U to make website more user-friendly

New software will make it easier for tools like screen readers.

U to make website more user-friendly

Jeff Hargarten

 

A digital helper will wade through millions of lines of code to make the University of MinnesotaâÄôs websites more user-friendly.

The goal is to fix various coding problems that make the UniversityâÄôs Web pages difficult to access and search, especially for people with disabilities. To comply with disability regulations and make the schoolâÄôs websites simpler to use, the UniversityâÄôs Disability Services has purchased Compliance Sheriff âÄìâÄì a piece of coding software âÄìâÄì for $10,000.

Devices like screen readers read back whatâÄôs on a Web page to visually-impaired users but are useless if thereâÄôs bad code, bad descriptions of images or broken page formatting, said Eric Darbe, an executive at HiSoftware âÄìâÄì the company providing the University with the software.

Section 508 of the federal Rehabilitation Act requires government entities to make their websites disability-friendly by granting everyone equal access to online information. The University, however, has its own disabilities policy that it wants to better enforce.

But hard-to-navigate websites drive away visitors, including potential students.

âÄúPeople leave a website three-to-six clicks in if a site is complicated or has broken links,âÄù Darbe said. âÄúIf one siteâÄôs quality is bad, a student might not choose that school.âÄù

Up to 20 percent of the public canâÄôt access the Internet due to disabilities, according to HiSoftware. Within the UniversityâÄôs network, almost any page has the potential to have accessibility issues due to coding errors.

âÄúWe want to be able to reach the whole University community,âÄù said Peggy Mann Rinehart, an associate director of the UniversityâÄôs Disability Services.

The University negotiated to get the software contract for half of what the company originally wanted, she said.

Compliance Sheriff reads through a websiteâÄôs code and reports back any errors. It can detect typos, incomplete HTML tags, broken links, missing information and virtually anything specified by University Web developers.

Any coding problems can cause malfunctions in devices that translate text to speech or generate subtitles for audio.

Not only can the software detect errors, but it can tell Web developers how to fix the problems, resulting in better websites, Rinehart said.

For now, the University will focus on improving its website for disabled users and is making the software available to all departments as part of a one-year program, Rinehart said.

But some University departments are taking their own initiative. The College of Biological Sciences, for example, began seeking student feedback on its website in hopes of making it easier to use.

âÄúWebsites are a more and more important go-to source for information and for doing what you need to do. We definitely felt that students can provide that insight since theyâÄôre the user,âÄù said Stephanie Xenos, a CBS spokeswoman working with the Web redesign project.

Instead of using the website navigation system, students are more likely to use search engines to find things, she said, and CBS is looking to make its information more searchable.

While there is no mobile version of the departmentâÄôs website at this time, the number of smartphones accessing CBS resources has jumped âÄúdramaticallyâÄù in recent months, Xenos said.

CBS is hoping to start making visible changes by summer and gradually âÄúevolvingâÄù its website, she said.

âÄúThe focus is on making the user experience as intuitive and as simple as possible,âÄù she said.