Museum Web Design logo, composed of the letters M and W stylized to look like a classical museum facade.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

When Web Accessibility Standards Fall Short


I'm a huge advocate of usable websites. But then, most people say they are these days. Conscientious museum professionals take care to ensure their museum websites meet or exceed accessibility standards.

However, usability extends beyond accessibility standards. And not all "accessible" website are highly usable.

Graphic designers are often young people with strong eyesight. That may be why tiny gray text on gray backgrounds is so popular right now. I've been known to make use of small gray text (there's some on this page), but I try to restrict that use to legal disclaimers or other less critical content.

On some websites, core content is presented in low-contrast shades of very tiny text. An example of this can be seen on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Some of the pages (like the one linked here) feature truly tiny dark text on a dark green background.

Now here's the rub: technically, such a presentation meets the baseline of accessibility standards. But is it legible? Probably just barely for 50% of the art museum's audience.

And tiny text isn't the only common violation of legible design. One I see often is columns of text that expand to fit browser window widths. With the rise of wide-screen monitors, this can result in text columns that stretch out 2 feet!

What's the problem with that? Well, when our eyes reach the end of a line of text, they dart left to pick up the next line and continue reading. When the distance covered reaches more than the width of a paperback novel, our eyes have trouble finding the next line. Have you ever found yourself reading the same line of text twice? The cause is column widths that are too long. A solution is to increase the space between lines, but this isn't something that web pages do automatically, and it's only helpful to a point.

Thankfully, the text on the Met website page can be re-sized in the browser. But who bothers to re-size? Sure, us web savvy folk will do it, but many users will just move on. Similarly, users can adjust their browser widths to be more reasonable on pages with wide columns of text. But again, most users won't do so. Which brings up another reason to focus on usable web design.

Users with disabilities are not the only users who benefit from good interface design. If your website is a struggle to read, or interact with, or find information on, people just won't bother with it. Users already spend less than a minute or two on most websites. We must not only give them a reason to want to stick around but also to not be turned off. Making a website hard to use is a sure way to lose an audience.

What's the solution? Same as it always was when you needed a well-designed book, magazine or advertisement: consult a professional graphic designer. Typographic theory has been around now for several hundred years. Some things have changed with the advent of desktop publishing and the internet. But the rules of legibility and good layout design still mostly apply. There are a lot of rules—and a lot of quirks—to good typography, but an experienced designer will be versed in their proper application.

So be sure to insist that your website meets accessibility standards. But also make sure you employ a graphic designer with professional training and knowledge of classical design. Only then can you expect to call your museum website truly usable.

1 comment:

  1. David! too bad you have stopped blogging... this is just the stuff I need to prep for my next class on arts institution website design rules ;-)

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