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Digital Accessibility for the Individual: Get Involved in a Website Personalisation Study

Recently, Joe, an MSc student from the University of York got in touch to tell us about his research into the accessibility of interactive media. He’s specifically looking at whether personalisation of websites and user interfaces can be used to make them more accessible to all. If you’re a user of assistive tech then there’s an opportunity to get involved in some user testing in return for a £20 Amazon voucher. If you’d like to take part, please let us know by Friday 20th November by emailing us at hello@ydrf.org.uk.

The World Wide Web has allowed for communication and interaction of different users and cultures like never before and it’s easy to imagine the benefits that this can bring, such as everyone being able to use their own device to have the same access to online resources. No longer are there physical barriers in place, preventing people with accessibility needs from achieving their goals.

Poor accessibility is costly for everyone

In order to make the web more accessible, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, also referred to as WCAG, have been developed. The aims of these guidelines are to make websites perceivable, operable, robust and understandable by anyone, no matter their accessibility needs.

Despite the opportunity that the web should afford everyone, a recent analysis of 1 million websites provides a stark contrast. In 2019, an automated test of 1 million websites, conducted by non-profit accessibility organisation WebAIM, found that 97.8% of homepages tested failed to meet the WCAG. This means that there are hundreds of thousands of websites that prevent people from being able to use them. The Click-Away Pound Report 2019, details that 71% of users with access needs in the UK click-away when presented with a website that is not accessible. Due to this, the report estimates £11.75 billion was lost by inaccessible websites in 2016. For an individual, though, this may mean they do not have a way to purchase goods and services that may be essential, as the website is not accessible to them.

How can we improve accessibility?

You may be wondering: if a website were to meet all of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, would it be accessible?

In short, the answer is no, not necessarily.

The majority of testing tools are automated, so they’re limited in what they can test for. Automated tools can test for things such as correct colour contrast between text and its background or even whether a language has been specified by the developer. However, there are things that automated tools cannot check for, such as whether the site can be used with only a keyboard, or whether certain features (i.e. skip links, for keyboard and screen reader users to navigate through content) have been used correctly during development. Because of this, the best approach to ensure accessibility and usability is to conduct a test of the website, with real users that have different disabilities and access needs, to get a better understanding of whether the website is accessible to as many people as possible.

In 2012, researchers presented an argument that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines alone were not enough to make websites accessible to people. As part of this research, 16 websites were tested by participants, who were asked to identify any problems during their use of the sites. The researchers found that 49.6% of problems identified were not covered by the WCAG 2.0 guidelines at the time. Therefore, there could be websites that meet all of the WCAG, yet still contain problems that make them difficult to use.

Building upon WCAG with personalisation

How can websites that meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines not be accessible?

The guidelines state:

Although these guidelines cover a wide range of issues, they are not able to address the needs of people with all types, degrees, and combinations of disability.
From this, we can understand that in order to make websites as accessible to as many people as possible, the WCAG have been developed with specific disabilities in mind, rather than the needs of individuals.

There are solutions that already exist which attempt to allow people to personalise websites. A prominent example can be found within most modern web browsers such as Google Chrome, Safari and Firefox. These browsers allow users to change the default appearance of websites within their settings. For example, you could set the font size to appear bigger by default. However, the success of such approaches can depend on the way that a website has been implemented by its developer. Websites may have been styled and implemented in a certain way, so that some of these settings may not take effect, even when changed.

It’s important that we remember that as individuals, our needs change depending on how we’re feeling and depending on our context of use. The Government Digital Service published an article providing examples where a user’s ability could be affected, including:

  • location – they could be in a noisy cafe, sunny park or area with slow wifi
  • health – they may be tired, recovering from a stroke or have a broken arm
  • equipment – they could be on a mobile phone or using an older browser

As such, it makes sense that as an individual, you should be able to change and adapt websites to meet your own accessibility needs. This is the aim with my research into personalisation.

Text reads 'research opportunity'

Take part in the research

As part of my research, I’ve created an example e-commerce fast fashion website, replicating the content and structure of the current, most popular fashion websites. Within this site, I’ve developed different ways for people to personalise the design to meet their individual accessibility needs. The entire design of the site can be personalised, as well as individual elements. I am currently in the process of concluding this study and as such I am looking for people with different disabilities that are also users of assistive technology to take part in the research and to help me understand if personalisation is useful.

Earlier in the year I also conducted a study inviting people to design their own version of a toilet roll-selling e-commerce website. While the study is no longer running, you can still create your own bog roll business site.

To take part in the study, you will be invited to complete a series of tasks on the website while providing feedback on your experience. Following the tasks, you will be asked a few short questions. It will take roughly an hour to complete and payment will be provided in the form of a £20 Amazon voucher.

If you’re interested in taking part, please get in touch with York Disability Rights Forum at hello@ydrf.org.uk and they’ll put you in touch.


This research is being conducted as part of the MSc by Research in Interactive Media at the University of York and is being supervised by Dr Anna Bramwell-Dicks and Dr Debbie Maxwell. If you have a shared interest in web accessibility, I strongly recommend getting involved with the Interactive Media degree. It has given me the opportunity to investigate this avenue of research and the staff have supported me and encouraged me every step of the way.

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