Every little helps?

If you shop at Tesco, you'll know that "every little helps". If you're one of their blind or partially sighted online customers though, you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. As Tesco close their access site and move people over to their new primary website, there are growing concerns about how accessibility has been factored into the user experience.

So what's going on?

Tesco Access was developed with help from the RNIB, and launched back in 2001. It became the first website to carry the RNIB's See It Right award and was seen as a positive step for web accessibility.

That said, at the time the idea of a separate website for people with disabilities was viewed with caution, something I've written about before. I must admit my opinion hasn't changed substantially since then. Tesco Access was a good example of why the idea of a separate site is flawed, because it lacked many of the features available on the main website such as eCoupons.

Despite the lack of functionality compared to the main site, Tesco Access proved to be fairly popular. Blind and partially sighted people welcomed the improved accessibility, and people who preferred a quicker shopping experience also started to use it.

Back to the present, and Tesco has decided to do away with the access site and provide everyone with a unified website. It's an idea that's got a lot of merit. It makes sense for Tesco commercially because it slashes the cost of running two websites. It should also be good for Tesco's customers with disabilities, because it should gives them access to the full range of previously unavailable features.

So what's got everyone so worked up?

It seems that the new Tesco website is extremely awkward for blind and partially sighted people to use. A recent thread on the BCAB discussion list is typical of the frustrations people are feeling.

So is there anything to the problems people are reporting?

The best way to decide is to take a fairly standard task and do a quick screen reader comparison. It doesn't make much difference in this case, but for those who like to know such things, I used Jaws v11 and Firefox 3.6. The task was to search for a product and add it to my basket (assuming you're already logged into your account).

On the Tesco Access site these are the steps I would have taken:

  1. Type a product name into the search box and submit the search.
  2. On the results page, use the table quick nav key (t) to move to the product list table.
  3. Use a table navigation command (Control + Alt + down arrow) to move through the column of product titles.
  4. On finding the right product, move to the quantity field, add a number and press Enter to add to basket.

On the new Tesco site these are the steps I've just taken:

  1. Type a product name into the search box and submit the search.
  2. On the results page, use the heading quick nav key (h) to move to the primary heading on the page.
  3. Use the 2nd level heading quick nav key (2) to move to the product filter heading.
  4. Use the 2nd level heading quick nav key to move to the product pagination heading.
  5. Use the 2nd level heading quick nav key to move to the product list heading.
  6. Use the 3rd level heading (3) to move through the product titles in the list.
  7. On finding the right product, move to the quantity field and press Enter to add to basket.

It could be argued that the Tesco website is technically accessible, although you'd have to overlook the rather basic ommission of alternative text descriptions on the product images to do that convincingly. The real trouble is that it isn't at all enjoyable to use. In fact, it's incredibly frustrating. A process that used to take just three or four steps has now almost doubled in complexity. People are also venting similar frustration about tasks including finding products from previous orders or lists of favourites lists.

The people reporting these problems are competent computer users. They're regular online shoppers and know their way around their chosen access technologies. If a less confident person were to tackle the same task, by using just the basic heading quick nav key for example, they'd need to hit it 29 times to reach the first product in the list!

Thinking about accessibility in isolation isn't enough. Don't get me wrong, accessibility is absolutely vital, but it has to be part of a more considered strategy that includes usability as well. Yes, people need to be able to access information and services. But we also want to enjoy the experience whilst we're at it. Right?