Responses To The Screen Reader Strategy Survey

In September of last year, I decided I wanted to hear stories about how screen reader users access The Web. I suspected, as a sighted web user, I made a lot of incorrect assumptions. Accordingly, I composed seven questions to find out about strategies for reading and operation.

Following are the raw, unedited responses (minus the occasional typo). I don’t want to editorialize, but let’s just say I learned a lot.

(It should be noted that two respondents wanted it to be known that they believed their high level of screen reader expertise was not typical and their ‘strategies’ unlikely to be representative.)


Survey responses

When you arrive on a new, unfamiliar web page, for which you have no prior knowledge or expectations, what actions do you perform first?

“I try to get a general layout of the page by searching for headings and landmarks. If the site is busy and inundated with breadcrumb links and other random cruft not related to the desired content, I use NVDA’s skip links command which sometimes helps. I’ve also seen separators used to break up sections of a page. In short, I use element navigation heavily and scope out a mental visualization of the website’s layout.”

“The first thing I am most likely to do is use H to navigate by headings or use the tab key to see what links are available or a combination of the two.”

“I start by using my down-arrow, if it’s a new site to me. If not, I’d start by navigating by headings. And if I were super familiar with it, and I knew an ARIA landmark would get me right where I wanted to be, I’d use that.”

“When I first go to a page, my screen reader starts an auto read and I usually stop that and check the headings. However, I never go to a page and have no expectations. I have always landed on a page for a reason, I know what subject it’s likely to be about etc. One doesn’t just open a browser and say take me to some random page when I haven’t searched for something or tried to open something. There is always expectation if that makes sense. As I say, headings are my go to thing for most situations, but on some pages I will know I am looking for something other than just information, so I might know I need to look for form fields etc.”

“For general exploration, I’ll use landmark navigation or heading navigation to look around. If I’m looking for a search facility, I’ll use the screen reader shortcut for moving to the first form field on the page. If I think the thing I’m looking for will be in the header area, I’ll use the cursor keys to explore in more detail. If I’m looking for a link I’ll call up the links dialogue, possibly taking a guess at first letter navigation to find the one I’m after.I might also search for a particular string on the page if I’m looking for something particular in the content.”

“I usually try to find a heading and then go from there. Usually, I do this by pressing the #1 or #2 on the keyboard, since the hope is that a competent web developer coded the site and that headings are where and at the level they should be. If I can’t quickly find a heading, I press H to navigate to any heading. If none exists, I’ll start at the top of the page, press the page-down key to get past all the navigation links, and up/down arrow to find my way to the main information.”

“If I’m on the Mac, as I normally am, and the page is an article of some kind, I go into ‘reader mode’ if I can. If that fails, and sometimes even if it works, headings are my go-to navigation. If the page has no headings, and if Reader didn’t work, I’m usually on a page for a specific purpose so I’ll use my screen reader’s ‘find’ feature to look for keywords I know have to be there. If that fails, or if I’m somehow on a page for no specific reason, I’ll just skim through it line by line or element by element. By that point, especially if I don’t find something of interest relatively quickly, I’ll abandon the page and seek out my information elsewhere.”

“I almost always use heading navigation unless it’s a page I’m very familiar with (for instance a forum thread, where I’ll jump to the table of topics). Failing that, I’ll use the key to jump to non-link text, which often finds the part of the page I’m looking for. Other strategies I regularly employ is finding text on the page or using the reader view in Safari or Firefox.”

“I first read the page title, then look for an h1, then a main region.”

“First I would look for regions such as nav and main and if no joy then hit the H key to look for headings and then start arrowing down to explore when it looks like I am at a place of interest. If there are no regions or Headings I normally commence swearing.”

“That would vary a little depending on the type of site (retail, news, information etc). Generally though, I would hit “h” to jump to the first heading and hopefully get some indication as to whether the site will give me what I want. Depending on how that goes, may continue down the page or go back to the main nav. If there are no formal headings, after muttering darkly I would try going to the top of the page and using “n” to find the first normal (not a link) text. That is the same in Window-Eyes and NVDA.”

“Why would users arrive on a page for which they have no prior knowledge or expectations? Unless it’s spam/a popup, they have come there with a purpose, generally from Google. Anyway, users use (1) iterating through the page element by element (whatever their screenreader allows) (2) Ctrl+F find (3) Going back because they can’t find what they want quickly. In WebbIE they can hit Ctrl+K or Control+Down to skip past non-content/to the first meaningful heading. Control+Down was probably better understood by people: down takes me through the page one line at a time, but Control+Down jumps past links and stuff.”

If, while using a web page, you suddenly find yourself lost (or in a place you didn’t expect to be) what do you do to get back on track?

