Sitecues: Improving Patron Web Accessibility
Synopsis: Sitecues software not only helps people with low vision, but also aids the millions of people who struggle with other forms of print disability. As information is increasingly shared through the Internet and computer technologies, libraries have come to play a crucial role in ensuring that people of all abilities can access that information. Sitecues software not only helps people with low vision, but also aids the millions of people who struggle with other forms of print disability.
For nearly two decades, Flory Barringham taught people with visual impairments how to use computers. She often brought her clients to public libraries, where she found state-of-the-art technology installed on public computers.
As information is increasingly shared through the Internet and computer technologies, libraries have come to play a crucial role in ensuring that people of all abilities can access that information. For people who are blind or have low-vision, gaining access to the Internet typically means using adaptive technologies, including text-to-speech software and screen enhancement methods.
For years, however, Barringham watched her clients struggle to master those complex, highly specialized software programs.
"Some of them felt it was too complicated to learn," she says. She watched the librarians struggling, too. "Librarians have very expensive equipment, but it takes a lot of training for them to be able to help people [use it], and when it breaks, they don't know how to fix it," Barringham says. "So when they get patrons who are blind, they often feel frustrated because they don't know how to help them."
Legally blind from birth, Barringham holds a master's degree in rehabilitation teaching. From 1996 to 2014, she worked with blind and low-vision Americans through the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and the Carroll Centre for the Blind.
She has tried and tested most assistive technologies, so when developers at Ai Squared were ready to market a new technology called Sitecues, they called her to give it a try.
"Wow. One word, wow," Barringham says of the software. "It's flexible. It's not hard to learn. Compared to the other software out there, it's very, very easy... Not just for me, but for the people I serve."(1)
Sitecues software not only helps people with low vision, but also aids the millions of people who struggle with other forms of print disability. The software is built directly into a website, online content, or browser, which makes it easily accessible to all. Also, individuals don't need special training to use the software: by hovering the cursor over the Sitecues badge, the user can customize the view. Patrons can increase the font size, change color contrast, and engage text-to-speech, which uses a natural voice to read website content to the visually impaired. Users can also make reading easier by clicking on a section of text, which enlarges the chosen section and brings it into relief against a dark background. The goal was to make Sitecues as easy to use and as intuitive as a light switch (See Figure 1).
Ai Squared has a long history of successfully serving people with diverse abilities. The company began working with in assistive technology for the visually impaired in 1987 and developed the Sitecues software in 2012 after CEO David Wu joined the team.(2)
Wu knows how challenging low vision can be. His wife became blind in one eye after a collision, and his father lost some vision when a child flew a toy helicopter into his eye. People in his family generally live long lives, so he has also seen relatives struggle with age-related vision loss.
Shortly after joining Ai Squared, while reviewing sales data from the company and its industry, Wu stumbled onto a perplexing statistic: 95 percent of Americans with low vision who could benefit from assistive technology were not using it.
He found this statistic most troubling. The company's flagship product, ZoomText, a screen magnification product, was still failing to address the needs of most people with print disabilities he reasoned. ZoomText is software that must be purchased, installed on each individual computer, then mastered and upgraded over time. These steps reduced the potential reach and benefit that Wu and his team wanted to provide.
According to a U.S. National Health Interview Survey on Disabilities, 1.3 million U.S. citizens are legally blind, and they are the people who are most likely to seek out assistive technologies. The U.S. Census, however, estimates that 20.6 million American adults live with non-correctable vision loss.(3) And, during the next thirty years, that number is expected to double as baby boomers age (see Figure 2). Most of these people are currently underserved by assistive technology.
WHAT ABOUT THEM?
"We are the leader for people with low vision, but less than five percent of the people who could benefit were using our software," Wu says. "I was surprised, and started to ask: Why can't we build a product that has a mass audience? How do we accommodate anyone with a print disability who is coming to a website?"
A few years later, an outside study confirmed Wu's intuition that website developers were missing the mark with older Internet users. In 2013, the Nielsen Norman Group discovered that web users over 65 were 43 percent slower in their facility with online resources than their younger counterparts (see Figure 3).(4) Older users blamed themselves for being slow, but researchers concluded that if companies redesigned their websites to give older users the same experience as younger users, they could expect 35 percent more business.
"The answer was to embed zoom and speech enhancements into the website itself, so anyone who comes to the website will have access to the tool," Wu says. "If you make this tool easy to use, then it can help more people - someone who is aging, someone with dyslexia - anyone."(5)
Wu began to talk about these ideas with assistive technology pioneer Aaron Leventhal. Twenty years ago, when he was a college student in Wisconsin, Leventhal happened upon an old house in the middle of campus with a sign hanging outside that read: "Computers To Help People." He went in.
Inspired by the work he saw these innovators doing, Leventhal devoted his life to making computers accessible to people with diverse abilities. He has worked on accessibility projects with mainstream firms such as IBM, Research In Motion, Mozilla, and Netscape.
Leventhal believes that Sitecues marks a dramatic shift in the world of assistive technology.(6)
"First, instead of serving the small number of people who know and acknowledge their disabilities, it serves everyone - people who have some vision loss or any difficulty with reading and who need some help," he says. "Second, the old paradigm in the industry was to build the bridge halfway to the user and make it possible for people to get help only if they have the software and expertise to use it. Sitecues takes a different approach. It embeds the technology into the website, is free for the user, and emphasizes simplicity and ease of use."
It took Leventhal and four other developers three full years to build Sitecues.
