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CancerLynx - we prowl the net
October 16, 2000

Poor Web Site Design Denies Access to Vital Information
Alexandra Andrews, David Bradley, Eileen Pichersky and Sandra Stark

Think of the Internet as a world wide library with unlimited resources of information. More and more businesses, schools, government agencies, non-profit organizations, hospitals, courts, religious centers, grocery stores, pharmacies, magazines, etc, are on-line. There are tremendous advantages. You are not bound by office hours and can go to a web site 24 hours per day. If you are housebound or bedridden, you can use the Internet. When you are sick and a telephone call may be intrusive, email is a convenient option. Time differences are immaterial. You can be in contact with everyone.

The Internet embodies the egalitarian ideal. It does not discriminate on the basis of color, age, sex, education or disability. No matter how tiny a town or how isolated an area, the Internet is there. The smallest library can connect to the rest of the world.

BUT there is more than one digital divide. Yes, many can use the Web through public libraries and different organizations, but how high tech your computer is relates directly to a person's financial means. The digital divide between programmer and user is more subtle. The public wants basic information. The web designer dazzles you with colored schemes, flashing banners, fluttering butterflies, numerous and/or large pictures, audio clips, streaming video, tiny text. This creates problems that results in a measurable segment of the population being unable to get information for their health needs.

Why there are so many flashing pictures on a web site?
The programmer is counting the number of Hits versus Page views. When a page is viewed, each graphic is counted as a Hit. The actual number of times that web page has been viewed is not the same as the number of hits on that page. For example, when someone with 20 graphics on their page says, "I had 100 hits today", in reality this means the page was actually viewed 5 times. Many sites use this count to make them more attractive to advertisers or investors. See Hits vs Page Views

Why is the lettering so tiny? I can't read the words.
Although it is easy to enlarge the fonts in many formats, the visibility of the lettering also depends upon the browser that you are using. A browser is the program that allows you to view a web site. There are many different kinds of browsers just as there are also many different brands of monitors. Web sites look very different depending on the browser that you are using--AOL, WebTV, Explorer, Netscape, Opera, to name a few. and let us not forget Lynx which is a fast text only browser. What looks good on one PC will not necessarily work with a MAC, other brands of PC's, UNIX machines, laptops, flat screen monitors.

Other problems are caused by the way a web site is created. Often graphic designers try to apply the principles of flat paper to a web site. The flat paper model does not work! A web page is akin to a house, you move from room to room. Have you ever been on a site where there is no direction given on how to return to where you just were? As a hallway allows you to go from room to room, a web site should allow you to go from page to page, and back again.

Finally, there are only 216 safe colors for the Web. This limited palette allows for little shading of colors. Graphics designers, in their attempts to be more artistic, often create color combinations that are unworkable, in that they do not translate well. Depending on the machine and monitor, the colors compound the problems with lettering, or otherwise make the site illegible.

Why do I need to keep scrolling to the right in order to read the web page?
If a designer used a larger monitor to create the website and you're using a monitor that is smaller, the screen is unable to align to your smaller monitor. Therefore, you must continue to scroll to the right. The problem is that most designers use a larger monitor while the general public, with more limited finances/resources, uses a smaller monitor.

Why must I download a program and reconfigure my computer to use this website?
Some interesting sounding websites, because of the way their code is written, virtually require you to reconfigure your computer just to use the site. Typically, you are forced to download another program. Many times, older computers are unable to open these additional programs. The user is denied the information such sites offer

Why can't I access this web site?
One possible reason may be that the site is using Frames. Frames are popular because the designer does not need to write separate web pages. There is a main frame page with little frames inside, similar to picture frames that hold many slots for small photographs. Here is a typical search engine message: "This page uses frames, but your browser doesn't support them." There is a reason why many consider Frames the number one mistake in writing web pages.

Another reason could be that the web site was designed for very high speed internet connection. Modems, normally do not have the capability of for these speeds. Unfortunately, many designers test-drive their web sites using their internal nets. A proper check using a modem should always be done before a web site is put up.