“I search for phrases with NVDA’s find function (Firefox’s find is not as reliable at shifting NVDA’s virtual cursor to the expected point on the page). If the site has a heading I can jump to in order to start interacting with the page again, I will do that and continue my work.”

“I will tend to either attempt to go back a page, or I will find a link that should take me to the Home page of the website I am on.”

“Start arrowing up and down. Go in/out of forms/browse mode (if I’ve been put in there without my doing it myself) . The idea is to get out of it to be able to “look around” to figure out what triggered it.”

“I check the headings. Headings, having 6 levels, are the best way to structure information, especially as most screen readers let you navigate by any heading or by headings at a specific level.”

“Check the page title to determine whether I’m on the page I thought I was. If not, I’ll hit the back button since logic suggests I’ve been taken to a new page. Force a refresh of the virtual buffer (on Windows machines) to check
whether content had materialized without my screen reader being aware of it and/or letting me know. Use the cursor keys to quickly explore around my current location, and if that turns up nothing useful I’ll use landmark/heading navigation to try and find some familiar point on the page.”

“I honestly never really thought about it. Sometimes, if I lose my place, I use the JAWS find feature and type in a word or phrase I remember hearing to try and get myself back there…though this is something I mostly have to use in eBooks.”

“I usually remember what I was just reading, so will search for a couple words I remember. Failing that, I’m back to heading navigation, or link navigation if I know there was a specific link around where I’d been.”

“I generally repaint the screen and use a screen-reader find function for a word I recently heard to zip straight to the part of the page I want. I lose my place on a page very infrequently, it sometimes happens if I’ve started reading a page on a slow connection so the page reloads when I’m partway through it.”

“Usually go to the top of the page and do a screenreader search for the last content I remember.”

“Hit Q to navigate to the main region if there is one or use Heading navigation to find where I need to be.”

“More dark muttering. Then perhaps try Back or looking for the Home link.”

“Hit back, try the next Google result.”

When it becomes clear that a web page is complex, what do you do to help break down the information?

“First, I click my tongue in vexation. Then, I begin scoping the site line by line using the arrow keys. Sometimes all it takes is slowing my TTS rate down and taking in the information slower. I search for patterns, and take notes on whatever I’m researching. (and also on the site layout to reference later).”

“I will attempt to navigate by headings to find the relative information on the page that I am looking for.”

“Same as for the first question. There’s no help for it; it takes time, and people have to read, even if they *think* they can just use links lists and headings. I never use links lists, by the way — too much info out of context. But less experienced people do. One of the key issues that folks seem unaware of is that good screen reader training is very much lacking. Those who are *doing* the training sometimes (often?) don’t know very much, so it’s no wonder.”

“Again, I check through the headings to see where it is most likely to be. I find searches don’t often help and other tactics would be used so rarely and dependent upon situation and task.”

“Nothing in particular. Possibly a product of being familiar with how web things work, I don’t often find pages more/less complex than others. Where the accessibility (rather than the complexity) is atrocious, I’ve been
known to resort to Firebug to figure out what’s going on.”

“I really use headings a lot. Beyond that, I use the arrow keys almost exclusively. My issue with regions and the like is that they aren’t universally used, so it’s just faster and simpler for me to use what I know will work a majority of the time rather than to try and guess at how accessibly-minded the web developer is.”

“Reader mode is, again, my friend here. If the meat of the page is all I want, Reader is perfect. If it doesn’t work, or if I need to look at the full page (such as a forum topic), I’ll see if portions are separated by headings. If not, I’ll see if I can find a pattern, such as each forum reply having the same set of information above it, or each Amazon review containing the same linked text at its start. If I can find something like that, I’ll do a text search for some words to jump from section to section, or very quickly arrow along, listening for the repeated information to tell me when I’ve gotten to a new section. If there are no repeats, and no headings,I’m back to moving through the page item by item, which I’ll usually do rather quickly. I don’t need all the words, just an idea of what’s where.”

“That really depends on the structure. If there’s tabular data I use table navigation, otherwise I use end-of-element or move to non-link text keys to maximize my time in the text flow of the page.”

“Try to get a sort of outline view using headings and regions.”

“‘Complex’ is a rather broad term. A page may be complex and structurally sound or may include lashings of poorly structured code, image links without alt attributes etc. In general though, I would use various combinations of provided navigation, headings, landmarks and intuition. Sometimes I will change browser and/or screen reader. That can be especially helpful when a site is poorly coded.”

“Give up, hit back, try the next Google result.”

If you know there’s some information on a website but you don’t know where, what helps you to find it?

“Most sites have a search function. That combined with find commands, I find things relatively quickly. If those methods don’t work, I will Google domain search with specific strings. If I’m really getting annoyed and the website has a site map, I’ll sift through it and drink coffee until I find the items I’m looking for. Overall though, finding and search box solves most issues for me.”

