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Keyboard equivalent of “looking”?

January 10, 2012

Are you a web developer or tester? You might be interested in this…

I’m now a full time screen reader user but I spent the first half of my computer life (15 years) reading from the screen by eye.

It’s only since I became a screen reader user that I have started to notice that the way I try to use the Quick Nav keys is actually based on how I used to “look” by eye around the screen display.

I’ve been thinking for years now, but not posted anything up, that eye tracking behaviour amongst average users and primary Nav key selection amongst sr users ,might be very closely related?

Let’s think of this example, when I first land on a new web page I hit h to hear the first heading. Depending on whether there is a heading 1 and the text interests me, I either hit p to read the whole paragraph that I assume is next in the reading order, or if I suspect the web page might not have optimised or efficient structure (i.e. match the way my Nav keys work) I might press down arrow to test out what does actually follow the heading text.

Just analysing my behaviour here for a tiny moment, there’s so much behind it: pressing h isn’t just about looking” for that first main heading, it doubles up as an initial “is this page structured” test. This latter question is an unconscious one but it’s value to me is massive.

If the heading text is nicely phrased, this does two things as well, it not only defines what I expect to read on this web page, but, if it’s a concise and tidy heading, it increases my expectation that the rest of this page and perhaps the whole website will b more accessible than others. Note my “stress meter” is nudging onto the red every time I open a new web page, so anything that lowers the needle on my stress meter has a massive psychological effect.

What my stress meter is reading at this early point, does I now realise, actually influence which navigation strategy I will choose to use as I continue reading.

Another example, I often find myself urgently searching the internet for a tech fix for something I’ve busted on my computer and I find discussion forums an amazing place to read about problems and fixes. However, comparing one forum to another I dread certain ones and love others. I love the good ones because the key content falls perfectly in line with the way I use the Quick Nav keys. The bad pages are the ones where I have to drop back to using arrow keys to find the key content because the page structure is not optimised for Nav key users.

Optimising page content for max efficiency whether the reader is tracking by eye or using Quick Nav keys to “look” isn’t something I’ve heard talk about much in the accessibility world – it doesn’t seem to be practiced out there very much that’s for sure!

Lots of talk about stress but are stress meters used in user testing?

I reckon the good websites that I find just happen to be templated like that and the author probably don’t know that their design also affords efficient Quick Nav key users.

Another thing, “Navigation” just seems like an inadequate label word for describing the patterns that we use to track our eyes across displayed information. A guideline that says “ensure navigation is fully accessible to screen reader users” is only going to be as instructive as the readers personal understanding of what navigation actually is and importantly how they themselves do it. When I read the screen by eye I really had no idea of what eye tracking patterns I was using, it’s just an unconscious skill isn’t it?

Ear tracking – thought I just had to invent my own label – is ear tracking a good alternative label for eye tracking? Does it stimulate a designer response more likely to deliver up genuine inclusivity?

Why is it that accessibility guidelines and experts so rarely seem to think and talk from the psychological dimensions of interaction? Posting up this little explore of the psychology behind my Quick Nav key choices, simple as it is and there’s a lot more under the bonnet of course, has reminded me that the world of accessibility experts could benefit from more behavioural analysis and fewer open ended


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  1. Pooja Nahata permalink

    Nice one!

  2. Ian Hamilton permalink

    This is precisely why good accessibility work isn’t just about following standards. There are two other parts – expert review to help interpret what the standards mean based on past experience, and also user testing to uncover exactly the kind of subtleties and contextual information that you’re talking about.

    Having said that though standards worded in that way are still necessary as a starting point to make sure all bases are covered.

    Each one of three has serious shortcomings if used in isolation – standards are open to interpretation, expert review is biased, and testing deals with statistically insignificant numbers – but all three used together compliment each other perfectly, canceling out those shortcomings and ensuring the best possible experience.

  3. This is great Hugh, thank you. I’ve sent it round all our devs so they get an idea of how people access content. The big thing we need to ensure is that when testing developers and testers mimic the behaviour of users rather than just tab through a page.

    If I write some basic tests would you have a look atthem for me and see if I’ve missed anything?

  4. This is great information for those of us who test for web site conformance to standards. It is so tremendously useful to be reminded of the actual experiences of real people and the different ways we browse. I especially like the distinction between eye tracking and ear tracking. I will keep that in mind in future work. Thanks for this.

  5. saran permalink

    Good post.

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