Every time I try to view a particular web site, the computer crashes or the screen freezes.
The short answers: Sloppy code, poorly written javascript. or the modem can not access the website. 90% of people share your inability to use the site.

Other web sites like moving pictures. People literally can get motion sickness from these sites which may make them nauseous. They also take forever to download with a modem. Do you want to see flashing lights, fluttering butterflies, waving flags, scrolling news headlines, in a never ending loop? Fine - but computers that are older will not support these flashing moving pictures. Streaming Video or Audio Clips require tremendous memory resources that many older computers just do not have. The user is frustrated and denied information.

Help ! I'm caught on this web site
Ever found yourself trapped on a web site? Again: poorly written code, usually javascript or java. Many times, the only way off these sites is to shut down your Internet session and start over.

Why can't I print the web page?
Usually this is because the programmer has used frames or has written the web page for a larger monitor. With a site using frames, when you print, all you get is a section of the page-- the frame. Imagine if you needed to print a necessary form or a health alert, but you couldn't, because of this thoughtlessness. (Back to the drawing board?)

This site has too little contrast between the lettering and the background.
Colors provide an artistic effect, but usually are not helpful on an informational site. Use pictures of the text: creates a picture of the text. On the up side using pictures of the text saving the programmer a lot of time, it keeps the site tidy and inflates the number of hits. On the down side, to many browsers, the text pictures are still unreadable. Picture text usually has a fuzzy quality, like the middle of a photocopying job. This impacts many segments of the public. What about the senior citizen who needed some crucial information on their medical condition and is unable to read this text? What about the myopic reader who, even with eyeglasses on, is unable to read some of these sites?

The mouse problem
A very serious barrier is on web sites that only allow access and navigation with a mouse. You cannot use a keyboard, screen reader or other type of device to access the pretty little buttons. Cancer patients with lymphedema, stroke victims, or those physically challenged in any way are unable to use a mouse for long periods of time. If you cannot use a mouse, a drop down hierarchical javascript menu is inaccessible. While it is charming to see colored lights or flashy menus as you drag your mouse across a screen, these are unnecessary for obtaining information.

The MAIN problem is:

Programmers and web designers trying to write informational web sites with the special effects of music videos. They have not addressed the problem that there are hundreds of different browsers, sizes of monitors, speed of access and so on.

My favorite example of disconnect between the programmer and the user is the web site for a blind organization that no blind person can use. In this case, the programmer uses nothing but pictures of text in tiny print. This means that no one can enlarge the letters through their browsers. Nor is there anything visible for the screen reader to read. A screen reader is a device (similar to a talking book) which enables the blind to access the text on a web site. This is the code to read IMG ="homenav.03.gif". Can you read this? Does it make sense to you?

A thoughtfully designed web site should be accessible to all. Fonts that can be enlarged to suit the viewer. A way to print the information. There are extra bits of code called alt tags that can be used for the blind user who is using a screen reader, or any user who does not want to load graphics. ( Don't forget, these slow access to a website.) For example on the HTML code reads like this IMG SRC="LYNX.GIF" ALT="lynx picture". You would know that the LYNX .gif is a lynx picture. Or this example FONT COLOR="green" Here you know the color of the lettering is green .

While many libraries could purchase special equipment for the disabled, it is an additional expense, dependent on the library's budget. What happens to the wheelchair bound, or bedridden house-bound? They cannot physically get to that special library equipment. The Internet has become a way of life, to get and share information. Web sites that deny access isolate and deprive the disabled and visually-impaired.

Cancerlynx - We Prowl the Net is committed to web accessibility. We have spent extra time writing the code for this web site to accomodate that the visually impaired, blind, and those who simply prefer larger text. If you are blind, rest assured, everything can be accessed by a screen reader.

If you find those graphics irritating, shut them off.

Click off Java and javascript. Java applets and javascript can be dangerous threats to many systems. Some website pirates like to rummage through the information on your hard drive or add malicious code. Be vigilant!

Additional Web Resources

Home page of W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative--resources for increasing accessibility of the Web for people with disabilities
The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) - Provided by the NCI: National Cancer Institute

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