Accessible Tesco from nightmare to nirvana

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2006 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Tesco’s journey is a case study that clearly illustrates the benefits of accessibility and the potential pitfalls along the way.

Tesco’s first entry into on-line shopping was with Wine and Flowers in 1995, this was followed the following year by the first Grocery store. The grocery grew dramatically to 270 stores by 1999. The drive behind this growth was the needs of the time poor, cash rich community. The requirement of this group was to spend as little time as possible grocery shopping. The website was designed to be as quick to use as possible whilst still being able to promote new products and special promotions. The design led to pages loaded, some might say overloaded, with information and function.

However, a completely different customer group began to recognise the benefits of on-line shopping, the disabled. A person in a wheel chair finds a supermarket an effort to negotiate and home delivery is particularly appealing. A blind person finds a supermarket inaccessible unless they have a helper (just walk into a supermarket, close your eyes and try and work out what you do next).

Unfortunately when a blind person tried to use the website it was as inaccessible as the physical store. The problem was that the heavily loaded pages were not designed for screen readers, nor was it designed for navigation without a mouse. At a technical level this was caused by a mixture of the following – images did not have alt tags, heading tags were used for formatting rather than navigation, screen readers could not cope with complex JavaScript, there were 100+ links from the home page and 7 frames on the home page.

All of this excluded its use by the blind, the partially sighted and people with motor impairments that meant that they could not use a pointer device. The complexity of the interface also made it unattractive for people with dyslexia, many of the elderly and many new web users.

By excluding these groups of customers Tesco had:

  • An ethical problem, as a major corporation Tesco had a responsibility to all social groups.
  • A legal problem, the Disability Discrimination Act already made it illegal to exclude people from using the web site.
  • A business loss, the disabled make up a substantial proportion of the grocery buying market.

Tesco recognised the issue and decided to create a separate accessible website. The design of this was much simpler and followed all the accessibility standards and went live in 2001. It achieved RNIB “See It Right” accreditation. The site has been a considerable success and now makes up 5% of Tesco on-line grocery business. Besides being used by people with visual impairment it also began to be used by other users as the very clean and simple interface made it attractive to anyone who found the standard site too complex.

I am a continuous user of my PC and consider myself PC literate, and I also consider myself a power-user and am very happy when I am not forced to use the mouse. I actually prefer the accessible site for doing basic shopping as it is fast, clear and easy to use and I can keep my fingers on the keyboard.

The design of the new site was quite different and separate from the main site, the only thing they had in common was the database. The new application was separate from the main site even though it offered many similar functions. It was recognised at the time that the independent applications was a potential problem but it appeared to be the best way to provide the function. The difficulty was that when improvements were made to the main site, or new facilities added, there was at best a time-delay before these were implemented on the accessible site, and at worst the function was never made available. This meant that the disabled were being discriminated against as they were not getting the functions and deals available to other customers.

In the meantime Tesco created a set of Tesco Extra sites such as Books, Music and Electrical. In 2004, with the help of IVIS Group, all of these sites were made fully accessible.

Based on this experience Tesco is now in the process of integrating Tesco Access with Tesco Grocery and the new solution is being tested both by the RNIB and by selected users. The new accessible system will use the same applications as the main system and obviously the same databases, but the user will be able to choose a different accessible user interface skin.

The first stage of this process has just gone live. It is an update of the main system. The main change has been to upgrade the user interface so it abides by the latest user interface standards especially conforming to XHTML Strict and the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). This new site is a clear example that with the use of good tools, development standards and quality assurance it is possible to build fully compliant sites.

The new site keeps all the benefits of the heavily loaded pages and will make it available to a wider audience. For example people with motor impairments, who can not use a mouse, should find the new site much easier to use and will appreciate the visual layout.

The new accessible skin will provide all the same function but with a simplified user interface. This will continue to attract people with severe visual impairment as well as some motor and mental impairment.

A user will be able to switch between skins at any time and I suspect that the simpler skin will be used by some able-bodied customers because it will be a convenient method to do the basic shopping.

There are a number of general lessons that can be learned from this journey:

  • Providing accessible websites is beneficial to all.
  • Developing separate accessible sites may be a short term necessity but is not the best long-term solution.
  • Creating fully compliant websites is now perfectly possible and nothing less should be tolerated.
  • Most web sites should be able to provide a single skin for all users but some complex applications may benefit from different skins for different users.
  • Accessibility and usability are complex issues to get right so consultants should be involved in planning and development.