STC Usability SIG Newsletter
Guidelines for Writing Accessible On line Help
By Will Reed, Everyl Yankee and Wendi Fornoff, with Deborah Murray
This article describes how to write effective on-line help for blind
and low vision users of text based readers. The authors draw on their
collective experience in both using text (screen) readers like JAWS to
access web applications as well as preparing accessibility help for web
pages and applications.
This article doesn't include specific information about building web
interfaces or sites, use of controls for accessibility within web sites,
Section 508 or WAI Standards and Guidelines, or specific information about
hardware or software. We include JAWS instructions as an example because
it is commonly used in the United States. Also, we don't include information
about actual language used within an interface and how to write it to
make the interface more accessible. We are only discussing how to write
Help pertaining to the interface itself.
Even though we initially set out to make Accessible Help for people with
low or no vision, many of the principles provided for preparing accessible
help we discuss here also will help a wide range of people with print
disabilities, who can't interact with a computer because they are not
mouse-enabled. We encourage writers to also be aware of users who use
alternative input devices such as switches, head tracking or eye gazing
systems, or are solely restricted to using a keyboard to interact with
a web site rather than a mouse for navigation.
The principles will also apply to low-vision, low-light, environmentally
challenged and/or audio-based interfaces. (Think of those cell phones!)
While some might consider the need for "Accessibly Help" a
defeatist approach to universal web design, we recognize that users comprise
a broad spectrum of expertise and abilities and recognize that there are
those who need assistance, regardless of site or application accessibility.
A word about labeling: "Accessible Help" versus "Help"
-- our collective experience has demonstrated to us that blind users are
more likely to read on-screen Help if it's prefaced with "Accessible",
"Accessibility" or a similar adjective since there is "a
chance", said one blind web app user we know, "that the help
will be more applicable than most "Help" sections".
What makes Accessibility Help work?
Good, usable accessibility help describes without visual reference.
Think of a text-based interface as an audio interface with users relying
solely on what they hear for all the information that reaches them. Good
accessibility help augments this type of interface. It provides information,
instructions and feedback and ensures that the following pieces of information
are available to users:
Overview - provides a web site overview so that users will be
able to build their own frame of reference, which is crucial for independence.
Orientation - provides overviews and broad descriptions of functionality
or pages, using concrete language so that users can fill in the interface
in their mind, continuing to build themselves a model or map of the site
Navigation Assistance - describes navigation without visual reference
to assure way finding, providing clear indications of sequencing or branching
so uses can proceed, branch, return, or exit.
Details - clarifies what are the choices or options, provides
explanation, includes concrete examples and quantification (denotes numbers
of options, numbers of steps in a task)
Some questions that users initially ask themselves, and expect Help to
answer for them, may include the following:
- Will this "Access Help" actually help me to access and use
this web application or site?
- What's going on here, within the web application or site?
- What choices are available to me, and how many?
- How do I get what I want - how do I start, how do I move around in
- How to undo actions I've initiated?
- How to I save what I want?
- Who can I contact for help if I get stuck?
The Help section lets users know, "How much effort will this take
(is it worth it)?" Below, we provide guidelines and examples from
our experience to demonstrate how we've attempted to answer many of these
(Authors' Note: CPL denotes Cleveland Public Library version 01/03, PQ
denotes ProQuest v. 5.1, quotes in italics are to emphasize our points.)
1. Begin by defining the audience to let users with text readers immediately
determine whether the material is worth investigating.
"Navigational Guide for the Text-Only Version of the Library Catalog
The following Navigational Guide for the Text-only version of the Cleveland
Public Library catalog has been provided on behalf of anyone using adaptive
technology or anyone who may simply need assistance using the catalog.
