Dear Web Developers: Stop Breaking Functionality and Calling it a ‘Feature’

There’s something that keeps happening to me. Maybe it keeps happening to you too. I use a website. I get attached to it. I start relying on it for the services it provides. And then, there’s a redesign or they roll out a new feature, and suddenly I can’t use it anymore. Because the site has been rendered effectively inaccessible to me.

Maybe you have an old computer or you’re on dialup, and the resource-hogging ‘features’ make it functionally impossible for the website to load. You can’t even get it to load enough to see if you can opt out or to see if there’s a stripped-down version of the site for people on slow connections.

Maybe you have problems with visual perception and the site redesign makes it effectively unreadable. Perhaps you have sensory issues and having sounds and flashing lights and things that move across the screen means you can’t use the site anymore. Or those noxious preview popups that seem to be all the rage these days cause your brain to basically short circuit and you’re unable to do anything on sites that use them.

Maybe the site did a graphics overhaul and suddenly it is filled with a bunch of untagged images, including images you need to be able to SEE to navigate the site or understand the content. Or, hey, they’ve decided to start posting videos to describe key parts of site functionality so you know how to use them, and there are no captions. Or transcripts. Or text-only walkthroughs for people who might prefer that. Perhaps there’s a monstrous Captcha barrier.

Whatever it is, something about the site is fundamentally broken and you can’t use it anymore and you are annoyed and wish they hadn’t done that. Maybe you’re lucky and it’s a big site, say, Google, which decided to do something like add a ‘feature’ called ‘Instant Preview’ that makes it impossible to use their search products1 and someone kindly made a plugin to bypass said ‘feature.’ You can hope for a plugin only if the site is big enough that one of the people annoyed by the change is someone who can write plugins, and if the ‘feature’ isn’t so integral that it’s impossible to plugin around it. Say, a site that replaces its text with images. There is no plugin to add image descriptions to pictures that do not have them.

If it’s a smaller site or it’s a huge functional change that can’t be addressed with a plugin, maybe you write them and say ‘hey, you know, I really love your site, I have been using it a long time, and now I cannot because of this change you made, let me detail why it is a problem.’ Most of the time? The response is no response. Or it’s a canned form letter telling you all about the new feature you were complaining about and how great it is and aren’t you excited. Or. It’s someone writing to say ‘sorry, but your ability to access our site just isn’t that important to us.’

How many times have I encountered this. Let me count the ways. At this point, when web developers decide to break a perfectly usable site in the name of ‘improvements,’ I just quietly stop using the site. Because I know that asking them to reconsider, to provide other options, to make a fix to address the problem, is not going to have any results.

There are several ways web developers could avoid the problem of losing disabled users (and other people bothered by big site changes, for that matter), assuming they care about us in the slightest, which they apparently do not. The solution is not to demand that people freeze sites in time on the design that everyone is familiar with (especially since that design may not be very accessible either), but to ask that people redesigning sites and rolling out new features take some time to think about their users.

They could start by considering accessibility from the ground up in a redesign or a feature rollout. Small features that can be really easy to add can make a huge difference. Just for example, the microblogging site Tumblr could insert a field for an alt tag on image posts. It would be extremely easy to do, it would prompt users to add image descriptions, and it would seamlessly integrate into the functionality of the site. You could also remind site users to actually use the functionality. I cannot tell you how many sites I find with blank alt tags, showing that the code for an alt tag was inserted by whatever content management system they are using and no one used it, or alt tags like ‘DESCRIPTION HERE.’ How helpful.

They could also ask their users for feedback. Dreamwidth, a journaling site, regularly posts polls with mockups of planned site changes, including functional mockups you can navigate through, asking for reader feedback. They ask specifically about disability issues, with questions like ‘does this even make sense in a screen reader?’ as well as asking more generally if users find the planned functionality…actually functional and useful. And they incorporate that feedback into changes.

Both of these things, of course, actually require giving a shit about the people who use their site. Tumblr has been repeatedly asked to enable alt tagging on image posts and hasn’t responded. They don’t give a shit. Dreamwidth goes out of their way to address concerns about usability. They do give a shit.

Guess which site I use more.

  1. Not that this happened to anyone we know recently.

By 30 November, 2010.    accessibility  ,  


  1. Two things:
    1) Probably because I DON’T have many current web-accessibility hinderances in my life, and therefor have the spoons to do this every now and again, I do sometimes take the time to write to site administrators when this happens. The instances where I’ve felt like I’ve been heard have made it worthwhile, but certainly don’t make up for all the sites I’ve ever just closed or clicked away from or never been able to use- or the ones that I can eventually use (by activating flash, sighing, and waiting 10 minutes), but that other people can’t use because that solution isn’t one, for them.

    2) I work on a web development team and reading your post made me start asking questions higher up about accessibility in the sites we’re working on. I know for instance that site accessibility is one of our design considerations, but I don’t know how far down into actual granular content authoring and code development those considerations make it. So, thanks for that reminder to use what power I have to make sure at least one site doesn’t fall into this category.

  2. I wrote a piece about the problems people with disabilities have accessing technology a couple of years ago, and was surprised how easy it would be in many cases to make changes, and how little many web designers/developers seem to care about the issue (WHY are they still using Flash on sites, for example?)

    I use Tumblr but I’m really unimpressed with the lack of functionality in general. I used to manage my blogging by writing posts in advance but then they took away the ability to properly schedule posts, and it became too tiring for me to go in every day and post things. WordPress has been much easier.