“I would use the search feature of the website or what I commonly do is Google for the information on the website. Usually, that will bring the information up.”

“Using the find feature of the browser to search for words, along with arrowing, using headings, etc., as above.”

“This is not a reasonable question. It really depends on the page. I could say non-standard controls, like the menu buttons on Facebook, I could say working out what has changed dynamically if it is not where the focus is, I could say lack of clarity in the design of the page, it not being clear which of two buttons or links to follow as they appear to be similar. You probably need a survey monkey to cover all the possible answers and work out what bugs people rather than this freeform making us try to think lol!”

“I usually use Google. The “site:xyz.com keyword” function is almost always more effective than site specific search, wading through the site navigation, or other methods.”

“If it’s on the same actual page as I’m on, the JAWS “Find” feature is a wonderful thing. If not, I’ll either use the navigation links at the top of the page and manually search, or I’ll even just pull up Google, type in the website name, and include the keyword. Google seems to be better at finding the relevant info I want rather than using sites’ built-in search features.”

“Again, text searching or headings, or both. If I know the information, I’ll guess at keywords that are probably in the text I want and do some searches for those. Once that fails, heading navigation is next, followed by the afore mentioned skimming.”

“Find on page is useful, for example if reading a news story a keyword in the title often indicates the start of the article body. For navigation on a site rather than a page I look for site maps often (because of that find on page feature) or for very large websites I prefer their search (or using a search engine with a site restrictor).”

“The website search, or in desperation the sitemap.”

“Bring up the list of links or headings or I use the search function.”

“Start off with nav links which, if well named, will often provide clues. If not making any progress, will then try site search. This yields remarkably varying results from one site to another. On some occasions I have more luck searching from Google than from within the site itself. One feature I use extensively is the screen reader’s search facility, which is more effective in finding something specific on a web page than using the browser’s search. I am amazed at how many screen reader users I have met who are unaware of the facility.”

“Try a different Google search. Ask a blind mailing list or sighted friend.”

What’s the most difficult part of navigating a web page?

“Unlabeled elements and sluggishness, navigation being hampered by busy flashy websites. (see below for more)

  1. If the website is heavy, that is, lagging NVDA and the browser, that’s very deterring. Developers need to understand usability and information access before painting their sites with weighty animations
    and banners. There is an elegant balance between efficiency and glitter.
  2. Poor presentation of form controls. Example: One line of text is “Please enter your name”. Then the fields themselves have “first name” and “last name” in the boxes respectively. Never, ever ever put text inside a field that is expected to be filled out. Mistakes and scrambled text occurs a lot because of this.

Another example is a table with a ton of fields. Edit edit edit checkbox checkbox combo… doesn’t help me. Unlabeled controls in general will only discourage me from using your site. And for the sake of sanity, label clickable elements!”

“The worst is when there are no headings. Say I am looking at a page containing products of some sort. More often than not, the titles of the products are not headings, and therefore, quickly being able to go through the products is time consuming.”

“Web pages aren’t nearly the problems they used to be. As I see it, the problems today are with Web app.s and ARIA “gone wild,” (credit the title of one of Jared Smith’s presentations) And also, there are often problems with forms, and those can be real showstoppers. I’d say poor forms and web apps are really causing trouble. Think of the kinds of project management/issue trackers you use and how inaccessible they are. Also note that I suspect most normal consumers think of something like the Twitter web site as a page when, of course, it’s not really.”

“Not design it well. There is no one thing I could pinpoint above other things apart from just poor design. Captchas can be show stoppers, as can unlabelled buttons, no headings or navigation etc. Again, this is a survey monkey job for me.”

“Too much clutter. Badly placed content (advertising iframes in the middle of a blog post for example), or just too much extraneous content that has to be navigated around/through in order to get to the proper content of the page — and the more proper semantic markup is missing, the worse this gets.”

“Besides content that just isn’t accessible at all no matter what, having no headings is frustrating, and poorly-labeled links also present challenges.”

“That can vary, based on the page. Generally, lack of structure, specifically headings, is a huge problem.”

“Inconsistency. Sometimes, pages are well structured in terms of headings, paragraphs, lists etc and that’s brilliant, but until all pages are you can’t rely on them for every page. It’s a similar story with landmarks, web-based applications, audio/video players and so on, they’re not used consistently enough around the web to make the access to them uniform.”

“Things that happen unexpectedly, such as change of focus.”

“Lack of semantic code and uneducated devs.”

“That depends very much on the site. Very often, sites that I have trouble with also challenge sighted friends and family. Airline sites, with their convoluted processes for booking and finding relevant information are prime examples. Some web developers labour under the misapprehension that visitors admire their ‘sophisticated’ presentations when what we really want is to find information and/or complete a transaction quickly and efficiently.”

