WebbIE for (sighted) web designers

If you create web sites you will have heard of accessibility, how easy (or otherwise) it is for people with disabilities to access and use your website. This is becoming more commercially and legally important with new laws like Section 508 in the United States and the Disability Discrimination Act in the United Kingdom. More importantly, making your website accessible is a Good Thing and part of being a good citizen.

No? Don't care? All right then. If your page is accessible, it is also machine-readable. If it is machine-readable then it'll work better with search engines and mobile devices. So if you make your site accessible you'll get better Google rankings and your sites will work on iPhones better.

Let's assume then that you want to make sure your website is accessible. There are lots of guides and tips for doing this, but this page isn't about that: it's about how you check your website is really accessible. This is not necessarily the same as passing all those automated tests you can find online, like Total Validator. It's about actually trying out your website to see how it performs. When you've worked out how a blind person might use your site you'll have a much better idea about whether it is a design that really works, rather than just one that ticks the official boxes.

WebbIE? Why should I use WebbIE?

WebbIE can help you test your website for accessibility. As a web browser designed for blind people using it gives you a better idea about the experience of a blind person using your site. It's not the only option, of course, so why use it?

WebbIE is Real
There are real blind people using WebbIE to navigate the Web right now, trying to buy things and search for things and read things. You're using a real-world test: does my site work in this real browser for blind people? You want to be able to say "I tested it in a browser designed for blind people, and it worked just fine."
WebbIE is Simple
This might also be "WebbIE is familiar". Sure, you can buy a screen reader (if you can afford it) and test your web site with that, but you're probably not a screen reader user yourself, so how do you know if any problems you have are real problems with your site or problems with your ability to use the insanely-complex screen reader? Using WebbIE is as simple as using any other browser: yes, it's slower because you can't scan around the screen looking for highly-coloured links and blocks of text, but that's the whole point: neither can a blind person. If you can get at the contents of your website with WebbIE, they make sense and you can do things you need to do, then you can say "hey, yeah, I've done a good job of trying to make my website accessible." If you're really keen on trying out a more authentic experience, you can also use the free Narrator screen reader built into Windows 2000 and XP (just press Windows key and U) and try out WebbIE with that: it'll give you something approaching the complete screen reader experience.
WebbIE is Faster
With WebbIE on your system all you have to do is start it up and check out your latest page or site, and change and debug right there. No sending your site off to an external agency to get back a long list of quibbles a week later. Just fire it up and browse: where's that DIV element I'm floating down the screen? What's the sequence of those links I'm putting in the navigation bar? How does the site work with no mouse? Get answers and build accessibility into your whole design process rather than bolting it on as an afterthought.
WebbIE is Cheaper
Testing with WebbIE isn't free: the software is - go download it now for nothing - but your time isn't free: testing always has a cost. With WebbIE right in front of you can test right now for nothing but the time on the clock: testing with another blind technology like a screen reader might cost you £1000 just for the screen reader (Narrator doesn't work with web browsers!) and include the overhead of moving to a different platform or employing an external agency.

Okay, great! So what do I do?

Well, WebbIE is a web browser: browse. Put it in text view (using the IE view is cheating) and try to get to every page in your website, see every part of every page, and do everything you should be able to do. It's that simple, in theory. In practice the exercise will give you that real-world look at how a blind person might experience your site that online checking services don't give you. Why is it so difficult to find the main story text on your page with three navigation bars and eighty-five links? Why can't I see every section of the page - oh, it's activated by an onmouseover event! Hey, the cool drop-down navigation menus are all laid out all over the place! That kind of thing.

Identified a problem? Think something should work better? Well, great. Make your changes and check them out in WebbIE. If you're stuck for ideas or want to improve things try out our list of design principles and the list of resources at the bottom of this page. If you're really puzzled at why something appears the way it does, or you've got any questions, do contact me and ask!

Finally, WebbIE supports lots of accessibility features like access keys, table captions and label elements. If you've bothered to put them in you have a browser that'll let you check out whether they work or not (and how they work for blind people, and even why they are there!)

I'm not sure. My boss/client wants some kind of formal accreditation...

So you want a nice logo to cover your back, or you're not convinced that you looking at a web page in WebbIE is quite the same as doing a proper accessibility evaluation? Fair enough. Your testing can't be the same as a full accessibility evaluation by an external expert company (although I hope I've convinced you it's a great practical way to make your sites more accessible.) May I point you to one of our supporters, Choice Technology, for website evaluations: speak to Roger - both blind himself and a WebbIE user - about having him assess your website and tell you what is what from a guy who knows.

Tell me more

There are loads of pages on the web: most are out of date and contain lists of commandments about what you must do (but not how to do it). Here are some links to help you out with making accessible websites that might be of more use.

Techniques and tips
WebbIE guidelines for accessible web design. Simple and practical quick tips for the real world.
Skip navigation and links. Techniques for letting blind people skip over your navigation bars.
Design for people with learning difficulties and cognitive impairments. Design techniques for people with (for example) dyslexia.
More design tips for dyslexics with notes on support for blind people.
Online accessiblity evaluation
If you want to be able to claim you meet some accessibility criteria and show your boss, try Cynthia Says or Total Validator (I used to recommend Bobby, but that's not available any more.) Failing these is probably bad, but not necessarily. Passing the automated tests isn't a sign that your site is accessible: you have to perform the manual checks you'll see suggested. (That's rather the drawback with these things: do people do the manual checks, and draw the correct conclusions? The fact remains that they are great tools if used properly. Try them out.)
People at Accessify Forum do free site evaluations. Post a polite request and get some feedback from users and other designers.
Formal specifications and standards
The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative and the WCAG. The mother of all accessibility guidelines. Lots of recommendations, tips, formal language and examples. Lengthy but all-encompassing.