The result and the reasons
The McDonalds restaurant chain has made an interesting accessability discovery. Simply increasing the font size used on the till print-outs has resulted in an increase in profits for the chain.
When you order a meal in McDonalds, the till prints out your order on a slip of paper which is then used as a checklist by the staff when they collect the items together for you. McDonalds has found that increasing the font size on these print-outs means it is easier for the staff to read, they can fulfil the order quicker and make less mistakes, particularly when the customer has made a special request. As well as saving time and costs for McDonalds, they have found a corresponding increase in customer satisfaction.
The change McDonalds has made is a welcome change in accessibility for anyone working there with less than perfect eyesight. Staff with hawk-like vision may be unaffected by such changes, although I suspect at the end of a shift, fatigue blunts even the sharpest eyes. So often in technology, businesses ignore simple changes which would increase accessibility for all, and then praise those self-same changes when they give a commercial dividend. Eventually we get to the right result, but probably for the wrong reasons.
When the graphical web first emerged, accessibility was largely ignored. The tiny minority of companies which did feel some responsibility to produce an accessible experience almost always thought this meant producing drab text-only versions of a few key pages, and the average web designer thought disabled was synonymous with blind. Perhaps they still do.
Early website design tended to be very heavily based on graphics, and it was not unusual to see titles, or even whole blocks of text, rendered as a graphic because this way the designer, rooted in the idea that the web was a new-fangled type of TV screen, could better control the layout, make use of non-standard fonts, and so on. Navigation was often accomplished by obscure icons, pages rarely had proper title markup, and many text links would be the uninformative "Click here" or "Read more".
All of these are seen as bad practices in the eyes of people wanting to make information accessible to all, and nowadays they are also seen as bad practice in the eyes of designers too, but for a different reason. Graphics-based sites with poor titles and generic linking are hard for the search engines to understand. SEO affects a company's bottom line, so they'll implement accessibily changes for that reason. We got to the right result in the end.
Screen width has been another issue with the web over the years. Screen width is measured in pixels. When the web first began to emerge in the 1990s, many people still had screens which were just 640 pixels wide, 800px was probably the most common setting, and the more expensive screens could display 1024px or even 1280px. It was not uncommon to see websites displaying the message "This website is optimised for a width of 1280px. Please reset your screen width before continuing." How arrogant was that? Web designers actually expected end users to reset their own PC hardware to match the settings of a web page.
That was an accessibility issue too. At a higher resolution, the font on the screen is smaller, so some people needed to run at low resolutions just to be able to read the screen properly. It was quite possible to build a website to work at any resolution and let the browser handle the layout but businesses demanded websites where they could control the appearance of every pixel, they wanted websites to mimic the adverts and leaflets they printed on A4 paper, branding reigned supreme, and the excuse for ignoring anyone with poorer eyesight was to say "they are not part of our target audience".
Screens continued to get wider, and designers and brand owners continued to insist on fixed width designs until tablets and phones emerged as a serious segment of the website audience. Suddenly, the screen width tumbled down to 980px, 640px, and even less on many mobile phones, and the notion of a fixed-width design was swept away, along with complicated keyboard-based interfaces which saw websites have confusing shortcut keys supposedly to provide accessibility for people who struggle with a mouse. In response to the mobile revolution, designers have come up with a new gospel called Responsive Web Design, or RWD, but really this embraces many of the ideas that accessibility has demanded for years, that the website should fit itself to the user, not that the user should have to adjust themselves to fit the website. Again, we have reached the right result, albeit for purely commercial reasons.
That brings us back to fonts. So many websites designed for desktops used elaborate fonts and corporate fonts, and designers agonised over point sizes, wanting to control exactly the number of words that would fit onto the line in the fixed-width design. The emergence of mobile computing, and perhaps most specifically by Google creating the widely-used Android platform means that Google now regards mobile usability as important in SEO, and one of the factors it considers is font size and spacing. It discourages designers from using font sizes which are too small to be legible in Android, and from cramming text links too close together. If there is insufficient spacing on the screen, the touch screen systems cannot tell what the user is tapping on. Once again, we are getting towards a more accessible web, but this time driven by the technical requirements for mobile computing.
I think the message is clear. Accessability and usability are not a burden for businesses using technology. Embrace the concepts and you can get real results and competitive advantage.
Did you know...
SKILLZONE works extensively with the Warrington Disability Partnership. Each year WDP organises Disability Awareness Day, an event held in Warrington. This year's event is on Sunday 10th July and will be a great day out.
29th June 2016
This article comes from the SKILLZONE email newsletter, published monthly since January 2008, and covering topics related to technology and the internet. All articles and artwork in the SKILLZONE newsletter are orignal content. If you would like to receive the newsletter direct to your inbox each month, please SUBSCRIBE here. It is free, and you don't get added to any other mailing lists. It uses best-practice confirmed opt-in only, and you may unsubscribe at any time.