Web usability obstacles abound

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"Increasing access"

You'll need keen eyesight and a steady hand if you hope to work for the Environmental Protection Agency — at least if you do your job hunting on the Internet.

The "Jobs" link on the EPA's Web site (www.epa.gov) is tiny and "very difficult to see for people with low vision," and hard to click for those with dexterity problems, says Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen.

Such usability problems abound in cyberspace. From corporate Web sites to government pages, ease of use, logic and clarity are often elusive. Poor design is impeding the potential of the Internet, especially for people with disabilities, Nielsen contends.

In a study being released today, he found that the Web is three times harder for people with disabilities to use than it is for those without disabilities. The study concentrated on Web users who are blind or have low vision and use screen readers or screen magnification software to navigate the Internet.

The Web users were asked to perform a series of tasks — find information, buy something online, get transit information and research mutual funds. Those with vision impairments had success rates four to six times lower than sighted users. They took about twice as long to find information or conduct transactions and made up to eight times as many errors in the process.

Congress has passed legislation that requires federal agencies to make their Web sites more accessible to people with disabilities. But Web pages can comply with accessibility requirements spelled out in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and still suffer from usability problems, Nielsen said.

The EPA page with the tiny "Jobs" link, for example, meets accessibility requirements, he said.

The White House Web site is another Section 508-compliant site with usability problems. The home page contains "an enormous number of links to other pages." There are 62, to be exact. Although intended to provide an easy way for users to find more information, the links reduce usability for those with visual impairments because it is time-consuming to comb through them with a screen readers or by magnifying section after section of the screen.

The Internal Revenue Service's home page suffers from a similar problem, Nielsen said. "It takes forever to get to the point."

Fancy cursive lettering across the top of the White House home page is difficult for people with low vision to read, and the buttons that activate links to some inside pages are too small, he said.

However, the White House site does include several important usability features. For example, it tells viewers immediately that it is the White House site. On many sites, such key information appears in the middle of the home page, which is fine for sighted users, but not readily apparent to those who rely on screen readers.

The site also offers a search box near the top, which helps users with visual impairments find what they're looking for without having to sift through every item on the page.

Usability is more than just a matter of convenience. It is a matter of lost productivity and, for businesses, lost revenue, said Nielsen, whose firm, Nielsen Norman Group, advises companies on how to make their Web sites more usable.

For the government, poor Web site usability translates into wasted money.

Because of poor Web design, online information and services do not reach as many people as they might. Therefore, transactions that could take place online at little cost may have to be performed on paper or in person at a higher cost, Nielsen said.

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