Making the mobile internet accessible for all

A recent survey found that 53% of people with a vision impairment were using a screen reader on a mobile device, suggesting that an increased emphasis on the accessibility of mobile content and devices is overdue.

A recent survey by WebAIM - a US-based non-profit organisation promoting web accessibility systems - found that a surprising 53% of people with a vision impairment were using a screen reader on a mobile device, showing clearly that an increased emphasis on the accessibility of mobile content and devices is overdue.

Neilsen research last year revealed that browsing the web was the fastest growing activity on UK mobile phones: 10.5 million people by the end of last year. This means more than 20% of UK citizens with a mobile use their handset to browse the web.

However, there is a big question over the quality of what is on offer to this growing population of mobile surfers. Serving up a standard website for a mobile user is usually a poor choice. How well it works on the small screen is determined by how well it was built in the first place.

The problem

With only 400 to 500 pixels on the average screen, mobile browsers have to scale left to right to display content as the style sheet dictates, unless it is free-flowing and wraps effectively to a smaller screen. With a fixed-width page, zooming in to where you want to be is a challenging task, and for those who need to enlarge the display significantly, this can be highly problematic.

Edward Kershaw, vice-president of mobile media at Nielsen, says, "The key for companies to successfully harness mobile technology, lies in a realistic understanding of what media activities people on a large scale are actually doing on their handsets now."

Mobile Facebook

Some website providers, such as Facebook for example, have got around the problem by producing a simplified mobile version: m.facebook.com. Like accessible websites - which often prove to be more popular with everyone, whether disabled or not - the stripped down and simplified mobile version can be disproportionately easier to use for all users, mobile or static.

Since mobile browsers are not as sophisticated as conventional web browsers and hence are less able to cope with the obstacles presented by complex and crowded websites, some of these mobile sites, such as www.bbc.co.uk/mobile, are proving to be highly popular, particularly among those with a vision or cognitive impairment.

For those of us using screen readers such as the iPhone's VoiceOver or Talks for Nokia users, a site designed specifically with mobile browsers in mind, which is simpler and avoids Flash and Ajax, is a much more digestible prospect.

Accessibility challenge

The digital TV set-top box is a similar accessibility challenge for many of us and in many ways shares the same access paradigm problems as the web to mobile situation. Watching a 35" screen at a distance of around 9ft is similar to viewing a screen of a mobile device a foot or so away.

While TV and DVD menus are large enough to read comfortably, access to the internet on your TV presents the same challenge as reading a whole web page on your phone. Moreover, standard boxes allow for no customisation. Thankfully Project Canvas - the working title for an attempt to create an open, internet-connected television platform built on common standards by the UK's terrestrial broadcasters and communications companies - promises to change all that.

The partners intend to form a venture to promote the platform to consumers and the content, service and developer community. A new generation of set-top boxes will be built to a common technical standard and provide seamless access to a range of third-party services through a common, simple, user experience - or at least that's the objective.

Future-proofing

Future-proofing means ensuring that your web presence is as accessible for mobile phone users as it is for the TV viewer. And if you need any more convincing, just look at the popularity of iPhone applications. Their attraction lies in their simplicity, their cheapness and the ease with which they can be created. They are setting the standard in how to serve up content in a user friendly and accessible format.

It is possible to create attractive, accessible and user-friendly websites which are multi-purpose. It is not necessary for pages to be overloaded and bloated with code and neither should it be strictly necessary to have auxiliary accessible or mobile sites.

The way ahead is well signposted. Look at the W3 website for an outline of best practice, and read the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 for in-depth technical guidance.

Robin Christopherson is a blind user of speech output to access the internet. He is also head of accessibility services at charity AbilityNet.

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