The guide describes how key pages are constructed and laid out, and
identifies major elements located on pages, such as search boxes, drop
down or combo boxes, navigational links, etc. This guide also provides
strategies for navigating the catalog using a computer keyboard for
those who may have difficulties using a mouse." (CPL)
ProQuest's text based version
. provides easier access
if you are using a text reader or screen magnification." (PQ)
2. Establish quickly the purpose of the web site or what the web application
"ProQuest contains newspapers or periodical journals which you
can search or browse
articles are copyright-cleared which means
that you may copy, email, or print them. "(PQ)
CPL's example below starts by explaining how many ways the web application
can be used (the purpose of the site is evident since it's a public,
electronic library). It goes on to describe the three methods in detail,
provides an overview of how to use them, and makes two good suggestions
for those not sure of what to do next.
There are three search methods in The Library Catalog. Keyword searching
looks for any instance of your search term(s) in the bibliographic record.
Traditional searching requires that your search terms match the exact
headings reading left to right (either author, title, or subject) in
the bibliographic record. Numeric searching allows you to enter a numeric
code to quickly find an exact title. Keyword searching is a good choice
when you are not certain of the exact heading. This is usually the easiest
type of search, however, it produces the most hits. You may find more
precise results using traditional searching." (CPL)
3. When possible, provide technical or other pertinent information to
improve accessibility. Think of this section as a "Read First"
or "Read Me" for text readers! Discuss technical restrictions,
glitches or other areas which might cause less than optimal use so that
users will immediately know about shortcomings and how to deal with them.
Note that is important to include throughout the entire Help section.
The authors understand that it is not always feasible but anything you
can pull together for users will be very helpful.
(in this instance)"... it's important for screen reader users to
enable their screen readers for forms mode. In JAWS, this involves activating
Forms Mode (Control + Insert + Home, then hit the ENTER button), or
for Window Eyes users to turn MSAA mode off (Control + Alt + Down, then
hit the ENTER button)." (CPL)
"... The third section contains ... Note: JAWS screen reader users
will have to activate forms mode again, while Window Eyes users will
have disable MSAA mode." (CPL)
"Set the screen reader to read punctuation when reading "Help"
because Help contains punctuation specific examples which will improve
your searching." (PQ)
"If the screen reader locks up and also might say "Downloading
a page", with Window Eyes, press the escape key to continue. "
"If JAWS locks up, go back a page and then forward again to "unfreeze"
"To use high contrast settings, some users prefer to turn off
the style sheets."(PQ)
We do have one caveat: if information about specific text reader software
is included, be sure to clearly note to which version you refer. Because
of economic or other considerations, many people have older versions of
the software and may be unaware of the often major changes between versions.
Technology goes forward but more and more people are using older versions
of this type of software.
4. Provide an overview of the Help section itself as well as specific
important sections within it.
"The guide describes how key pages are constructed and laid out,
and identifies major elements located on pages, such as search boxes,
drop down or combo boxes, navigational links, etc." (CPL)
"The following section includes a description of how ProQuest
pages are arranged and some technical information about accessibility
settings on your system." (PQ)
5. Provide an overview of the web site or application as well as important
sections within the site.
"A description of how ProQuest pages are set up follows
You'll find the following items on almost every ProQuest page. (PQ)
"The navigational guide is broken up into the major elements of
using the Library Catalog, including Searching, Results List, Checking
Availability, and Placing a Request. These sections are then subdivided
into an overview explaining their general construction and layout."(CPL)
6. Provide descriptions of the main pages. Be sure to inform the user
what comprises the main elements (or controls) on the page so that your
audience can best use keyboards and shortcuts.
"The following section includes a description of how ProQuest pages
are arranged and some technical information about accessibility settings
on your system
at the top of the page, you'll find the following
six items (authors' note - these items are numbered)
the middle of the page
at the bottom of each page, you'll
"This is a description of some of the main elements you will encounter
on the main pages so that you may use your keyboard accordingly."
(CPL, source, to check)
you'll find the following items on almost every
7. If there are many elements, quantify how many elements or groupings
are listed on each page.
"1. Search Field. Upon entering this page, your cursor should be
in the search field. You may type your search query here.
