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The accessibility of Facebook, Part 3: Daily use

04.08.2011

The third and final Facebook test looks at activities in daily use, such as finding friends or sending status messages. How does Facebook fare here, in terms of accessibility?

Note

This is a translation of the German article covering part 3 of our Facebook accessibility test. Our first Facebook test covered the registration process, the second looked at the account and profile settings. This final part of the series looks at the day-to-day use of facebook, and the accessibility of the functions needed to find friends, share status messages, and so on. The detailed test report is available only in German.

Screenshot of Facebook home page after login

Facebook home page displayed to users after login

What have we tested?

Facebook offers many functions. In testing altogether 8 pages, this is what we have covered:

  • Sharing a status message (text)
  • Create a non-public event
  • Search for friends, and invite people as friend
  • Confirm an invitation
  • Comment the status message of a friend
  • Send a message to a friend
  • The chat function

When we talk about particular functions here, we also take into account the start and profile pages from which these functions are called up.

It should be noted that we have tested the German language version of Facebook. We have not explored to what extent the English version might differ from the version tested.

Known problems from the previous two tests

Many of the problems have already surfaced in the first two tests, especially those related to page layout and semantic structure, scalability and contrast, and custom settings such as the choice of a different colour scheme.

We are not going to repeat ourselves here and focus mainly on new issues related to the functions investigated in the third test. Obviously, all the known problems, while not being discussed in detail here, contribute to the overall test score.

The news stream

The news stream is is the core content of the home page after login. It brings together status messages from users' own network. In addition, there are many options for interaction, from the simple "Like" button to submitting comments, images, or videos.

On the level of HTML, the news stream is rendered as a nested unordered list. Depending on how much is goinig on in one's network, this kind of display gets soon gets rather difficult to handle for any kind of non-visual access, for example, when using a screen reader.

Individual messages are markeed up as h6 elements within the list. Related comments carry no semantic markup apart from being included in the same list element.

While the choice of heading level 6 may seem somewhat arbitrary, this markup actually helps screen reader users accessing messages via the screen reader's keyboard shortcuts for headings. This however does not remedy the substantial shortcomings in terms of overall semantic page structure that we ahave already identified in the first two tests.

Keyboard accessibility

Keyboard accessibility was less of an issue in the first two tests. This is now different. The final test has revealed many problems that severely hamper access for keyboard users. Some examples:

  • When creating an event, important options such as the addition of street and city and the time at which the event will end are not keyboard-accessible. The recently much discussed privacy settings are accessible, however.
  • In status messages, the option "Ask a question" ("Frage stellen") is not keyboard-accessible.
  • The chat function is not usable just with the keyboard.
  • The tab order in many lightboxes is not predictable and often requires a lot of tabbing, sometimes through the page in the background, in order to get to the interface element needed.
  • When using the keyboard, focus visibility is usually bad or non-existent.
  • Using the keyboard, many functions can only be accessed via cumbersome detours. For example, the options "Photo", "Link", "Video" und "Question" above the status input box on the news page cannot be activated. For entering anything other than plain text, a keyboard user first has to activate the "more" link in the right column and then choose the category desired.
  • It seems that some functions are altogether unavailable for keyboard users, for example, adding a photo directly from the webcam, or creating a survey.

Accessibility with custom colour settings

The access under custom settings, for example, when choosing a different colour scheme, had already been an issue in the previous two tests. The point is that background graphics used as interface elements are no longer visible under such custom settings.

This is exactly what happens to the important privacy options when sharing a status message. Here, the user can define whether such messages are public or only intended for friends or subsets of friends. Since the interface element for this function is implemented as a background image, it is not available under custom colour settings.

Conclusion

While the first two Facebook tests (registration and the account and profile settings) had revealed many shortcomings, our conclusion was that these shortcomings did not pose unsurmountable barriers to use.

This cannot be said for this third and last test. The score is even worse than previously (just 69,75 points vs. 74,75 points for registration and 78,25 points for account and profile settings). Due to the inaccessibility of critical functions when using the keybaord or custom colour schemes, we have downgraded the overall test result to "badly accessible" (a result which is bad enough anyway).

The daily use of Facebook is difficult, especially for blind users and users with visual impairments. Knowledgeable and adventurous users may find ways around the problems or limit themselves to a subset of functions (or feed Facebook via Twitter by setting the #fb hashtag). For less experienced users, the obstacles are many, so many users will turn away from the web site and use more accessible avenues such as the iPhone-App or the Facebook version for mobile browsers.

In spite of some positive aspects such as the use of WAI-ARIA landmarks, there's still a long way to go towards a truly accessible social network.


Internet address: www.facebook.com

Date of testing: 4. 8. 2011
Test score: 69,75 of 100 points (badly accessible)

Test report (in German) with detailed results

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