Thursday, 10 December 2009

The web is a visual medium, so what are blind people doing on it?

"I mean, all that text and pictures and stuff. Not much cop if you can't see it, I really don't know why blind people bother, really I don't!", I thought.

It was 1999, and I had just come off the phone to a very pleasant woman called Julie Howell from the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB). She had called me because a few vision-impared potential Tesco online customers had complained to the RNIB that they couldn't use our web site.

I was equally pleasant back but really didn't get all that effort being undertaken on behalf of blind people to get them on the web.

Julie invited me to go along to RNIB HQ in central London, which I did one early December afternoon in 1999. Two hours later I staggered from RNIB HQ visibly shaken and nearly in tears.

During that two hours I had sat quietly and watched one of Julie's colleagues try and navigate the grocery site. This man had suffered cancer of both optic nerves at the age of three and had endured his eyes being surgically removed to avoid any spread of the growths. Patiently, he listened to the words of our web pages being read out to him by a computer voice, typing the arrow keys on his keyboard to navigate.

Valiantly, he tried to listen to the names of grocery products being read out to him and to add them to his basket. Every time he tried to do what he thought was 'add to basket', our web page did something different - normally by confusing him as to where he was on the pages so he was actually adding a different product, or clicking a link that took him somewhere else completely.

After half an hour he gave up. "It's a shame," he concluded; "if only I could order my groceries and get them delivered to my home, I would be fully independent - something I look forward to".

In telling me this concluding thought there was a kindness in his voice, but it was clear to me that I had performed the equivalent of inviting him in to a brand new Tesco store and - as he arrived at the entrance - slammed the entrance door in his face.

I don't make promises in public unless I can be sure that I can keep them. However at that moment I promised that we would create a grocery web service that the RNIB would hold up as a virtuous example of best practice (despite being far more junior that I am today!).

When I returned to the office the next day I had been emboldened by my promise and met with the leadership team. Fortunately I found myself pushing at an open door, and so in 2000 'project BOB' - Best Of Breed - grocery service was implemented with accessibility built right in.

BOB was unique in that it was one of the first examples of 'one site- two skins'. Customers could choose from our 'standard' site packed with graphics and more, or 'Access' which was specifically designed so that it would (quote from my design brief) "sound like a conversation with a vision-impaired customer through the use of their screen-reader". That is, a simple, disciplined page structure that would be read from top left to bottom right and easily navigable through the screen-reader's keyboard controls.

Soon after, 'BOB' won us accessibility awards, and I have even made a couple of appearances on the BBC Radio 4's "In Touch" show for (and about) vision-impaired people in Britain.

It's now an early December afternoon exactly ten years later. BOB is soon to be retired and our new 'project martini' grocery service is taking over. One thing is for sure: accessibility is at the heart of our work because grocery home shopping continues to help blind customers achieve independence, and my colleagues in the user interface teamwork hard to retain their trust, and their loyalty.

In that 10 years I have been a co-author (with Julie Howell and several others) of a new British standard - PAS 78 - which helps web designers understand accessibility for the web.

The web is not just a visual medium, it is in a format that can reach many people whatever their senses allow thanks to computer technology. For example, this blog is read by a vision-impaired person who sits back and listen as their computer's voice reads it out. I know because they wrote to me recently to tell me they enjoy using a female voice to listen to me! Ha! They reminded me of the last ten years, and their message had prompted this entry. I thank them for their prompt.

Further reading:

...and for balance, when a blind person found they couldn't use a BOB update in 2006:


  1. Nick, it should be mandatory for every company active on the web to provide solutions for the visually disabled. But the challenges grow elsewhere,too. Yesterday I happened upon a short conversation about the iPhone and 4th screen-applications. A person with prothesises on his hands said he would love to use the iPhone. The screen however needs skin contact so that he is excluded from this experience. Everybody talks about the potential of capacitative screens as compared with resistive screen technology. However the resistive screen has to be kept and developed because not everybody can use capacitative technology.

  2. Great blog, Nick - good to see you posting fine stuff years on from working together on PAS 78.

    For those not in the know, PAS 78 was updated to become the full British Standard BS 8878 in December 2010.

    BS 8878 takes the same non-technical line as PAS 78, providing guidance to non-technical website owners for the whole process of commissioning, procuring and producing accessible websites, but updates it to cover modern websites, apps, IPTV, user-generated content and much more.

    Interested readers can find free information including the official slides on BS 8878 from its launch, case studies of organisations using BS 8878, detailed blogs on its use by SMEs, tools and training for applying the Standard, and news on its progress towards becoming an International Standard at

    Prof Jonathan Hassell
    Director of Hassell Inclusion and Lead-author of BS 8878


As this blog grows in readership - and because it carries the Tesco brand - I have had to become more careful about the sort of comments that are acceptable. The good news is that I'm a champion of free speech so please be as praising or as critical as you wish! The only comments I DON'T allow through are:

1. Comments which criticise an individual other than myself, or are critical of an organisation other than Tesco. This is simply because they cannot defend themselves so is unfair and possibly libellous. Comments about some aspect of Tesco being better/worse than another equivalent organisation are allowed as long as you start by saying "in my personal opinion.." or "I think that...". ... followed by a "...because.." and some reasoned argument.

2. Comments which are totally unrelated to the context of the original article. If I have written about a mobile app and you start complaining about the price of potatoes then your comment isn't going stay for long!

3. Advertising / web links / spam.

4. Insulting / obscene messages.

Ok, rules done - now it's your go: