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.
- Not that this happened to anyone we know recently. ↩