content changes make additional testing necessary. One can test using volunteers or just a few people. It is important to see users reactions as they test the website. Obtaining feedback from usability testers, making modifications and testing again is all part of the process. Testing discrete items such as button locations and font sizes is important too.
How can you build a website that works well with programs like Browse aloud? How do the words in text boxes or page links not get mixed up with main text?
I do not have experience with this program, but I do have experience with Screen Reader. Screen Readers work well if the coding has been written appropriately on the page. The words in text boxes should not get mixed up with the main text. If the sentence structures do not include the use of jargon there should be little confusion. Label designers are perfect candidates for writing suitable content for Screen Readers, they write clearly and economically. User Instructions such as” click here for collections information” needs to be modified for the Screen Reader to: “In order to read more about our collection, please click here”.
In your experience designing websites, have you used the paper prototyping method or do you begin with coding the prototype site and re-code as changes are made?
I use paper prototyping for new projects, I usually don’t need it for simple improvements to a website. The coding route is more expensive, re-writing code is even more expensive.
It is better to have a clear goal from the start and to incorporate accessibility into the design and programming of a website.
What are the most common mistake museums make that affects usability?
Publishing too much information on the website. It is easy to forget when we build a website that our perspective does not count, although our design choices may make sense to us. We must keep our audience in mind, some visitors experience information overload and leave the site without accomplishing their objective for visiting.
In some organizations there can be power struggles about decisions regarding posting content on websites. Who has the authority to make the call? Leadership team? Designers? Or could it be a collaborative decision?
Providing evidence of user testing and feedback can have a powerful knock-on effect. If the website is pleasant and easy to use, visitors may decide to visit the museum in person.
What museum website/s would you call the “gold standard” for usability?
It depends what type of museum we are talking about. Are we talking about an Art Museum? A Children’s Museum? A Historical Museum?
It also depends on what the purpose or goal of the website is; is it to provide information, share the collection or to play a game?
The Smithsonian Institute website is the museum site that I consider to be the gold standard for usability.
How can accessibility-driven web design actually improve the user experience for those who have no disabilities?
It is best not to think in terms like that, rather to think of providing a seamless website experience for all.
What are some useful resources that you have referenced in designing a website to improve usability?
Thank you Ranti for the list of resources that we shared with our class.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job regarding accessibility for people with disabilities?
Understanding the pain points that users experience has opened up my eyes to their situation. Sometimes they are deprived of information. Providing services to address their needs is rewarding.
How have users with disabilities been reacting and responding to your improvements in accessibility?
The number of visually impaired students requesting services is rising, which is a good thing. One visually impaired student is taking Pre-Med classes, and is facing the challenge of understanding Anatomy via textbook images. Students request services and generally do not provide feedback unless something is not working. No news is good news.
How do you go about conducting an accessibility assessment of a website to determine whether it’s meeting the needs of all of its users especially people with disabilities?
First of all it is important to know who you users are. There are two ways of conducting an accessibility assessment of a website; using automated tools which highlights coding problems, and manually. A manual assessment tells you how users work the website. I try to emulate typical Screen Reader behavior when I test a site, but each user has different needs.
There seems to be a lot of different tools that can be used in the physical museum to help people with disabilities access the collection, e.g. Braille keyboards, color magnification systems, and keyboards with a variety of layouts for users with limited mobility, but other than the opportunity to enlarge the text, I have not seen much for the online user with other disabilities. Are you familiar with any other options that a web designer might be able to use to help the handicapped-online users experience a more engaging one?
There are tools for visitors with dyslexia (changing font size) and for those who are colorblind. For example a website with a grey background and grey font is basically unreadable for a colorblind visitor. Videos with closed captions enable Deaf or hard of hearing visitors, or those whose first language is not English or who are beginner readers, to follow the script. In conclusion, it is important to incorporate accessibility into the initial design of a website. An accessible design benefits everyone.
Ranti spoke convincingly to us about the need for museums to design and produce accessible, user-centric websites. She believes that a user-friendly seamless experience on the web often translates into foot-traffic in a physical museum. Ranti shared that while on vacation or after conferences, she often checks museum websites before visiting a museum in person. A poor website might not deter her from a museum she has already planned to visit, but a mediocre website might put her off a museum that was not high on her list. I wonder how welcome a visually impaired person feels when encountering a website that is not compatible with a Screen Reader? I wonder how much it encourages them to visit the physical museum. Careful design, coding and frequent testing with subsequent adjustments to website tools, layout and/or formatting after receiving feedback from users, appears to be a recipe for a usable website for all.