Nov 27

For the disabled PC user, every mouse click and keystroke can be a major effort or literal pain.  So disabled users will often go to great lengths to automate repetitive tasks and minimize the steps required to perform each task.  This includes the use of macros, voice recognition, mouse and keyboard utilities, and special hardware such as head-controlled mice and programmable button boards.

But in spite of these efforts, disabled PC users are often confounded by all-too-common problems found in today’s Windows and Web applications. 

Following are 20 problems with PC software that may be minor nits for many users but can be a huge problem for the disabled.  These are presented in no particular order, as each problem’s severity depends on the situation and individual.

  1. No Focus
    The window opens and there is nowhere to type.  I have to position the mouse and click the tiny textbox just to start typing.
  2. Stolen Focus
    I’m typing away blissfully, and from the corner of my eye I see a window come and go, stealing my last few keystrokes.  Even worse is when I’m not sure which window popped up and what did I just tell it to do?
  3. Lost Focus
    I delete an item from a long list, the list refreshes, and focus jumps back to the beginning.  So I have to scroll through the long list to find my place again.
  4. Amnesia
    Memory is a skill where computers far surpass humans, so software really should remember my previous choices.
  5. No Undo/Redo
    Wouldn’t life be awesome with an Undo button?  Sadly that’s not possible, but it is possible with software, so multi-step Undo/Redo should be in every application.
  6. No Cut/Copy/Paste
    If I can click it, I should be able to cut, copy and paste it.
  8. No Keyboard Shortcuts
    Automation tools and input devices typically operate via keyboard shortcuts, so applications should provide keyboard shortcuts for every command.
  9. Fixed Keyboard Shortcuts
    My programmable keyboard thinks “Find” is Ctrl+F.  So if an application doesn’t agree, it should allow me to change the keyboard shortcut to match my setup.
  10. Fixed Toolbars and Menus
    While we’re on the subject of customization, toolbars and menus should be fully configurable as well.
  11. Do Not Enter
    It’s easier to press the Enter key than to precisely position the mouse over a tiny “Submit” button.
  12. Tiny Buttons
    Because precise mouse control is a challenge for disabled users, tiny buttons can be quite frustrating to click.
  13. Tiny Fonts
    Many PC users have vision challenges, so adjustable font sizes are best.
  14. No Multiple Selection
    Few things on the PC are more annoying than having to manage a large collection of items one at a time.
  15. Big Lists in Little Windows
    A new trend for web applications is to open a long list of items in a tiny window.  As a result, I’ve become quite intimate with the Page Up/Down keys.
  16. Window Clutter
    Having multiple floating, sizable windows overlapping each other on a crowded desktop might seem like the ultimate in multi-tasking, but it’s a mouse control nightmare for the disabled.
  17. Command Smorgasbord
    Modern applications provide a smorgasbord of buttons, menus and windows.  But usually at any one time I need only a handful of easily-accessible commands.
  18. Are You Sure?  Are You Sure?  Are You Sure?  Are You Sure?
    Vista UAC proves there can be too much of a good thing, such as confirmation dialogs.  Just ask me once.
  19. Not Eating Their Own Dog Food
    Occasionally an application’s interface can be so convoluted that you know the company doesn’t actually use its own software.
  20. Bugs
    Bugs waste time, generate rework, and can be a real pain for all users.

As Windows applications continue to improve, these problems become less pervasive.  But the new generation of Web applications seems to have forgotten these important user interface lessons, and unfortunately software usability for the disabled has taken a step backward with Web 2.0.

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Article published on November 27, 2007

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2 Responses to “PC’s and the Disabled: 20 Molehills that Become Mountains”

  1. RANT! PC’s and the Disabled: 20 Molehills that Become Mountains » I Think, Therefore I Rant! Says:

    […] recently came across a post on a different kind of top 20 (or worse 20) list. This list is of bad software (or at least poorly behaving software).  The focus of the article was on web applications but, […]

  2. codeslinger Says:

    Thank you for this list. Just wanted to let you know that there is at least one web developer that is listening.

    One thing I’ve been very concerned about is JavaScript. Conventional wisdom says you can’t use it because it’s not accessible. But I am hoping that advice is outdated. You really can’t make a webpage behave like an app without using JavaScript.

    For instance setting the focus would require some JavaScript magic. Another example, I like your “Submit Comment” button, it’s very pretty, but guess what the mouse over style swap does not work with all browsers. To ensure a consistent look and feel across platforms/browsers requires some major JavaScript magic.

    What are your thoughts on the subject of JavaScript and Accessibility?

    Any thoughts on Blindness and webpages? It seems nearly impossible to accommodate blind people without designing a special alternate website just for them.

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