    I think a lot of users are really clueless about little things they can do to improve accessibility on their sites/blogs — things like using alt tags. I have disabilities and didn’t get that until fairly recently. Obviously people need to educate themselves, but I’d love to see more being written about this (not necessarily here, just in general).
    Diane´s last blog post ..why our father-daughter book club never got off the ground

  3. Interesting. I wonder how much of the problem stems from lack of education. I doubt that it is the whole problem given that issues aren’t always(often even) fixed after they are bought to the designers attention. However as I read though the article I realized that I have taken 5+ college level computer science courses* and none of the addressed the spefic accessibility issues you mentioned at all. In fact IIRC only the most recent of the classes covered accessiblity at all(we spent about a minute on it). I still only kinda understand why the preview screens are a problem and thats just because I read sites like this. Even assuming that it doesn’t make them actually care more about accessibility it’s way easier for someone to realizes for themselves in advance that a feature is going to be inaccessible to scrap it/fix it with methods they already know than it is for someone to:
    admit they made a mistake, go back to something they though they were done with improvise a new design, integrate the changes into an existing site, program ect and deal with the backlash from non/differently disabled users who liked the site the original implementation. Trying to outright remove the feature would genrally run into the sunk cost faclicy and even more backlash from users who like the feature not to mention the loss of face for who ever decided the feature was a good idea in the first place. On a semi-related note does anyone have any good recouces on how to desing more accessible interfaces?

    *Which admitatly don’t yet include HCI or the other interface heavy courses that would be the most likely source for this sort of info and could be non-indicative of the state of computer design education overall.

  4. You may find of interest.
    They say “Web accessibility is not improving very quickly despite the efforts of many experts. The scale of the problem is huge and there is a need for culture change amongst web developers and website owners.

    “Our solution is to make it super easy for disabled and older people to report problems with websites. Volunteers do the work of contacting the website owners and signposting them to support. In doing this work, volunteers will understand more about e-accessibility for themselves, as well as giving crucial information to website owners. Everybody wins! “

  5. I was fairly unimpressed when the Yuletide fanfic fest posted all of its instructions in two untranscribed, non-captioned videos. It just so happened that the video was not jerky, spinning or flashing (my reasons for not being able to watch), so I did a transcription of the first video and other helpful people did the second. But why was this not done in the first place? It took me about an hour total to transcribe 15 minutes of video – not a huge time investment at all.

    On the other hand, animated GIFs (which flashblocker doesn’t block) have been getting more popular, but I was pointed to a way to turn them off completely in Firefox without having to wait until I see one and my vertigo is set off. So that was a very helpful experience – and the person who pointed me was the same one who posted the Yuletide videos!

  6. One of my pet annoyances is news websites which, when you follow an inbound link on a mobile device, will just take you to the front page of their mobile site, which may or (usually) may not contain a link to the actual article. I’ve had this problem on two different North American news sites this past week (CTV being one of them) but one forum I read a lot has the problem as well, and when I complained, I was told “well, the mobile version needs some love” and “you need a browser with JavaScript to have proper redirection on a mobile device”. Well, they can detect whether you have JavaScript, and there are other ways of redirecting besides that (like PHP, and the whole site is written in PHP).

    And some people use mobile devices because they can’t actually use a laptop, let alone a desktop computer. It’s an annoyance to someone who can just go to a normal computer later, but to anyone who can’t, it just means they can’t read what’s in the link. It’s amazing that anyone running a simple WordPress blog can install a mobile plugin that just gives you a simpler version of the page without even changing the URL, yet a major news organisation can’t manage that. Why?

  7. Oi! Tumbler! I swear I can’t navigate that site at all. I’ve really tried to figure out basic things like posting comments or even READING comments and I’m totally at a loss…

  8. I hate Tumblr >_>.

    It’s very tiring trying to read anything on there and follow goings on, even aside from image posts. It’s the whole format.

    I also dislike it when forums don’t offer alternative skins. One gaming forum I am a part of, they once made a customised skin for the forum to suit the game. It made everything impossible to read and even look at for more than a second for various disabled people, and even a large part of the nondisabled people, due to the layout, the use of flash, and the colours they put together. Then they got mad that not everyone liked it and appreciated their effort *sighs*. They did give people more skin options after a week or two.
    Norah´s last blog post ..Halloween

  9. I’m going to echo other posters here… like Ali, I work in web design (mostly freelance) and in my experience, accessibility is rarely a concern for the client or the designer/team. It’s incredibly annoying. Not to say I’m any better. I’ve been trying to educate myself and I do everything I can to make the sites I work on more accessible, and there’s still a lot more I could do.

    But most of my fellow designers wouldn’t even try. Which is absurd because it’s NOT that hard to do. Testing a site for accessibility is NOT THAT DIFFICULT, but so many able-bodied designers treat it like some Herculean task and just arrrrgh.

  10. Please do keep sending emails. It gives more weight to our arguments for those of us who do work in the field. And it pisses me off, too.

    The thing that irritates me the most about missing alt text is that it’s just sheer laziness and stupidity for them to not bother. HTML is not standards-compliant if it’s missing, so it means that they haven’t bothered to run any validation checks and that’s just dumb.

  11. i posted about my brief dealings with tumblr support here:

    basically, the response was that they don’t have enough developers. to add a single field. please.

  12. I took tree’s post one step further by publishing (and sending) an open letter to the developers.