New National Trust site: Accessibility failure?

Yesterday I wrote about the imminent arrival of the new National Trust website and my involvement in the last version. Well today, the new site has gone live and I am left feeling somewhat disappointed by the result.


Perhaps I am suffering from a case of sour grapes because I did not design the new version. Perhaps after 18 months of waiting and countless delays in the launch date I had set my expectations too high. Perhaps I was just being naive believing the publicity that promised improved usability and accessibility.

In my last post, I outlined four hopes I had for the new site. These were:

  • A desire to see the navigational shortcomings of the old site dealt with
  • A site that conveyed the awesome architecture and countryside the Trust manage.
  • A site built with the latest in web technology (web standards)
  • Improved accessibility

So let us look at each of these in turn.

Navigation

The problems of the old sites navigation were apparent to anybody. There were reasons why it was done in that way but at the end of the day, they are no excuse. My hope was that the new site would provide a clear navigational approach that would aid users to find their way around what is an enormous site.

Although the navigation is now definitely more flexible I am not actually convinced, it is any clear or easier to use.

It took me some considerable time to work out how the navigation worked at all. From the homepage, it would appear that the top-level sections are listed across the very top of the page. However, after navigating around the site for some time I discovered this was not the case. The top-level navigation is actually represented by the three boxes in the centre of the screen (which btw, appears below the fold at 800×600). The links at the top of the page are shortcuts to content buried deeper in the sites information architecture. Perhaps it is just me but I was totally thrown by the idea of only three top-level sections that appear as images below the fold of most users’ screens.

Once you move beyond the homepage things do not become much clearer. One click beyond the homepage and you arrive at landing pages for each of the main sections. These display the sub navigation at the bottom of the page. Click on one of these options and the sub navigation now leaps to the left hand side of the page. In its defence, this side navigation works very well. It is clear, consistent and highlights the section you are currently in.

Although in many ways, the navigation is a vast improvement on what came before it seems to have lost consistency along the way.

Site look and feel

In my last post, I said how I hoped they would make good use of the huge photographic library the Trust has to portray the amazing architecture and countryside the Trust manage. Now, look and feel is a personal thing, but I do not feel they have captured any sense of the Trusts holdings. The site seems to be more about navigation and interface than message. The homepage does the best job at portraying more and perhaps that is enough.

Web standards

Another less surprising disappointment was the fact content has not been separated from design. Why does this matter I hear you ask? Well without repeating everything that I have written on the subject in the past, probably the biggest drawback is with printing. The demographic the Trust is trying to reach generally find reading on screen a painful process. They tend to like to print content and read it offline. However, because this site uses table based design the printed version often looks messy and in a few occasions cuts off content on the right hand side of the screen.

I guess it is not the end of the world that the site is not built using web standards but they have missed many benefits by letting this opportunity pass them by.

Accessibility

This area is the one that really horrified me! The new site promised improved accessibility, but if anything, it has taken a step back. At the very least, I was hoping the site would pass an accessibility test by an automated check like Bobby, but it fails even that. The previous site produced back in 2000 allowed the user to resize text in the browser, and change the contrast and font size using a style sheet swapper. Five years on and not only does the new site fail even the most basic accessibility test but it also drops the only accessibility feature that existed on the previous version! I am in shock that the site could so badly fail its users many of whom have visual and physical disabilities associated with old age. Yes, it is possible to resize some of the text but much of the navigation now uses imagery that cannot be resized.

Bitter and twisted

Perhaps I am being melodramatic. Perhaps you are better off ignoring my sad rant that betrays my feels of rejection at not being involved in this rebuild. I would be interested to know what other people have to say about the site. Am I completely loosing the plot?

  • Marcus

    I was wondering how the 50% of users who use search as their main method of navigating websites will feel about the complete lack of search on such a large site. Again, another backward step. Bitter and twisted also ;-).

  • Barbara

    Well, it’s fixed width, seems to rely on Javascript, uses tables for layout, uses black for a link colour, doesn’t indicate visited links, default text size is rather small, uses images for text (so those words don’t resize). Am I missing something ? They say they’ve made it accessible for everyone — perhaps there’s a different set of accessibility guidelines somewhere that I don’t know about.

  • http://www.boagworld.com Paul Boag

    I thought I would pass it by the Accessify forum and see what other people thought. You end up thinking it is just you being bias. This is the thread for those that are interested.

  • Simon Pieman

    I totally agree with the points raised Paul. The left hand navigation on lower level pages seems to work pretty well but the critical higher level nav is appalling. It has taken me a good five minutes of hard looking to work out what is really happening on the homepage. We know that real website users will not invest this time in trying to work out how a site is meant to work.
    What a pity that the trust have missed out on such a fantastic opportunity to create a stunning, usable and accessible website.
    It would be nice for someone from the trust to comment on the points raised.

  • Sheila

    I have only taken a quick peek at the homepage but my immediate thoughts
    are:
    – what if I have never heard of the National Trust? What country are we talking about here?
    – naughty to use Tables for layout; what happened to CSS
    – bottom panel with navigation mixed in with info on the owners is messy
    – behaviour of that bottom panel on mouse-over in Firefox is odd
    – where are the headings and real text for search engines to latch onto?
    – behaviour of the text ‘Neptune walks’ on mouse-over is odd
    I fear it is somewhat lacking in usability, accessibility and search engine optimisation.

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