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WebAIM’s Survey: Headings Matter to Users of Assistive Technologies

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WebAIM's Screen Reader User Survey #4Let’s stop for a moment to thank WebAIM for their efforts and to consider the results of their latest survey of screen reader users, the results of which were released last week.

The fourth of its kind (the first was in January, 2009), WebAIM’s survey has become established as one of the key barometer of AT user opinion.

While acknowledging the survey’s obvious tilt towards people with visual disabilities, it’s worth noting that successfully catering to the needs of these users is closely correlated with improved accessibility generally. Achieving broader accessibility is just as much about knowing what to avoid in general terms as it is about spending money to address specific needs.

In other words, there’s a lot to be learned from the WebAIM survey, and not only where persons with visual disabilities are concerned.

I’m going to be selective here and just mention the things that really stand out to me. You’ll read it your way and draw your own conclusions, I’m sure.

Demographic and Technology Trends

Most of the survey focuses on marketplace developments and perceptions.

The Web Accessibility Progress graph from the report.AT users to world: the web is not getting more accessible

While it’s located in the middle of the survey this question was actually the first thing I looked at – and I don’t like it. Who would? There’s no additional detail on why users feel this way but no matter the reason, the trend noted in WebAIM’s analysis can only be depressing to WCAG 2.0 enthusiasts. (read the perceptions of web accessibility results)

WebAIM’s survey is still heavily weighted to North America

While it’s the best survey of its kind that I’m aware of, that may be just because I’m a North American. In any event, the WebAIM survey continues to be a North American thing. It would be great to see the survey localized into other languages to generate more global responses. (read the geography results)

The shift to NVDA and other lower-cost AT continues

It can take a lot of effort to learn an AT interface, so software that “just works” tends to be “sticky” even if notionally superior software exists at a lower price elsewhere. Even so, there’s a steady slide towards NVDA, its brethren, and lower cost options in general. (read the screen reader trend results)

People seem willing to update their software

The vast majority of respondents appear to update their software, and of course, the lower-cost or free options tend to be the most up-to-date. This is important because the availability of current, fully capable software is a key factor in assessing accessibility. (read the software update results)

Mobile devices are rockin’

There’s no question that users of assistive technologies are beginning to get a lot of mileage from mobile devices, especial iOS (at least in North America). Developers interested in this area should also pay attention to the survey’s findings with respect to headings. In principle, logical heading levels are useful to mobile browsers while illogical structures tend to produce unpredictable outcomes. (read the mobile device results)

Content Matters

Now let’s look at the answers that pertain to content – actual documents and pages.

The Finding Information graph.Real users use headings and heading levels to navigate

Not only is it clear that headings are the key means of finding information on longer content but it’s also abundantly clear that the heading levels themselves really matter to users navigating longer documents.

I won’t comment when it comes to HTML (not my expertise), but I will note that headings are critical for navigation via assistive technology almost 100% of the time in PDF files. Why? PDFs almost never include internal navigation links or detailed bookmarks. Users who must use assistive technology in order to read generally depend completely on headings for navigation in PDF files.

The survey’s result is precisely in line with my April, 2012 article about the use of heading levels by users of assistive technology. Those who believe headings are merely an “aid to navigation” will now, I hope, be reconsidering their view. For one technology, at least (PDF), headings are how navigation is achieved. (read the headings results)

What AT users consider “problematic”

Online, users of assistive technologies find many sources of frustration. Considering the problems within document content (as opposed to other categories of problems) the list of concerns reported in WebAIM’s 4th survey boils down to the following:

  1. Missing/improper alt. text on images
  2. Missing or improper headings (emphasis added)
  3. Complex data tables

(read the list of problematic items)

Why do headings matter so much for PDF?

We can clearly see in these results that both headings and heading levels matter to users of assistive technolgies. If this is generically true for web content, how much more true is it for PDF content?

A lot.

As part of introducing the new international standard for universally accessible PDF (PDF/UA), I’ve been talking a lot about the significance of headings and heading levels. PDF/UA is distinctive in that it requires that heading levels follow a logical sequence. There are three reasons for this insistance:

  • In PDF, headings are the only means of content-based navigation available to people who use AT.
  • PDF files do not typically include links for intra-document navigational purposes.
  • Usage of PDF commonly include long documents (notably, far longer than web pages).

The latest WebAIM survey clarifies that headings are a big deal precisely in PDF’s use-case. The survey clearly validates the requirements regarding heading levels in PDF/UA.

For PDF, Help is On the Way

Once those who depend on assistive technology have access to PDF/UA conforming files, PDF/UA conforming reader software and PDF/UA conforming AT they are entitled to a few guarantees. PDF/UA conformance represents as assertion of accessibility by the document’s author. Those with PDF/UA-conforming assistive technology reading PDF/UA documents and forms may expect: 

  • That images include proper alternative text.
  • That documents are genuinely navigable using heading levels, if headings are present.
  • That any complex tables present will be fully and completely marked-up.
  • That their software understands each and every accessibility feature available in PDF.

I’m looking forward to it.

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