How Accessible is Your Search Application

How Accessible is Your Search Application?

5 minute read
Martin White avatar

It's estimated that one in 10 people has some degree of dyslexia. People with dyslexia have a cognitive disorder which hinders their ability to recognize words. Yet when I brought up the topic of web accessibility with some delegates at the recent J. Boye Aarhus 2014 Conference, I was concerned by the high percentage who had never considered whether their website and intranet search applications met an acceptable standard of accessibility.

Siteimprove, a consulting company established in Denmark in 2003 by Morten Ebbesen, won the Web Idol contest at the conference.The Siteimprove presentation highlighted the importance of achieving the highest possible level of web accessibility, in line with the guidelines of the Web Accessibility Initiative of W3C.

The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to expand the range of sites covered by legislation on web accessibility in March 2014, but the European Commission seems to be dragging its heels over the implementation process. Most countries now have web accessibility legislation but this is usually only applicable to public sector sites -- corporate sites are not covered. Daniel Gartmann, assistive technology specialist at the Institute for the Blind and Partially Sighted in Denmark and Helene Noorgard Bech, senior eAccessibility consultant at Siteimprove demonstrated at J. Boye the appalling quality of accessibility on the Amazon site for anyone using a speech reader such as JAWS.

Search accessibility touches many aspects, including:

  • How easy it is to find and then use the search box to construct a query using a speech reader and a keyboard?
  • How accessible is the "Advanced Search" option?
  • How filters and facets can be selected to refine the search results using only a keyboard?

What follows are some issues that arise during the presentation of search results, in particular those that affect users with dyslexia.

Dyslexia: The Hidden Disability

Dyslexia is a "spectrum" condition, meaning that some people only have a mild degree of dyslexia and others are totally unable to identify words. Many of those with the condition are able to recognize words by their shape and have evolved -- or have been taught -- ways of minimizing its impact.

HR departments should be aware of employees with physical and visual disabilities, but will often have no indication of employees with dyslexia because it is not visually obvious and because there is a stigma attached to people who appear not to have a "normal" ability to read text. The percentage of people with dyslexia is much higher than any other accessibility challenge, with the possible exception of red-green color blindness.

Some design considerations that should be taken into account are:

Learning Opportunities

  • Do not underline text or use capital letters as both change the shape of words
  • Use high contrast color palettes, but not black on white
  • Use a line space, or 1.5, or ideally 2
  • Minimize the amount of information presented on a single page
  • Keep line lengths short
  • Write in good, "standard" English

When someone who is dyslexic reads sentences on a website or intranet they can take advantage of many clues that help them understand the text. Recognizing familiar words can help the comprehension of other words and sentences. However the summaries given in a list of search results can cause challenging problems, not only for users with dyslexia but also for anyone using a speech reader.

Search Result Summaries

Most search result summaries consist of fragments of text with the keywords in bold. Take this example of a search on "phone hacking" from the UK Office of Communications website. All of the titles of the results are underlined and the URL is a dark grey impact on a light grey background. Note that there is no reference to the search term:


The high percentage of capital letters totally conceals the word shape. Even without invoking a speech reader in your browser, you get a good sense of the nonsense output. I have chosen the UK Office of Communications specifically because on its website the agency addresses accessibility compliance.

Ofcom recognises the importance of providing a website that is accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. We will also follow forward best-practice. This means we will try to go beyond current standards to make sure we anticipate new guidelines as they emerge.”

I'll leave it to you to judge whether Ofcom meets its commitment in relation to search. Having done so, perhaps now is the time to check your own website and intranet. Add a speech reader such as BrowseAloud to your browser if (unlike Chrome and Safari) it does not have this support. Then put on a blindfold and see how well you cope scanning your search results with just an audio output.

Title image by Ross Hunter (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

About the author

Martin White

Martin White is Managing Director of Intranet Focus, Ltd. and is based in Horsham, UK. An information scientist by profession, he has been involved in information retrieval and search for nearly four decades as a consultant, author and columnist.