“Finding the content of interest, traditionally. Having the page change as you go along, or in response to changes you make that you then can’t find. Not putting LABEL elements in forms. Missing ALT. Frames.”

What one thing do web designers do in the design of their web pages that makes your life most difficult?

“Improper use of elements or overuse of them. Example: a site that has thirty headings that are a paragraph long, or
a blog site that has tables just for articles. They may decorate the page, but couldn’t they use a boarder or margin things to get a similar feel? Also, flash. Please terminate every and any use of Flash. It’s buggy and slow, and generally unlabeled or invisible. Videos auto-playing is a nightmare to deal with as well.”

“Inaccessible CAPTCHAs or audio CAPTCHAs that are hard or almost impossible to understand are the biggest issue.”

“I think that it’s not just developers. I think it’s developers, designers, and folks at higher levels, who over-complicate for *everyone*, not just for blind folks. The purpose(s) of the site/application get lost in the branding requirements, along with other items that simply *must* be present (in the minds of corporates). Sometimes, the functionality (reason I came to the site) gets buried, and that’s not a dev’s fault.”

“Forget about keyboard accessibility.”

“Web apps are probably the most frustrating, so much so that I just don’t use them because I have no interest in working with half-accessible solutions. My time is valuable, and unless it were for a job (where I would be paid), I have no interest in Google Docs/iCloud etc.”

“Again, that depends on the page/site. Lack of structure is one, unlabeled links or text fields is another, and, when looking at pages with code on them, images/screenshots of code instead of text are incredibly annoying.”

“Use inappropriate markup. Tables for navigation, lists of items that aren’t in list tags, miss image descriptions or use “image” or “description” in the image description, name iframes or dialogues poorly because they don’t see the name in use or provide plugins (flash, audio, video, menus etc) that aren’t accessible. It all comes back to poorly coded structures on the pages.”

“Try to squash a link to everything on the homepage, usually resulting in a badly marked-up carousel.”

“Divs and spans with no ARIA for custom elements with no ARIA or incorrect use of ARIA.”

“There isn’t one thing. As mentioned above, having to hunt for information which should be readily at hand can be very tedious. If one thing does stand out, it is that most sites to which it applies do not have correctly marked up forms. This can turn what should be a straight forward process into a tedium or, in some cases, an impossibility.”

“Change it. Users develop strategies. When pages change they must be relearned. When tesco.com got rid of their layout tables – to improve accessibility! – everyone complained: they knew how to find things in the tables (and used table mode in JAWS to navigate them…)”

Which features or aspects of web pages do you consistently find the most difficult to use and why?

“Unsure on this one. Perhaps a page that auto-updates frequently whilst in an edit field? Google Instant, etc. It makes NVDA jump around sometimes.”

“The two features I run into often are first, editable fields that try to force me to use the drop down to select the information. Why not just make those true drop downs is beyond me. The Better Business Bureau is doing that quite a bit, and it needs to end. The second thing I run into is Submit buttons that do not work with screen readers turned on when I am trying to send an e-mail through the contact us page on a website.”

“Most ARIA-related “features” are difficult to use because they’re not coded correctly. And it’s long been my contention that even when they are coded correctly, most blind folks have never seen how they’re supposed to work correctly, so haven’t been taught about how to use them.”

“Wow, the breadth of this question just makes my mind go blank. I use so many pages with so much success, but it is generally something different that stops me. Captchas, and asking me why is an insult, try using them blindfold lol, menu buttons that expand or collapse but don’t seem to reveal options, who knows what they are actually called, because we get no feedback and have to mess about with different screen reader modes to interact with them, unlabelled buttons as we have to guess what to press, all sorts.”

“Often the most simple. Pseudo links and buttons that cannot be focused on or used with a keyboard. Also infographics. Don’t get me started! Missing text descriptions in general (short or long).”

“Unlabeled or poorly labeled forms, badly designed tables, clickable items that don’t appear in link or button navigation, and frames containing ads stuck in the middle of articles all contribute to making sites more difficult to use.”

“Elements primarily designed with a mouse in mind. Multi-select lists, roll-over menus and submenus, expandable textboxes, drag and drop items and, of course, flash-based widgets.”

“Inaccessible widgets, or select boxes with onchange events.”

“Anything with Drag and Drop for obvious reasons. Places where an action causes an update elsewhere that either does not have a live region or does not shift focus and take you there.”

  • “Poorly structured forms because I have to guess what goes in which field;
  • Image links without alt attributes because I either have to deduce the destination from the garbled text, guess or go elsewhere;
  • almost paradoxically over-use of ARIA roles because this can add to verbosity and even be misleading;
  • Scripting that introduces information that is not reported by the screen reader because it can seem like a link etc has done nothing and this is where ARIA CAN BE USEFUL.”

“Change again.”