How the Internet Is Changing Everyday Tasks

Introduction

As the Internet is growing it is increasingly changing how we do everyday tasks. Tasks that were once done mostly through personal interaction, such as banking, shopping, or communication, can now be done online—a seemingly simpler and better alternative. However, this new online explosion can leave some users behind.

This paper will explore the following topics. What everyday tasks conducted on the Internet make life simpler for sighted users? Have these tasks also become easier for users who have a visual impairment (defined here as someone who is blind or has low vision)? As we increasingly move to the Internet for everyday tasks, what impact does this have on users who are visually impaired; are we creating new barriers or opening up new avenues by moving the world online? What features of Web sites seem to make sites easier to navigate for users with normal vision but complicate the site for users who are visually impaired, and which features make a site easier for users who are visually impaired but complicate it for sighted users?

Research Gathering

To expound on these topics, I conducted a series of interviews with seven users who are visually impaired and seven users with normal vision. I asked them the following questions:

  1. What everyday tasks do you now depend on the Internet for?
  2. For each task you identified in question 1, please answer the following three questions:
    • How did you complete this task before the Internet?
    • Is that task easier or harder because of the Internet?
    • How or why?
  3. What tasks can you no longer do because of the Internet?
  4. What task have you tried in the past to do on the Internet but gave up after becoming frustrating because it was too hard?

I also based this paper on usability tests and focus groups with IBM's Home Page Reader (a Web browser for users who are visually impaired). Much of my firsthand experience with users navigating the Web came from my weeks of working with athletes surfing the Web at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics Games.

Everyday Tasks on the Internet

Based on my research of 14 users, seven users with normal sight and seven users who have a visual impairment, I came up with a list of the top ten everyday tasks done on the Internet for both groups. The top ten for each group was very similar.

What everyday tasks do users who have a visual impairment perform on the Internet?

  1. Investing
  2. Entertainment
  3. Using a dictionary or other reference materials
  4. Travel Information
  5. Banking
  6. Reading documents/books online
  7. Shopping
  8. Checking the weather
  9. Reading the news
  10. Corresponding/sending email

What everyday tasks do users with normal vision perform on the Internet?

  1. Searching for Jobs
  2. Shopping
  3. Using a dictionary or other reference materials
  4. Getting directions
  5. Banking
  6. Investing/funding reports
  7. Paying Bills
  8. Checking the weather
  9. Reading the news
  10. Corresponding/sending email

Further Research into Everyday Tasks

Based on the top ten lists of each user group and my research, I have elaborated on the some of the top choices for each group.

Reading documents

Users who are blind find that being able to read documents online is crucial to their everyday lives. Before the Internet, users were relying primarily on scanning devices to scan in articles, books and other materials into their computers. Once they had the document scanned, they used a screen reader to read the document to them. As you can imagine, this two step process was a bit too cumbersome. Now users can find books and articles directly online and read them with the help of a traditional browser and a screen reader or a talking Web browser.

Using a dictionary or other reference materials

Both sighted users and those who are visually impaired use the Internet daily for looking up words and other reference materials. One sighted user said she uses the Internet rather than a dictionary because it is so much easier. "With dictionaries you have to have a very good idea of how a word is spelled before you look it up. With the Web you can enter a word misspelled, and the Web site will prompt you with various spellings or ask if you meant to spell a word like this... It's more interactive"

For users with visual impairments, online resources mean much more freedom. One user, who is blind, said before the Web he relied on friends to look things up for him. Now he does not have to depend on anyone else for looking up words or finding information.

Getting directions

More than half of the sighted users said they used the Web for getting directions. Before the Internet they said they used maps or called places to get directions. For these users, the Web made getting directions easier. As one user put it, with online directions you can pinpoint where you are starting from and where you are going without having to sort through a bunch of roads and cities that aren’t relative. Having a printout of directions narrowed down to your exact location is a lot easier to handle in a car than wrestling with a cumbersome foldout map.

Investing

It seems the ability to look up investment information and investing has opened up a lot of doors for both users who are sighted and who are visually impaired. Before the Internet, users were pretty much reliant on their brokers to manage their investments. Information about investing was not always up to date because of the ever changing market. Now users can get real time information and for a few dollars make their own investment decisions.

Paying Bills

More and more companies are giving people the opportunity to pay their bills online. For many users this has opened up an opportunity to take better control of their finances. One user who is blind said that paying bills online allows him to participate in the financial running of the household and not rely on or burden his wife with all the financial responsibilities. One user who is sighted said that paying bills online allows her to pay when she wants to without waiting on a bill to see how much she owes. She can go online anytime to see what her cellular phone bill is.

Banking

From my small survey, it seems that e-commerce on the Web is very convenient and important to people's everyday tasks. For these users, logging online is more convenient than driving down to the local bank and interacting with a live teller. Again, for the user with visual disability it offers more inclusion in the finances. As with a sighted user, a person with a vision impairment can access his/her account right from a computer at work or home. He/she can move money around with confidence that the transaction taking place is exactly what he/she wants. Most plans allow customers to perform all routine transactions, such as account transfers, balance inquiries, bill payments, and stop-payment requests... everything but withdrawing cash (at least for now). Most authorities on online commerce predict that 16 million households will be banking online by 2001.

Shopping

Shopping seems to be the area most people with visual impairments in the survey found to be the most improved everyday task with the Internet. Before the Internet, many people with visual impairments relied on family or friends to take them shopping. Of course many felt this was inconvenient because they had to wait for transportation and then required the accompanying person to describe items to them. With many shopping Web sites, you can do searches for what you want and find descriptions of the items before you buy them. You can even ship the products you order directly to your doorstep. How much better can it be that that? However, the Web sites are limited by how accessible they are; but we will discuss this a little later.

