Apr 9, 2024

Checkmate: Unveiling the Checkout Blind-Spot in E-Commerce Accessibility

Interview with Alan Sleat from Accessibility Services (Shaw Trust) who kindly offered up his own time to speak to us about his own struggles with e-commerce checkout pages

It’s frustrating because it's not impossible. All the tools are in the toolbox, but they aren’t being used. It's like grabbing the first tool out of the box to solve a problem. Yes, you can hit a nail into a wall using a spanner, but a hammer would be better suited” - Alan Sleat, talking with Wind & Kite on accessibility 

Wind & Kite spoke to Alan Sleat from Shaw Trust about his experiences with accessibility on websites as he navigates the web as someone living with a visual impairment.

One of the issues users with visual impairments find is the physical act of purchasing items through an e-commerce website, and quite often the end stage of this journey is overlooked by sites trying to provide accessibility to their users. 

If a potential customer cannot navigate your online store’s shopping cart or checkout process, it makes little difference what kind of accessibility the rest of your site incorporates. - Joseph Dolson, Practical E-commerce 

If you have an accessible site, where a user can find and pick a pair of trousers in the right size and colour that they wish to purchase, and have been able to navigate the site to click the “buy now” button, users can then become stuck at the end of this in a variety of ways. 

For example, you get to forms where you need to fill out your details of where you live, and your name. In many situations, websites do not have correct labels on these forms to guide users through the process, so that they know exactly what information they are required to enter. 

Quite often, the form requires a set format of the information to be presented in, for example, a space between a postcode or not, the road name of your street to be separated from your house name/number or many other combinations depending on the specific site. E-commerce websites should have correct labels on these forms for someone to navigate this clearly, and to be independently allowed to fill out the information it requires. 

When errors do happen, often only a visual cue is used, such as highlighting the form field in red. For someone without any visual impairments, this can be a pain and an annoyance to search down the page for the visual cue and see the issue, but for someone like Alan to find this error information using a screen reader, he would have to tab down the entire page to find the error, in each form box, before searching via a shortcut to look for a colour distinction within the form. But Alan would have to know that was even happening to know to search for it! 

Additionally, the site may have error messages which is brilliant for people like Alan, but as he explained to me sometimes these messages are lacking. So perhaps the site pops up a graphic to visualise the issue, but the label for that graphic just states “error message” with no descriptive text for Alan and his screen reader to process. So again, Alan must go back through each individual box he has filled out to attempt to find the error within the form. 

Another issue that users with a visual impairment encounter is sites that use a countdown clock to complete checkout within a certain time frame. Users who fall outside of this time are sent back to the start of their journey, with their whole basket emptied Quite often, there is no description of the countdown of this for users with visibility impairments. 

Alan has also referred to the issues encountered by screen readers, particularly in forms where screen reader users with no mouse function, struggle not being able to find where to place a tick on elements like consent or terms and conditions boxes.

Finally, the last error that people can encounter regularly is “CAPTCHA” tests on sites to prove that you are “not a robot”.  CAPTCHA is an abbreviation of Completely Automated Public Turing Test which is used to tell Computers and Humans Apart. 

Image-based CAPTCHAs can’t have an alt text without defeating the purpose of the tool and allowing bots to access a site easily. However, without an alt text, this type of CAPTCHA will be unsolvable for screen reader users who will be unable to see the images. Additionally, there are arguments to state that they aren’t inclusive enough for additional users, as they tend to be subjective images. For example, a user may have to select the boxes containing traffic lights or taxis, but this infrastructure changes within countries and may not always look how a user expects.  

There is also the option to have text-based CAPTCHA, but this can provide issues for people with partial visibility as the characters are option distorted and close together, and can be difficult for someone with a visual impairment to differentiate, despite having a level of visual ability.  

For visually impaired users, there is an option to have an audio CAPTCHA, but this can have issues. Alan explained that the noises can be quite distorted or have crackles within them to maintain the testing standard. There is also a level of interpretation that the user has to imply if they hear the word “nine” should it be written as a word or as a number. 

However, Alan did state that there have been noticeable improvements within the CAPTCHA system over the recent years, and they have improved, but there is still work to be done to continue to make the web more accessible for everyone.

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