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Special needs addressed at Web Usability Conference

MADISON – Madison’s masters of online usability challenged businesses to better meet the needs of customers and individuals with special needs last Wednesday at a Web usability conference titled “Are Your Web Based Solutions Accessible, Effective and Useable?”

The conference, which was hosted by the Madison chapter of Media Communications Association International (MCA-I Madison), covered topics ranging from e-course standards to designing Web pages for ease of use and accessibility.

During his talk, speaker Scott Mayer of American Family Insurance focused on online accessibility for visually impaired individuals. Mayer, who is blind, said most sites do a poor job of addressing the needs of individuals who have poor vision, poor motor control or other disabilities that create obstacles to surfing the Internet.

While it is relatively simple for sites to meet accessibility guidelines, such as those recommended by W3C, Mayer said it is uncommon to find sites that do a good job of it. He demonstrated the Web experience common to visually impaired users by showing CNN.com, Ebay.com and Amazon.com with a screen reader, which is a Web browser designed for individuals with low vision.

Meeting appropriate standards helps ensure a successful Web project, according to Jon Aleckson of Web Courseworks, a Madison company that develops Web-based training courses.
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“There are times when it’s important to have all the details written down,” Aleckson said. “It helps control everyone’s expectations.”

He said standards provide a baseline of communication that businesses and Web developers can build on to meet the unique needs of each project – and the needs of Internet users.

Katie McEwen, a Web applications usability tester at American Family Insurance, said that Internet users typically blame themselves when they have trouble navigating a Web site.

“The goal should be to make sites easier to use and a more enjoyable experience,” McEwen said. American Family Insurance has a usability lab where employees can observe customers using the Web site features in early stages and use customer feedback to improve online visitors’ experience.

Jeff Horvath, of Informed Balance, works with American Family Insurance and other companies to balance the needs of businesses with those of its users. He said Web projects created based on business needs often fail because they do not account for customer needs.

“It’s important to give users the same priority during the design process,“ Horvath said. “Too often, users get the short end of the stick.”

MCA-I Madison is a group comprised of professionals who work in video, film, distance learning, Web design and creation and other forms of interactive visual communications.

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Troy Janisch is president and founder of the Icon Interactive Group (www.iconinteractive.com), an industry leader helping companies integrate Internet and other Interactive media into sales channels, marketing strategies, and overall branding. He can be contacted by email at tjanisch@iconinteractive.com.

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