Checking the weather

Going online to check the weather was very popular with both sighted and visually impaired users. Both gave the same reasoning for choosing the Web as their source for weather. They like the idea that you get up to the minute weather when you want it. You don't have to wait around for a forecast, and you see (or hear in the case of visually impaired users) the weather as it happens. According to a Zona poll on online activity, checking weather reports is the fastest growing activity. In the last year, that activity has grown over six percent.Bermant

Reading the news

Reading the news was also a top choice for both sighted and visually impaired users. Their reasoning was very similar to the reason for using the Web for weather. You get current news when you want it and where you want it. Most news Web sites allow you to customize your page to just show the news you want.

Communication/email

From my survey, I found that email was by far the most reported use of the Internet by both sighted and visually impaired users. Some experts have estimated the number of e-mail messages that were sent in the year 2000 as 6.9 trillion. This is in agreement with a recent Zona poll of more that 700 participants about their online activity; the most popular activity was sending and receiving emailBermant. For both groups of users surveyed in my survey, the reasoning for using email every day was very consistent. Many cited using email to keep in touch with family and friends. A few users mentioned the convenience of communicating through email with colleagues in different countries with vastly different time zones. One user noted that email is a lot less personal than using the phone and that sometimes he cannot get as quick of a response as with a phone call. But overall the majority of feedback for email as communication was positive and the most popular use of the Internet.

New Barriers or New Avenues?

In my research, I wanted to find out the following: as we increasingly move to the Internet for everyday tasks, what impact does this have on users who are blind; are we creating new barriers for users who are visually impaired or opening up new avenues by moving the world online? Every user who was blind or had a vision impairment said the Internet has opened up new opportunities for them and that the Internet has not decreased their day to day activity one bit. In fact, the Internet has done quite the opposite. Many of the users with visual impairments found the Internet offered them a lot more freedom. As I described earlier, most of the users with visual impairments that I talked to can now do things (such as shopping, paying bills, etc.) on their own without the help of a sighted user. A recent government study found that nearly half of people with disabilities say the Internet has significantly improved their quality of life, compared to 27 percent of people without disabilities.Dubno

However, as you are probably aware and as I alluded to earlier in the paper, not all Web sites are accessible to persons with visual impairments. I have heard numbers saying the Web is anywhere from 15% to 60% accessible. With all the millions of Web sites out there, who really knows for sure? But one thing is clear the Web is nowhere near 100% accessible. Right now for a Web site to be accessible, the Web developers had to have made a conscious effort to include all users with disabilities in their Web design. In fact, at times Web developers seem to do quite the opposite. Some features of Web sites seem to make sites easier to navigate for sighted users but complicate the site for users who are blind. I then wondered if some features make a site easier for users who are blind but complicate it for sighted users. However, I found no evidence of this.

When the Web first came along, it seemed to provide equal access to all users with mostly text Web pages. However, as Web pages became more complicated and more visually oriented, the visually impaired users were left behind. Luckily, Web developers are becoming more educated about creating accessible Web sites. With that said, I will not dwell on pure accessibility. I would like to point out some features of Web sites that make a site a problem for the visually impaired user.

Take for example, the Hotmail compose screen. If you listen to the page with a talking Web browser, such as IBM's Home Page Reader, you will notice immediately all the redundant links on the page. I had a chance this past year to work with many athletes with visual impairments at the Paralympic games in Australia. By far, no matter what country the person was from, the choice for email was Hotmail. They asked very reasonable questions as I helped them through the pages. For example: "Why is it asking me to send the email when I have written it yet?" That was a very good question. (See highlighted portion of screen grabs below.) As a sighted user I could see that it was just giving me several buttons to choose from on the screen to send my email. To the user who was blind listening to the page, the option to send when she hadn't even written the email made no sense. I think this is just one example of how the Web author needs to understand what all users' experiences will be when they come to the Web site.

Hotmail Page in Netscape
screen grab of Hotmail compose screen showing two send buttons.

Hotmail Page in Home Page Reader
screen grab of Hotmail compose screen in HPR text view showing the word send twice.

Another example of a feature that helps sighted users but is annoying to users who are visually impaired is the repeated navigation on every Web page. I'm not suggesting taking out the repetitive navigation, especially if you are following a template. The repeating navigation is actually very helpful to a person with a cognitive disability. However, you can give the option of skipping over the navigation, so a person accessing the Web pages with a screen reader or talking Web browser does not have to hear the same information continuously repeated. An example of this skip navigation can be found at www.ibm.com/able.

screen grab of www.ibm.com/able in HPR with skip to main content 
highlighted.

For a code example of how to add skip navigation to your site, go to www.ibm.com/able/skip.html.

Conclusion

Through my interviews with users who are blind or have low vision and sighted users, I've concluded that the Internet has made life easier for most everyone. Persons who are blind or have low vision now have more freedom to do tasks (shopping, banking, paying bills and looking up information) that they normally would have depended on a sighted person to assist them with. Persons who are sighted also enjoy a lot more independence with the Internet. They are doing their own investment research, trading stocks, and banking all online. Looking up the news and weather were hot everyday tasks for both sighted and visually impaired people. However, sending email was by the far the most popular everyday use of the Internet today. What does all this mean? Our everyday lives are changing as the Internet grows. As we find more tasks convenient and easier to do on the Internet, the more likely we are to depend on the Internet for this task. Does that mean that shopping at stores, phone calls, televisions, newspapers, etc. will disappear from the scene? Well, that's probably not the case. However, it does mean that we need to think more carefully about our audiences when developing Web pages. After all, we do not want to keep people from their everyday tasks.

References & Resources

Bermant, Charles. "Net Becomes Everyday Tool." PC World, March 2, 2000.
Dubno, Daniel. "Access to All." CBC News, March 14, 2001.