Tesco Access: four stars but could do better

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

Tesco, the UK supermarket chain, has recently upgraded its web site to make it more accessible. I wrote about the background to this project early this year in ‘Accessible Tesco: from nightmare to nirvana‘.

The change is to the grocery site, as all the other Tesco sites were considered to be accessible already. The grocery site had been designed for people with good eyesight and the ability to use a mouse, and a completely separate site had been developed for people who did not fit this description. The problem with the second site was that it did not always offer all the special offers and other functions of the main site and so discriminated against people who used it.

The main site’s pages are densely packed with information and links and this provides a fast and usable interface for many users but it is difficult for customers who use a screen reader to navigate around. Tesco decided the only way to preserve the benefits of the main site and support screen readers was to provide two skins built on top of the same underlying engines and databases. The customer would define the skin they wanted to use in their profile and could easily change it if desired.

The new access skin is much easier to use for people with impaired vision—for example:

  • By default there are no images.
  • Everything can be accessed without using a pointing device.
  • The information on the screen is tailored to the task in hand (on the main site a summary of the shopping cart is on every page but on the access site there is just a link to the cart).
  • The link to product information is via a separate button rather than a hyperlink on the product name (a screen reader user can navigate more easily without being constantly told that there is product information available).

AbilityNet (who I will write about in a subsequent article) have just published a State of the eNation Report on supermarket web sites and awarded the Tesco Access site four stars (out of five) which is much better than any of the other sites tested. The users/testers included a blind person using a screen reader.

I have tried the site and it is easy to use and I can understand why it works well with a screen reader.

So how could it be improved? Here are my suggestions and they can be generalised to be relevant to other sites:

  • I recently wrote Accessibility must be Accessible and the first step must that people can find out that the feature exists:
    • I would have expected some mention of the new option in the regular emails I get from Tesco with special offers and news, but the only way I found out was a Google alert that pointed me at the AbilityNet report.
    • But more importantly I would have expected to find out about it when I go to the main site. If you go to the main site you will not see the words access or accessibility anywhere on the screen. I believe that every site should have a visible link to an accessibility policy statement.
  • In fact only visually impaired people can see the link to the access site, there is a hidden link at the beginning of the page and the screen reader will immediately read out “if you are visually impaired follow this link to find out about our new accessible grocery web service”.
    • The first problem with this is that if you are not using a screen reader you will not hear this; there are many people with visual impairments who do not use a screen reader but would benefit from the Access option; there are also friends of relatives of disabled people who would like to know and be able to pass the information on.
    • Secondly the statement implies that the option is only relevant to people with visual impairments, whereas it potentially has a much bigger audience, including people who prefer not to use a pointing device, and people with learning challenges, dyslexia or silver surfers, all of whom may find the main site page overloaded and confusing.
  • When navigating around a page the current focus should always be clearly highlighted, this does not always happen. Again for a screen reader user this is not an issue but for any other user it can be very confusing.
  • The Using Access link takes you to a page of help that could be improved by:
    • Not mentioning Javascript and frames in the second paragraph (many users will not have a clue what this is about and may be put off reading further).
    • Telling users how to contact Tesco if they find a problem in the site.
    • Explaining what the ‘info’ and ‘write note’ buttons do. It may seem obvious but when I first went on to the site it was not to me, and more timid users might not experiment.
    • Explaining that the ‘Add Products’ buttons add products to the basket. Again, it might be obvious but I did not do it right my first time and wondered why my basket remained empty. But more importantly they should explain that you do not have to tab down to the ‘add product’ button but can just hit enter when the relevant choices have been made. Some lists can have more than ten products and tabbing down can be time consuming.
  • On the Access homepage make the ‘Using Access’ link more prominent and call it ‘Introduction to Access’, so that the first time user is encouraged to read it and find out how best to use the option.
  • User feedback is an essential part of ensuring the site remains of high quality. There should be a link to a ‘contact us’ page as part of the navigation section of every page. At present the only contact information link is on the homepage of the main site and even that does not tell you how to report a problem with the site itself.

Not withstanding all the comments above I think Tesco should be congratulated on taking the issue of accessibility seriously and providing a good solution—it just needs to be improved.