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Three key principles for an accessible website

20 June 2023

By Astrid Van Hoeydonck, Ted Gies

An illustration depicting a female librarian standing at a computer terminal typing on a keyboard and using screen magnification to access Scopus research database.

Accessibility experts on the ScienceDirect team share their approach to making Elsevier’s research platform accessible to people with disabilities

The world has benefited greatly from scientists with disabilities. Florence Seibert, a mobility impaired polio survivor, invented the first reliable tuberculosis test, which is still used today. Dr Temple Grandin, an animal scientist with autism, is renowned for developing more humane and efficient farming techniques. Dr Cecilia von Beroldingen, a forensic scientist who is blind, developed a DNA typing system for single hairs.

The ScienceDirect(opens in new tab/window) team are honored that our platform hosts articles published by these remarkable scientists as part of its corpus of 20+ million scientific articles and 45,000+ eBooks. It is therefore our responsibility to ensure that scientists’ contributions are published in the most accessible manner.

Scientific information in books and journals needs to be accessible — designed to be universally usable so that people with disabilities can consume and contribute to research. Accessible design is a deliberate practice whereby a person with a disability can access a service as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability.

But how do you know if online journals and books are accessible? What tools and methods would lead to a website being declared “accessible”?

Thankfully there are dozens of free accessibility evaluation tools that make it easy to identify issues automatically. This includes the WAVE Tool(opens in new tab/window) developed by WebAIM(opens in new tab/window) (Web Accessibility in Mind), a nonprofit organization at Utah State University. WAVE is a popular browser extension that quickly highlights issues that could prevent a person with a disability from using a website. As part of our accessibility journey, we’ve employed WAVE and other testing tools, setting a goal to eliminate all accessibility barriers reported by these tools.

This year we were happy to achieve 0 WAVE errors on 2 key pages: the ScienceDirect homepage and the article page. This achievement helped Science Direct reach the #1 spot in the 2023 WebAIM Million(opens in new tab/window). This is remarkable considering that across the sample of the 1 million most popular websites, there was an average of 50 errors per page and a 10% increase in errors compared to last year. We would like to congratulate the other 3.7% of websites in the sample which also achieved 0 WAVE errors.

The ScienceDirect homepage with the WAVE tool indicating 0 accessibility errors.

The ScienceDirect homepage with the WAVE tool indicating 0 accessibility errors.

As much as we are proud of this result, the WebAIM #1 ranking does not mean we are done with accessibility, nor does it mean the platform is error free. Instead, we see it as a testament to our commitment to accessibility over the past 20 years and additional motivation to reinforce our efforts towards making ScienceDirect one of the most accessible platforms of peer-reviewed scholarly literature.

We are actively working to remediate other issues found through our comprehensive testing regimen and are committed to aligning to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines(opens in new tab/window) while ensuring the best possible accessible user experience.

Achieving an accessible user experience requires a lot more than just using automated testing tools. The multidisciplinary team behind ScienceDirect employs a mix of automated, manual, and human subject tests regularly to ensure content and features are usable and accessible.

Here are three key principles underpinning our approach to accessibility:

1. Embed accessibility across your team

Accessibility needs to be embraced by everyone on the team. A key component of the ScienceDirect approach to accessibility is our accessibility guild, comprised of accessibility champions representing all teams and roles. The role of the accessibility guild is to share and foster best practices. Guild members are encouraged to take accessibility training and share knowledge of how to design and test for accessibility.

Champions share knowledge and tools and work together to make sure we develop a compliant and usable platform. For example, UX champions make sure designs have sufficient contrast and that text labels are intuitive and consistent. Engineers write well-structured and screen reader friendly code (e.g., headings, landmarks, labels, tables). Quality Engineers conduct tests to ensure that no bugs creep in which could make the site less accessible. And finally, Product Managers help promote accessibility within the business and prioritize feature enhancements.

2. Involve users in your design and testing

Beyond complying with standards, a great indicator of accessibility is whether a person with a disability can use your site. In 2001, ScienceDirect undertook its first usability testing with a student who was blind who navigated the site with a text to speech program. Since then, we have continued to test our platform on a regular basis with people who experience disability.

On the latest session, we sat with five researchers, each on a one-hour Zoom call, and asked them to carry out their regular research tasks, sharing their audio so we could hear what they hear from their screen readers. In this kind of exercise, you really start to think about usability. You can build a site that meets accessibility standards, but when you hear that someone is unable to conduct a search, you understand the barrier, you can fix it, and you can build a better experience.

User testing is a great way of building empathy and helping our team understand the importance of the work that they are doing and the impact it has on a user if something is not accessible. Another benefit to user testing is learning unexpected insights which can lead to innovative ideas to help all users.

3. Look through different disability lenses

An illustration depicting a seated researcher using voice input to author a paper on a computer. The researcher is a female and has a speech bubble with a computer command: ‘Italicize The Lancet.’

“Ryan Watson” is one of the personas developed by Elsevier’s web accessibility team. Ryan is a health sciences researcher with a cognitive disability due to Long COVID. They use speech-to-text software to transcribe notes and send emails to coworkers.

Our accessibility team examines what it is like to use a website feature through different disability lenses. When it comes to websites, people tend to think a lot about screen readers and users with partial or total vision loss. That is important, of course, and we take steps to ensure that ScienceDirect is usable for someone enlarging the screen to 400% or using a screen reader. But there are a lot of other disabilities to consider, and that is where taking disabilities into account through personas comes into play.

With a better understanding of end user needs and pain points, we have developed user personas — a design tool that creates empathy and informed design decisions. Elsevier has created at least eight personas based on members of our researcher community who experience disability. For example, “Kayla Howard,” a university librarian who is visually impaired, uses screen magnification and text-to-speech to help in her role helping students to find sources for academic papers. Her image is at the top of this story.

Other examples of personas include a scientific researcher with hand tremors who struggles with using a mouse, so we look at how easy it is to navigate the site using a keyboard. And “Ryan Watson” (pictured above), a health sciences researcher with a cognitive disability due to Long COVID, uses speech-to-text software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking(opens in new tab/window) to transcribe notes and send emails to coworkers and a digital notetaking program to send themself reminders and take notes during meetings.

While everyone benefits from a site with consistent layouts and terminology, people with cognitive disabilities will be especially impacted when it is not done right. There are many people on the disability spectrum, and we are continually learning how to meet specific end user needs. We will continue to expand our personas as we learn from usability research together with the disability community.

Good web accessibility means a better experience for all

In the end, efforts to make a website accessible benefit all users. For example, where closed captions are a necessity for people with hearing loss, they also make for a better user experience for everyone. Many people, particularly non-native speakers of a language, report that captions enhance their comprehension when watching a video. Captions also enhance the user experience by making it possible for anyone to interact with video and audio content in contexts where it is not possible to play audio, such as in a public setting. Transcripts may be provided with accessibility in mind, but they also come in handy for people without vision loss who want to quickly get a sense of a video’s contents by scanning the text prior to, or without having to, watching it in full.

Including alt text for images is also beneficial for image search and image visibility in search engines. Text descriptions of images allow search engines to understand them better and match them to more user queries, making the images easier to discover.

The journey continues

Above all else, if there is one thing that working in accessibility has taught us, it’s that you are never done. Accessibility is a journey, not a destination, and the WebAIM ranking is a milestone on this important journey. We are currently working on several content enhancements around videos, images and PDFs. Soon ScienceDirect will develop against the upcoming revised Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, version 2.2.

Contributors

Astrid Van Hoeydonck

AVH

Astrid Van Hoeydonck

Senior Product Manager, Accessibility & SEO

Elsevier