New Web leaving millions behind

As the amount of content and diversity of applications available over the Web grows exponentially, unyielding progress for most is a new roadblock for others. A growing number of Canadians with vision impairments, counting over one million, are being left behind, as the next-generation Web takes flight.

Learning firsthand how disabling an increasingly online world is, vision impaired concertgoers are turned away from, unable to purchase tickets — just try ordering by phone for a popular show.

Recently, while attempting to buy tickets from for Nickelback (guilty pleasure, I’ll admit) I was blocked by a security system designed to keep scalpers at bay. Known as a challenge-response system, it displays a random string of letters and numbers that could only be entered into a text box by a real person.

Because the characters are stretched and contorted in funny directions over a textured background, automated optical character recognition (OCR) software can’t make sense of the visual jumble, meaning scalpers and spammers can’t automate their job and have to do it by hand.

Trouble is, this visual challenge-response not only keeps out the bad guys, it stops vision-impaired customers, too.

Although this appears as an either-or proposition — that either scalpers and spammers are allowed to ruin the online experience for everyone or some legitimate users need to be denied access — it isn’t.

Microsoft, for example, has developed an audio challenge-response technology that provides a spoken rendition of the jumbled characters seen on screen. Currently used by MSN for Hotmail account signup, it keeps the bad guys out while letting everyone else use the service. Making Web content and functionality accessible to all users is not difficult or costly, but it does require planning and commitment.

In a digital age when customer service is easily provided in many ways (e.g., mobile, instant message, VoIP, audio, video) – serving all customers only makes sense.

Especially when you consider customers’ switching costs are dropping. With a plethora of information available to make choices quickly and easily, no business can afford to alienate any segment of the market.

This is particularly prescient as the Web teaches businesses how important “niche” is. Add up all the niche segments that a business serves and the argument goes that these many segments outnumber the value of the “mass” market.

At this point, accessibility of Web content and functionality for vision-impaired netizens is only worsening. Thankfully, the current first-generation Web is created mostly in text and is therefore easily interpreted by adaptive technology. Google, Amazon, Yahoo and millions of other Web sites have fairly straightforward designs.

And this is intentional, considering that many Web surfers still rely on slow dialup connections and have older computers that support older browsers. It turns out that some of these good design principles for the bandwidth- and CPU-challenged are welcoming to disabled Web surfers, too. Using screen reader technology (it reads out the text, links and properly ‘tagged’ images), screen enlargement (think Viagra for text) and Braille displays (like a monitor for the fingers) works reasonably well in interpreting the average Web page.

However, there is a transition underway from mostly text to a more whiz-bang graphics-intensive Web. Heralded as Web 2.0, the next generation Web boasts of AJAX-enriched sites built from mashups (the combination of multiple online sources of information and functionality). Incredible user experiences are being developed in this manner by the likes of Google, for example.

But what is a new frontier on the Web risks creating severe limits for disabled surfers.

If good universal design principles are used then everyone participates equally: great graphics win, Web accessibility wins and the bad guys lose. But if not, then one inaccessible site in a mashup across multiple sites, leaves some locked out completely.

Business leaders need to take an active role in observing the online practices to ensure that all customers are being served equally. There are resources to help, such as the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Taking action early is not costly and sets a standard that follows forward. And I say this for selfish reasons, as frankly, I really would hate to be prevented from rocking out to an unlikely Twisted Sister reunion tour.

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Senf is the manager of IDC Canada’s Canadian Software Research Service. He can be reached at [email protected].

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