5 intranet accessibility myths and how to address them

22 September 2014 by Louise Kennedy

Many intranet and digital workplace managers either consider accessibility irrelevant or mistake their inadequate efforts as exemplary. This article explains the most common myths of intranet accessibility and simple ways to address them.

I know that in my last article I said the next post would be about card sorting, but we’re still waiting for the results from the sample card sort to come in. If you’re interested, please do take it and I’ll write about the results at a later date.

In the meantime, I’d like to raise the profile of a topic we’re frequently asked about at DWG and which our members often struggle to score well on: Accessibility.

This is not only a legal requirement (see Myth 1 below) but, also, good accessibility equals better usability – and yet it is nevertheless all too often overlooked.

Myth #1: The law doesn’t cover intranets

Some say that, since an intranet service isn’t provided to the general public, web accessibility regulations need not apply. Well, employees have rights too! As intranets contain basic information and tasks for daily work, then you can easily be discriminating by preventing users from accomplishing their daily work.

Cases against companies are not common but there have been lawsuits and employment tribunals to date. As the digital landscape increases in complexity and employees are increasingly required to use digital services to interact with their employers, these cases will become more frequent.

In my view though, this is not just about a legal requirement but also about making sure the intranet provides all users with a satisfactory experience.

Myth #2. We already have and follow accessibility guidelines

Are you sure? I’ve read accessibility statements on intranet footers and then gone on to find a number of issues that contradict the guidelines of those accessibility statements. The published guidelines (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Section 508 etc.) are hard to decipher and it would take me a lifetime of blog posts to cover them all, but read on for how to avoid some of the easier pitfalls.

Myth #3. It’s the technology that prevents us from being accessible!

As much as we all like to blame the vendors (and I’m not suggesting they’re guilt free by any stretch), we as intranet managers can have more impact than we think.

DWG’s decade plus of intranet usability benchmarking at large companies has revealed that most of the top accessibility mistakes rest with content publishing rather than the code base. These include:

  • Links that are not sufficiently descriptive and/or unique—I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen ‘Read More’ or ‘View More’ links. This increases page clutter and is meaningless where links are presented out of context (common in a screen reader).
  • Images/rich media without a text alternative—this might be fine for decorative images but for real content, such as graphs or process charts and important messages (e.g. the CEO town hall), there’s no excuse for not providing some explanatory text so that users can still understand meaning and access content.
  • Poor colour contrast—images and page content with insufficient contrast between text and background, making it hard to read.

So, it’s super important to ensure that your editorial community members understand the guidelines and how the information within them impacts content. Good training will help here, as will access to users of assistive technologies that can describe the issues they face on a daily basis and make the problems come to life for editors.

How about including someone in your intranet personas that perhaps can’t see specific colours or can’t use a mouse or requires a screen reader?

It’s not just editors that can make an impact; designers sometimes ignore accessibility rules:

  • Colour used for meaning—many navigation menus include highlights to show user location (cheers!) but these often only use colour to do so (jeers!).
  • Small fixed font sizes—there really is no excuse for small fonts on websites, particularly when these are hard coded into templates.

Myth #4. Users with disabilities are a small audience

There may be many users within an organization that have minor visual impairments and require glasses or are colour blind.

Normally in user testing, employees stumble upon the same tasks and patterns emerge quickly, whereas users with visual impairments, cognitive and motor disabilities often have individual coping mechanisms and a unique computer set-up.

Once, when sitting with a dyslexic user, I was astounded to see the colour scheme she had set up on her local machine (black background with yellow and purple text) in order to be able to read the content — and her confusion at the pages of meaningless jargon that actually hurt her head!

A web accessibility survey of screen reader users concludes: “There is no typical screen reader user”.

I would encourage you to get to know the accessibility groups within your company, establish a specific user board if none exists and to engage with these groups.

So, users will have very different problems and develop various strategies for coping. But what employees with vision impairments do share is a willingness to go the extra mile in order to find what they need and usually a desire to share their experiences with others.

Myth #5. Accessible intranets are about accessible web pages

Your developers, designers and editors can only do so much. As intranets expand to cover services across the digital workplace, the problem becomes much more complex.

Form-based web services, such as online pay systems, holiday request systems, mandatory online training etc., all require employees to use often overly complex and difficult systems. Are these optimized for accessibility and are guidelines taken into account when choosing vendors?

Often these applications are hard to brand and customize, let alone make accessible. Engage HR and IT colleagues in setting standards for applications and ensure critical systems are tested with disabled users. See our Usability of Third Party Applications Checklist for a helpful guide.

So, set standards, test with users and engage the audience to make improvements regularly.

This is the most fundamental point for organizations, since failure means you will be preventing employees from fulfilling their required duties. It’s not uncommon for me to hear users complain that they can’t actually complete mandatory online training due to poor accessibility of these systems.

Sources and further reading on accessibility

Related research

User-centred design (UCD) for intranet navigations

User Centered Information Architecture - coverLarge corporate intranets serve diverse audiences and support multiple goals, but often they have evolved with little control, reaching mammoth proportions.

In this paper we set out the steps to developing an intranet information architecture (IA) using user-centred design (UCD) techniques, starting with why it is so hard to find an intuitive IA, and key success factors.

Free executive summary »


See Also

Categorised in: HR intranets, Usability & design

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