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Usability Evaluation of Email Applications by Blind Users

Brian Wentz and Jonathan Lazar

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 6, Issue 2, February 2011, pp. 75 - 89

Article Contents


Basic email application features such as reading and replying to email messages seemed to be moderately usable for most blind users. The usability tasks with the highest rates of completion were reading, replying, and searching for email messages as well as searching for content in email messages.

Greatest Challenges

Email application features such as the ability to create folders, move messages to folders, manage contacts, and use calendaring had the lowest rates of task completion.

Web-based email applications had persistent problems with users losing focus from a particular area of the application itself to the web browser menus. Often this lost focus was the result of users tabbing or moving through the interface with the keyboard searching for links or a way to complete a task. Other times, it was the lack of a logical tab order that resulted in the user losing navigational focus. Many web-based email applications provide a sort of basic or HTML-only interface. While users consistently noted improvement in usability when selecting these basic interface versions, the basic versions seem to offer additional usability at the expense of full functionality.

Calendaring had the lowest mean rate of task completion across email applications, and the noticeable problems with calendaring were related to navigating dates in the calendar when trying to view, create, or delete appointments. The navigation of most email calendar interfaces seems to be reliant on visual navigation of the standard month view of a calendar. Another common complaint about the evaluated calendars was the lack of clarity as to which date was the current focus when viewing and navigating through the calendar.


Organizations that are selecting email applications for desktop and web-based usage should closely examine the options available and make an informed decision based on application usability for all of their users. With the importance of email communication and scheduling through email calendars, the ability for all employees to easily use an application is highly important. Many organizations are currently choosing to move away from desktop-based office productivity software towards web-based office productivity applications. This may prove to be problematic for their employees who have impairments.

The proposed draft revision of the current Section 508 regulations (of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act), which serve as policy for government agencies, specifies that email and web-based interfaces should conform to WCAG 2.0 policies (U.S. Access Board, 2010). WCAG 2.0 Principle 2 specifies that interfaces must be navigable through a keyboard interface and also that functionality must be reached through a logical focus order (W3C, 2008). It appears that many web-based email applications may violate these basic requirements. Individuals involved in drafting public policy should be aware of these and other problems that may exist in email applications. Organizations who are required to follow such public policies should also take this research into consideration when they select or review their email applications.

Future Research Opportunities

While many of the problems uncovered in this study could affect both blind and sighted users to some extent, navigating with only a keyboard and screen reader causes many of those same problems to become more acute and challenging. A suggestion for future research would be to conduct similar usability testing with a group of sighted users (with similar demographic attributes) to obtain comparison data. It would be useful to know whether the same types of tasks (such as calendaring and contacts) also show poor performance among a similar group of sighted participants. Another comparative study might also be conducted with a group of blind users who have much less email and computer experience than the participants in this study as well as a group of sighted users with less email and computer experience. Ongoing research should be conducted on the accessibility and usability of web-based applications for users with impairments, due to the advantages and growing importance of this kind of technology.

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