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.
I found it interesting that Ranti mentioned a common mistake found on museum websites is publishing too much information. As a museum educator, I often find myself wanting to share as much information as possible with visitors. I frequently have to stop, step back, and realize that I’m trying to fit too much into a program or tour, and edit it down to a manageable size. It’s good to hear that others have this problem, and that this issue translates to websites as well. We can all benefit from condensing the information we share to give visitors an exciting experience and keep them wanting more, hopefully inspiring them to visit the physical institution.
It was interesting to hear Ranti’s experience with Screen Reader, and how label makers make the best writers because their words are clear and economic. The point that Screen Reader doesn’t do with jargon hit home for me. I write some of the content for my museum’s website, and I use the phrase “click here for more information” A LOT. Her mention of this in the interview makes me want to alter all of my future web submissions
Ranti’s conveyed her message without fanfare. Her conviction is that an accessible website is a benefit to everyone. After visiting the Smithsonian’s website accessibility page http://www.si.edu/FAQs/Access I wonder why other institutions do not post a similar message and a Browsaloud plug-in. The message I receive after reading the page is that not only is everyone welcome at the Smithsonian, but the staff want everyone to have a successful visit.
Having a job that helps others lead more fulfilling lives must be so very rewarding; thank you, Ranti for making a positive difference for those who are “sometimes deprived of information” because of a disability. You made a great point that an accessible web design benefits everybody so there isn’t any need to think “this group or that group.” Taking into account accessibility at the beginning of the design makes sense. It is usually harder to go back and change what’s already in place.
Like Matt, I too found interesting that one of the most common mistakes a museum can make is publishing too much content to their website. I guess I am wondering if the information is organized in a visually appealing manner would it still deter visitors from the site. Take for example natural history and science museums who often publish their research and at times have 100’s of 1000’s of collections online. This type of information might not necessarily be accessible in the physical museum so the website acts as a repository for the content. I did find this helpful in that I will need to be mindful of user information overload when designing my project for class.
Ranti, thank you so much for sharing with our class. I love the concept that “accessible design benefits everyone.” This is completely true. Screen readers can help users multi task, being able to listen to a website instead of read through it. Easily readable web sites are easier to read for all visitors, and well described images are also a boon to all visitors. More website designers should make sure to see this as an all, not some, mentality.
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 think it’s interesting that a poor website won’t deter Ranti from visiting a museum, but a mediocre website might put her off… I feel that a poor website that has little to offer typically reflects the physical institution, meaning that the museum most likely also has little to offer. It does make me feel a bit more optimistic that not everyone is discouraged from visiting a museum after viewing a dissapointing website. I really feel that it’s extremely important today that a museum’s website is an accurate and appropriate representation and reflection of the museum itself. In Ranti’s case, websites that offer options and technology conducive to the special needs of their disabled visitors, the physical museum should offer the same options, and more.
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