"The user sees something very easy, but it's very powerful," he says. "It had to be welcoming, so it has a lot fewer buttons. It introduces itself to you, with a few options, and as you go, it teaches you more. It is as simple as a light switch."
Much of the technology in Sitecues was not available even five years ago, Leventhal notes. To make sure the software is intuitive and easy to use, developers gathered groups of potential users and watched them use the software, noting each time they stumbled or became confused.
For example, Leventhal notes that older users often experienced hand tremors that made it difficult to position the mouse cursor correctly. As a result, the Sitecues cursor automatically gets bigger when it is engaged. The goal of the user groups, according to Leventhal, was to address every single hurdle they encountered.
"The key to good design is to build a product after you figure out who is going to use it," he adds.
For additional information, see "Dispelling the Top Myths of Library Web Accessibility," Sitecues presentation at the American Library Associaltion Conference, January 2016.
ACCESSIBLE TO ALL
The software is ideal for libraries, because it is designed to promote inclusion in the broadest possible sense.
"Libraries over the past twenty years have gone digital," observes Wu. "It only makes sense that they accommodate their entire community."
Libraries have a mandate to meet the full spirit of Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act, which ensures that Americans with disabilities have equal access to federally funded programs and services.
Many consider that mandate to be met if a website meets the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG 2.0 AA. But that conclusion is troubling if users need to own and master complex assistive technologies to benefit from WCAG compliance on a website.
The developers at Ai Squared believe that WCAG is just the beginning of true accessibility and usability, and that Sitecues gets libraries closer to the true goal, which is to make information genuinely available to all.
"Libraries are public organizations," Wu says. "Since they're serving everyone, they want to include everyone, because it's a community center. A library's website, online catalogs, and content are among its most valuable assets," he says. "And print disabilities are a major barrier to the full enjoyment of these assets."
The software has already been tested and deployed at dozens of libraries, including public, academic, and specialized libraries, along with library networks (see Figure 4). For example, in 2015, The New Jersey State Library embarked on an ambitious program to better serve not only patrons with vision impairments, but also people with reading disorders like dyslexia and those who need reading assistance because of brain injuries or strokes.(7) With a grant from the Comcast Foundation, the library evaluated a number of technologies, but found that few achieved broad reach and usability. The magnification option on free software such as Google Chrome was too hard to find, and images became fuzzy when they were magnified.
Outreach coordinator Mary Kearns-Kaplan says the organization settled on Sitecues because it was simple, intuitive and easy to use.
"We see the enormous applications of Sitecues," she says. "The need is here, and it's only going to grow, for the public to more easily browse the Internet."
WORKING ON THE WEB
Internal Sitecues studies show that 10 percent of website traffic takes advantage of its zoom or speech features when it is installed on a website, and that figure rises as patrons become more familiar with the accessibility options (see Figure 5). The software can be added to any website or online library catalog without a redesign or can be added to web browsers and shared among computer terminals.
Sitecues is also software as a service, or SaaS, which means a library can purchase an ongoing subscription to the program. Some benefits of SaaS are that maintenance and updates are automatic and included in the subscription price, avoiding the need for time-consuming and costly updates. Subscription pricing is flexible to accommodate any size library, from single branches to a large consortium.
David Slater is the executive director of the Old Colony Library Network, a cooperative of 29 libraries serving 300,000 patrons on the south shore of Massachusetts. He heard about Sitecues from a visually impaired patron and quickly adopted it across all of the member libraries.
"Right off the bat, the library directors really saw the need and the benefit... It was one of those decisions that didn't take a lot of debate or discussion," Slater says. "They saw it, they got it, the price was reasonable."
One of the challenges Slater faced was that the cooperative's web-based library catalogue is proprietary and hosted remotely, so the libraries don't have a lot of options for customization. And the organization doesn't have any developers on staff.
"But Sitecues provided a very easy-to-implement solution," he says, noting it took 15 minutes to install the software on the sites. Slater also says that the software is intuitive, so library staff didn't require a lot of training. People - staff and patrons - got it immediately," he says. "It's just another tool that library staff can show to their patrons, to improve access. That's what we're after. We want people to use our services."
1 - Video interview with Flory Barringham.
2 - Video interview with David Wu.
3 - Low vision population statistics, American Foundation for the Blind.
4 - Nielsen Norman Group study on web usability for seniors.
5 - Ai Squared research on usability challenges for web users over 50.
6 - Video interview with Aaron Leventhal.
7 - NJ Libraries Expand Web Accessibility for Residents with Low Vision and Reading Disabilities
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Marc Zablatsky and David Young are part of the Sitecues team at Ai Squared. Zablatsky is Vice President and General Manager, with more than 20 year of experience with entrepreneurial companies that leverage technology. He holds a BS from Babson College and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Young leads marketing for Sitecues and has worked across a variety of high-tech sectors throughout his career. He received a BA from Williams College and a Ph.D. from the University of California at San Diego.
Copyright 2016 by Ai Squared - First printed in the May 2016 issue of Strategic Library.
This quality-reviewed publication pertaining to our Electronics/Software section was selected for circulation by the editors of Disabled World due to its likely interest to our disability community readers. Though the content may have been edited for style, clarity, or length, the article "Sitecues: Improving Patron Web Accessibility" was originally written by Ai Squared, and submitted for publishing on 2016/06/02 (Edit Update: 2023/09/29). Should you require further information or clarification, Ai Squared can be contacted at aisquared.com. Disabled World makes no warranties or representations in connection therewith.
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