Media websites all Flash, no accessibility

Last week, a group called AccessibilitéWeb released a report that evaluated major websites for accessibility to the disabled. The Gazette described it as “scathing” for its exposure of the very poor performance of certain websites.

Canadian government websites, unsurprisingly, rated very high.

The other end of the scale will come as no surprise for those who read this blog regularly:

Media websites scored the worst, with an average rating of 5.48.

Later, the article explains one of the reasons for this:

To François Aubin, an expert at usability and ergonomics firm Cognitive Group, the numbers are not surprising. He goes as far to say that half of websites aren’t even accessible to able-bodied people.

Many times the text is too small for normal standards and the information is badly organized, he said.

“There’s a big paradox in Web accessibility,” he said. “Sometimes you make sites accessible, but not for the everyman.” As an example, the city of Montreal created a good accessible version of its portal, but the regular site remains confusing for the layperson.

“You can follow all the technical norms, but it’s more important for people to find info they’re looking for,” Aubin said.

Their table listing the top 200 websites accessible to Quebecers gives some more details on how the sites ranked. Only government websites received their top rating.

Here’s how the mainstream Canadian media sites did:

Radio-Canada

  • Ranked: 27th (C or “good”)
  • Accessibility problems: An over-reliance on JavaScript, missing or redundant/useless ALT text, unnecessary Flash, text in images, and a fixed, graphical-based layout.
  • My pet peeve: They have plenty of audio and video clips online, but make it almost impossible to link to them directly, assuming trying to view them doesn’t crash my browser.

Cyberpresse

  • Ranked: 109th (E or “very poor”)
  • Accessibility problems: Missing ALT text, links with the same text, tables used for layout, pop-up windows
  • My pet peeve: Archaic pixel-measured three-column layout. 275 links on the homepage is way too much. And is that MS Comic Sans as the photo caption font?

TQS

  • Ranked: 141st (E or “very poor”)
  • Accessibility problems: Over-reliance on Flash and JavaScript, broken links, missing ALT text, linkes with the same text, pop-up windows, tables used for layout
  • My pet peeve: The only thing worse than an 800-pixel fixed layout is a 1024-pixel fixed layout. Homepage is a mess, and almost completely unusable without its style sheet. Over 300 links on the homepage.

Canoe

  • Ranked: 146th (E or “very poor”)
  • Accessibility problems: Navigation by JavaScript, broken links, too much Flash
  • My pet peeve: Videos that play without you asking them to, >300 links, 1024-pixel fixed-width messy layout similar to TQS, text is way too small.

CTV.ca

  • Ranked: 155th (E or “very poor”)
  • Accessibility problems: Navigation by JavaScript, tables used or layout, very difficult to navigate without stylesheets, iframes, missing ALT text
  • My pet peeve: Links open in new window, lots of images, video requires Windows Media Player

Toronto Star

  • Ranked: 158th (E or “very poor”)
  • Accessibility problems: Missing ALT text, tables used for layout, lots of JavaScript
  • My pet peeve: Fixed-pixel layout, bottom half of homepage is a complete mess, can’t make heads or tails without stylesheet

Global TV

  • Ranked: 169th (E or “very poor”)
  • Accessibility problems: Missing ALT text, tables used for layout
  • My pet peeve: Video plays (with audio) without permission, a lot of things that should be links aren’t

If you’re thinking this list is incomplete, you’re not the only one. Le Devoir and The Gazette are notably absent. The list is based on the top 200 websites in Quebec according to ComScore, which I guess is an unbiased enough criteria. But you’d think exceptions could be made. Tetesaclaques.tv and Heavy.com are on there. Do we really care about those more than two major media sources in Montreal?

The other problem I have with the survey is its methodology: It seems to rely on a quantitative measure of the number of errors in the code rather than putting someone in front of a computer and seeing how well they cope finding information with each site. They just ran an online accessibility checker they created on each site and summarized the results.

I can live with that, even though it provides an inaccurate accounting of how accessible each site really is, but I’m not going to pay $500 for each site’s report. The only people who are going to do that are the owners of the largest sites, who can scan the report and make some recommendations to their code lackeys like “we should have ALT text for all images” that they should already know.

They’re still not learning

Automatically-playing audio, distracting animation, overcrowded homepages and bad JavaScript links are problems that have existed since the dawn of the WWW in one form or another. It’s shocking that these problems still exist.

But as Patrick Tanguay points out, the people who evaluate websites look at the wow factor rather than the ability to find information you’re looking for. Winners of the Infopresse Boomerang prizes show this very obviously: They’re all Flash-based, very inaccessible, and turn navigation into a frustrating game rather than an intuitive process.

One of their grand prize winners, Montréal en 12 lieux, is a perfect example. It has a lot of great content. Videos, pictures, stories. It’s really cool. But it’s also unnecessarily difficult to navigate. One level of navigation actually involves chasing after pictures that are spinning around at variable speeds. I had to stop watching the videos at one point because the strain on my poor computer’s CPU and memory became too much to bear.

At some point, people are going to have to learn that “cool” and “good-looking” aren’t synonyms for “good” when dealing with web design. Craigslist and Google should have proven that by now.

UPDATE (Dec. 12): A defence of the Boomerangs (basically about how they’ve honoured non-Flash sites in the past, which is a rather silly argument), and an idea for a competing competition, decided by users. And Patrick responds to responses of his criticisms of the awards.

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