onsdag 23. november 2016

Web analytics in service of accessibillity

Screen shot from Blogger analytics, partially magnified
Web analytics tools are not ment to tell us anything about users with disabilities

Web analytics is a well known tool for better user experience. If we couldn't see how our users use our site, we would be quite lost in knowing how it works.

For a long time I have been playing with the idea of filtering users who use assistive technology to see how their behavior is compared to those who don't. Are they using more time on each page? Do they have the same amount of page views? Maybe we even can detect barriers by doing this. But assistive technologies don't make this easy because they don't identify themselves to the server. I find it strange that web analytics tools can tell me see how big screens the users have or which versions of Windows they are running, but I can't know if they actually read or hear the content.

It's hard to believe that I am the first person to think about this, so I started googling web analytics and accessibility. What I found was a wall of scepticism about identifying people with disabilities. Many of the arguments are well-founded, but it seems like many people think they know the intentions without really listening. This article wraps it up quite well.

These are the arguments I find:

My disability is not your business

People don't want "dyslexia" written on their forehead. I can understand that. I don't want everyone to know every detail about me either. People also fear this information can be used for commercial purposes like advertising. I still see ads for cycling glasses everywhere after I bought a pair several months ago, so I get their point. People want to protect their privacy.

But to be honest, I don't care about you. Not when I analyse web traffic. I care about you as a group, not as individuals. I want to find out how a representative group of users who use screen readers or high contrast mode handle our pages. If I discover that their conversion rate is lower than average, maybe there is an accessibility barrier somewhere.

We are living in the age of Edward Snowden. Even if I swear that my intentions are pure, others may misuse the same information. But how new is this really? If you are blind, I suspect that Google's and Facebook's algorithms already have figured this out.

I don't want to be treated differently

Some web sites have separate "accessible pages" in addition to the fancy pages for "normal" people. Nobody wants to be sent here. They want to play on main pages with the cool kids.

I don't like to separate the users either. I don't want twice as many pages to maintain. I'm a fan of universal design. One web to rule them all!

The numbers will be wrong anyway

When assistive technologies don't identify themselves to the servers, it gets difficult to track them in web analytics. It is possible with some creativity, but it takes different measures for different tools and some will possibly not be logged. Besides, detecting a screen reader does not necessarily mean that there is a blind person on the client. I have tested plenty of sites with VoiceOver, but I'm definitely not blind. I have also seen my uncle holding a magnifier in front of the screen. How can we detect that? We will never get the numbers right.

But web analytics is not about exact numbers. It's about trends. We want to see if a change is for better or worse, how long the users stay on a page, how many pages they see per visit etc. And now I want to see if these data are different for users with disabilities. All I need is a representative group. It doesn't need to be complete, as long as the deviations in the data are noticeable. However, we need to keep in mind that we are logging specific events, not users with disabilities. We also need to treat the data as what they are.

I don't want to be counted

People are not always happy to be a part of some home made statistics of the users' abilities. When I advocate accessibility, I'm almost always asked how many blind users we have. I must admit that this was the first thing I was thinking when I got the idea of using web analytics for accessibility, but those numbers would not convince anyone anyway. As mentioned before: web analytics is not about counting, but analyzing users' behaviors.

I doubt many people find anything suspicious in my intentions. If they do, there is a bigger problem with web analytics in general. The challenge is that the same identification also can be used for other, more dubious purposes. It's hard to make people count if they don't want to be counted.