2. Radio buttons (check box) for articles, index or dictionary."
"At the bottom of each page, you'll find a navigation bar which
contains the following items:
1. A line which tells you which
collection you are searching
3. A hyperlink to site map
"(CPL) (authors' note - these items
"at the top of the page, you'll find the following six items"(PQ)
8. Note the function of each element, instructions for using the element
and any choices for using the element (such as optional versus required).\
"Users can narrow their search from the following options: By material
type - All Materials (Default), Books Only, Magazines and Journals,
Videos and DVDs, Music CDs, cassettes, and LPs, Computer Software, Audiobooks
on cassette and CD, Sheet music, scores, etc., Maps
However, users can also use the TAB key to move the cursor into additional
drop down or combo box fields that allows users to choose from an already
provided set options for narrowing their search." (CPL)
"To refine or narrow your search, here are all of the options
A Publication Types combo box.
Choose one of these publication options:
9. Be sure to describe the outcome of using the element, especially if
the action is unusual. This helps the user decide whether they wish to
use the element or whether they'll go on to another element.
"From the check availability section: Users will not see a list
of available copies until they have selected a library system. The libraries
to choose from are listed in a combo box, so screen reader users will
have to enable Forms mode...
Use the UP and DOWN ARROW keys to select a library, and then hit the
TAB button once to move the cursor to the "Check Availability"
button, and hit ENTER. The page will refresh and the copy status of
the item should now be displayed on the page. The availability of the
item at a library is presented in a table format, in the following order...(CPL)
"Removing Image Results in ProQuest:
checkbox option allows you first to remove any image results
before you start searching or browsing. These results may be difficult
or impossible to read with a text reader because they are not accessible
with a text reader. (PQ)
10. If possible, discuss variations in page design so users are aware
"Two other types of ProQuest pages are set up in a slightly different
way. When you are on a page which lets you print an article, that page
provides numbered instructions on how to print without all the other
ProQuest links." (PQ)
11. Provide a numbered task list. (We have found that many users prefer
to tape the task list and memorize it.)
"Sample Keyword Search for Screen Reader Users
1.Go to the Text Only Version of the Library Catalog.
2. Activate Forms Mode on your Screen Reader
3. Type in a search: 'Color Purple'
4. Hit the ENTER key on the keyboard." (CPL)
four numbered steps, describing how to turn off style sheets
in Internet Explorer 5.50.
1. Go to the menu bar.
2. Under the Tools menu, select "Internet Options."
3. Under the "General" tab, select the "Accessibility"
4. Under "Formatting," make sure that all check boxes are
12. If there is additional page-specific information that would be useful,
"While on the page containing your selected article:
The article may have links scattered throughout to more information
within the encyclopedia about related topics
There may be related internet links below each article. These links
will be labeled with the name of the internet site."(CPL)
13. Always have an out - provide clear instructions on how to undo, go
back, print or save data. (We know you have plenty of examples in your
own work for this one!)
14. Be sure to have the usual contact information easily available.
"For additional questions about using adaptive technology to access
the Cleveland Public Library's online services, please contact the Library
for the Blind and Physically Handicapped".: (Authors' Note: snail
mail address & phone numbers also provided on the web site itself)
.For more detailed explanations of the various types of
searching, please activate the Library Catalog Help link."(CPL)
15. Make sure that the Accessibility Help section itself is easily navigable!
One way to do this is to provide a Table of Contents, the elements of
which link to the actual contents. Use a clear, logical structure of information,
with html headings used appropriately (H1 for page title, H2 for section
headings, H3 for subheadings within the section, etc.)
"Basic Search Fields include the following:
(Authors' note; long listing
Product Name and
(Authors' note; links below examples:)
Use to find articles written by an author or reviewer.
AUTHOR(Gertrude Enders Huntington)
Return to top of list
The publication date in numeric format. For example, December 12, 1999.
Converts to 12/12/1999.
JAWS is available from Freedom Scientific:
Window Eyes is available from www.gwmicro.com
Cleveland Public Library is found at www.CPL.org
Canadian National Library for the Blind is found at www.Digital.Librarian@cnib.ca
Information about Section 508 is available at www.section508.gov/index.cfm
The Web Accessibility Initiative can be explored at
Examples from ProQuest used with permission of ProQuest Information &