Deep Accessibility and Usability Testing
It’s no secret the web is becoming a very complex place. Anyone who has ever managed their company’s efforts to create a web presence knows the choices can be dizzying. You have standard marketing issues, like identifying target audience. You have functional issues: Will this site be a tool to gather information? Will it advertise a new product or service? Will it be an online service in and of itself? Will it sell a product? Will it be all of the above? And unless you have your own in-house development team you have to choose the right company to build and host your website; often listening to technical terms like HTML, XML, UML, .NET, ISP, ASP, ATS, CMS, RSS; server farm, co-location, W3C …It’s enough to leave your mind numb. And at the end of the day it’s all too easy to lose sight of the one thing that should never be forgotten – that potential visitor to your site.
More and more companies are becoming aware of the need to accommodate a broadening range of potential visitors to their websites. In our multicultural world these can be people for whom English is not a native language. As computers become less expensive, easier to use, and generally more prevalent in day to day life, those visitors might be seniors. And, as technology evolves that can output media in multiple ways, such as reading text aloud, the potential clients may even be blind. Testing is the key to satisfying the broadest range of visitors. Here is a quick overview of some necessary steps.
Functional testing is generally handled by the web development firm or department and is generally invisible to the client. It covers such things as verifying that links lead where they should and that forms and databases work together correctly. It asks the question, “Does it work right?”
HTML and CSS Validation Testing
The code that makes your website work should be written using formal grammar. It may function without following, so called, valid code standards but it will be treated by search engines and other automated systems as second class at best. It’s a bit like when you wrote essays at school – you had to use a formal structure and grammar. HTML and CSS validation asks the question, “Is it written and structured correctly?”
Automated Accessibility Testing
Automated accessibility testing
makes use of specialized software to examine your site’s code to see if certain elements to help handicapped people use the web are present. It is very efficient at finding errors and omissions at this level. It is somewhat analogous to a spell checker and even the grammar checker. Some packages are even sophisticated enough to offer advise on how to correct issues they discover. This level of testing asks, “Are the elements necessary for Accessibility Compliance present?”
Manual Accessibility Testing
During manual accessibility testing we examine a website the same way a handicapped person would, for instance by using software which reads the page aloud or magnifies the text. It can also mean checking that the copy is written clearly and plainly enough for someone new to English or even who is dyslexic to understand. The step is ordinarily carried out by test experts who are not themselves disabled or dependent on the software they use. It’s tempting to believe that automated accessibility testing is enough, but you shouldn’t. Just because elements necessary to meet accessibility standards are present doesn’t mean they are implemented well. Manual accessibility testing asks, “Is it designed with all potential clients using various output devices in mind?”
is generally carried out in specialized labs where ordinary people are invited to use your website while being observed by usability specialists. The user is given tasks, such as finding key information or making a purchase on the site. The specialist times the assignment and observes the user as he surfs through the site. At the end the user is asked to rate various features and describe his experience. This step is just as important as any of the preceding ones. After all, you have now invested considerable effort and resources into your company’s web presence and you should know if and where it’s weak points are so they can be addressed. If a client cannot find that item to buy or the information she wants, all your time and money have been wasted. Usability testing asks, “Does the site meet or exceed client expectations? Is it easy or even pleasurable to use?”
Deep testing is a new concept. It isn’t so much adding a new testing layer; it’s optimizing what is already there. For instance, if accessibility compliance is in the specification for a website the traditional method, as outlined above, sees accessibility testing as one or two distinct and separate layers. Deep Testing methodology would combine functional, automated accessibility, and validation testing into one step. The advantage is that it becomes a basic requirement and not an “add-on” or luxury. It is taken seriously by everyone from those responsible for design to testing to budgeting. Next, manual accessibility testing is carried out by someone who is not only an expert at using the software but dependent on it. In other words, if you are conducting screen reader testing then it is done by a visually impaired person, not a sighted “expert”. The advantage here is that by doing so you leverage the experience of the test specialist. The visually impaired user knows intimately what constitutes good and bad design from her own frustration at bad sites and pleasure from quality ones. She knows what navigation and user aids actually work. And finally, she brings to her work a personal passion and desire to help websites improve, simply because it will make her life that much easier and more fulfilling.
Why should the project manager who’s just been assigned the creation or upgrade of the company website care about all this? After all, isn’t it part of the developers’ responsibility? Yes, and no. Being aware of the general aspect of web development can only help you make decisions. And understanding the testing process makes you think about your requirements in a more results oriented way. If you know that website accessibility is going to be a requirement you should understand how it will be verified. You can understand, in advance, why simply running the site through automated testing doesn’t assure accessibility and you can budget time and money for deeper testing. You can take the time to find a testing firm separate from the developers to independently verify accessibility compliance – the only way to really know for sure. And having decided on testing, you will be armed with the understanding to maximize your efforts.