Worst Mistakes in Web Accessibility and Usability

Surfing the web with a computer that has a smaller screen is like being physically challenged, but not because such a computer has a problem in itself but simply because many websites - I would say more than 90% of those I visit regularly - pay little or no attention to accessibility and usability. Now that I use my new Windows 8 hybrid computer with the display size of 11"6, the web looks totally different physically because of these barely accessible and usable websites.

The very root of many common mistakes made by web authors and especially by web designers in terms of web accessibility and usability is their WYSIWYG mentality as if web publishing were word processing or desktop publishing without understanding what web publishing is all about.

Before I elaborate on the worst mistakes by web authors and web designers, I would like to share with you some of the worst websites in terms of web accessibility and usability among those websites I visit frequently. If the screen of your computer is bigger, let's say, 13", you may not notice any problem. If you have a device with a smaller screen, please visit these sites with it, and you will also understand how problematic they are.

The biggest irony is probably the fact that two popular websites about life hacking, including computer productivity, make all the worst mistakes: Lifehacker, MakeUseOf. A very high concentration of barely accessible and usable websites is found in the category of newspapers and magazines, probably because they cannot think but in terms of print publishing; examples include: Jerusalem Post, Ha'aretz, International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Economist, National Geographic Magazine, Scientific American. No less problematic are websites of many research institutions and universities; examples from Israel include: National Library of Israel, Israel Academy of Science and Humanities, Israel Science Foundation, World Union of Jewish Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Bar-Ilan University.

Probably the worst mistake as is made in these websites is to specify the width of a webpage and its various parts with an absolute unit of measurement (e.g., 800 pixels) instead of making it "fluid". This unfortunate decision is based on the assumption that all the potential visitors have the standard screen size. But this is less and less true in the age of mobile computing. You can never assume the screen size of any visitor, and making your website with such an assumption seriously harms its accessibility and usability.

The second worst mistake is to use graphics for site navigation. Since the size of images is also specified absolutely, this causes a serious problem in accessibility and usability for the same reason mentioned above.

What really frustrates about these websites is that the average visitor has no way to change their barely legible design. There are some ways to do so, but they are only for computer mavens. Actually I have been trying to apply one of them - a famous Firefox add-on called Stylish - but I have not been successful so far as the above mentioned websites are authored so badly with physical markups that I cannot decipher the structure of pages there, which is a precondition to use this add-on.

What then are truly accessible and usable websites? Unfortunately, they are the minority. Among the websites I visit regularly are W3C, Wikipedia, Wictionary, Microsoft, Windows. I cannot praise them and those who made them more.

Although I do not think this insignificant blog can change the bad practice of many web authors and designers, I would like to share with you four of the most useful online resources for those who want to make their websites truly accessible and usable to all visitors regardless of the size of their respective screen: Web Accessibility Initiative, Mobile Web Initiative, Universal Usability, Web Style Guide. I think that everyone who makes a website, especially if it is of public nature and he or she is a designer by profession, should read them. It goes without saying that they are excellent examples of universally accessible and usable websites.

Of course, it is easier said than done. Here are two of the academic websites I built and maintain, incorporating the advice from the above mentioned four websites: Jewish Language Research Website, Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages, Bar-Ilan University.