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User Experience and Accessibility: An Analysis of County Web Portals

Norman E. Youngblood and Susan A. Youngblood

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 9, Issue 1, November 2013, pp. 25 - 41

Article Contents


In the use of county web portals, Alabama reflects nationwide patterns. About 2% (58.2) more Alabama counties have adopted portals than Huang (2006) identified as the national percentage of 56.3%, and portal adoption is correlated with county population, per capita income, and mean household income. In the 6-year gap in these studies, we might have hoped for wider portal adoption. Alabama county web portals typically meet a number of usability standards, which is encouraging, but lag in a few areas. On comparable usability measures that Youngblood and Mackiewicz (2012) examined in Alabama municipal websites, the county portals typically fared a bit better than their municipal counterparts, with a few exceptions (home links, underlined text links, and search capabilities). Some areas of usability are weak on average, particularly search capabilities and link features. Breadcrumb trails are largely missing, but some sites may not be deep enough to necessitate their use. The failure to adhere to link conventions is more problematic: Link conventions help users identify links in text, return home, and identify parts of the site they have already explored, thus avoiding retreading old ground in a search for information and services.

Even more problematic are the accessibility findings. Research with users with disabilities indicates that although the standards begin to tackle problems, developers need to go beyond standards to make sites universally usable (e.g., Leporini & Paterṇ 2008; Theofanos & Reddish 2003). Many of the county homepages failed to meet critical accessibility standards. Around 60% of the homepages had images missing alternative text, and 39.5% had linked images with missing ALT elements. This means that users who rely on alternative text would not be able to access the image content and would be left to wonder if the images were important, particularly in the case of images that served as hyperlinks. In some cases, the WAVE and validation results, though indicators of problems, underestimate the extent of the problems. One county’s attractive portal homepage—text and all—was an image map without alternative text. Thus, not only was the navigation inaccessible, but so was all of the content, and the page was slow to load. And over a third of the sites were missing form labels (such as for search fields). Furthermore, for two of the portals, WAVE could only check the HTML shell, not the Flash-based content within it, possibly meaning that problems here are underreported.

All that said, it is important to remember that Alabama counties are far from alone in having these problems. Accessibility problems are also frequent at the municipal level (e.g. Evans-Cowley, 2006; Youngblood & Mackiewicz, 2012), state level (Fagan & Fagan, 2004; West 2008) and federal level (Olalere & Lazar, 2011), as well as in e-commerce, including Fortune 100 companies (Loiacono, Romano & McCoy, 2009). Counties with lower per capita income were a more likely to pass a WAVE screening; the correlation is statistically significant and moderate, rather than strong. In other words, a scatterplot of the data produces points that group around a line, but not tightly. The correlation might be related to whether counties have the resources to build complex sites, but more research is warranted to explain the finding.

This study identified a range of areas for improvement in Alabama county websites; however, Alabama counties are not the only governmental organizations facing these issues. State and local governments need to take usability and accessibility into account when allocating funds for developing and maintaining a website. Having identified problems that need to be addressed, the next step is to delve into why these problems exist and how they might best be solved. The following are some questions this study raises:

These issues are perhaps best addressed through a combination of surveys, interviews, and focus groups. Our findings also argue for usability and accessibility practitioners reaching out to form partnerships with local government web developers, a partnership that would benefit not only the field but also the public.


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