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How to complain about inaccessible websites

2nd February 2010 by Liam McGee

The W3C Web accessibility Initiative recently published “Contacting Organizations about Inaccessible Websites“. It walks through steps, provides lots of tips, and includes sample e-mails. We like it very much.

A draft of the document was available in August last year, so we asked a friendly web user to follow the guidance and report back on how it went. He got back to us a few days ago, with the following tale of woe:

MoreActive4Life []

MoreActive4Life is a campaign in the UK that took place over the Summer of 2009. It was the Fitness Industry Association [FIA] contribution to the wider run Government programme known as Change4Life.

Where Change4Life is a broader approach to improving health across different age groups, lifestyles and backgrounds of both individuals and families, with a particular focus on providing balanced dietary advice under the remit of the Government’s Food Standards Agency [FSA] and National Health Service [NHS], the MoreActive4Life’s focus was on enabling users to specifically incorporate more physical activity into their lives with particular emphasis on encouraging engagement of locally available facilities and services.

Although using the same branding and design elements of the Change4Life website which sits under the umbrella of NHS service pages [], the MoreActive4Life site did not share the same layout and construction, consequently providing a different user experience in terms of accessibility.

This is an account of a user’s difficulty in using the MoreActive4Life site and their continued difficulty in trying to report this to the FIA.

[NB: It should be noted that the user's journey in making their report initially took them through agencies within the NHS before coming into contact with the FIA, and these parts of the process are included in this account to give context to the difficulty that an indirect or improperly structured feedback procedure can give to users.]

The User

First contact was initiated in mid-August 2009 by a user favouring keyboard navigation on their laptop due to repetitive strain injury that made use of a touchpad or external mouse uncomfortable. The MoreActive4Life site did not offer any contact details for the FIA under their ‘About FIA’ page [] instead directing enquiries to Change4Life’s website and contact telephone number.

First Contact – Change4Life

The user informed the telephone agent for Change4Life that they were having difficulty navigating across the site as a keyboard user, and was advised that technical problems needed to be reported via the NHS Choices website []. The agent then proceeded to guide the user through this site to the Contact form. Although having already stated that they were a keyboard user, the user was repeatedly told to ‘click’ on links by the agent, who then had to wait for the user to tab through the menu options to reach the required link.

This process took the user through two pages of navigation (which was similarly not optimised for keyboard users), to a contact form which asked them to state the nature of their enquiry. With no option relating to the MoreActive4Life site in the enquiry categories offered, the user was forced to submit their comment as a technical problem with the NHS Choices site.

Second Contact – NHS Choices

The Reported Problem:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I was visiting the website [] today and found it extremely difficult to find my way around the site. I primarily navigate with a keyboard as I cannot use a mouse because of a repetitive strain injury, but when I press the tab key to select a link there is no highlight of my selected option. Hitting return does take me to a new page but it is not possible to tell which one and I cannot tell in which order I am tabbing through the links.

I am browsing with Firefox version 3 on a Windows laptop computer using the built in keyboard – I have tried to use Internet Explorer version 7 instead on the same computer but the problem persisted. Please can you look into this matter as even finding the telephone number that guided me to this contact form was very difficult and I would appreciate being contacted if or when the matter is fixed. If you require more detail about the difficulty I experienced site then you can contact me by telephone on  ***********, or by email [***********],

Yours sincerely,
***** *****

As per the quoted response time of 24 hrs the user promptly received an automated email reply informing that that their query had been forwarded to the appropriate team at the NHS Choices Helpdesk, who quickly responded with:

Dear *****

This site is not a Department of Health site, it is just using the Change4Life branding. I have included them in this response so your message is passed onto them. If you need the central Change4Life site you can find it at

I hope you hear back from the fitness association.


At this point the user received no further communication. The MoreActive4Life closed on 31st August 2009, and having made what could be arguably called the standard efforts required for reporting a problem with the site, the user was as such prevented from accessing the site and its services.

Third Contact – FIA

With contact details for the FIA not included on the MoreActive4Life site, the user made independent investigation and emailed them directly [].

Dear Sir/Madam,

Last month I used the contact form on to inform you of the difficulty I experienced in the navigation of your site (attached), and was promptly informed that my query was being passed on to yourselves.

I have since then received no response either by email or telephone regarding the matter and am disappointed to have recently visited the site again to see that the campaign has ended. Upon attempting to take a further look around the site for more information on the campaign for results or feedback, I see that the problems I experienced in navigating still persist.

Please can a member of your team contact me about this as I find it quite unsatisfactory for my query to have been seemingly ignored, and I wonder how many other people in my position might have been similarly left without acknowledgement of our interest,

***** *****

Tel: ***********

After four days an agent at the FIA contacted the user by telephone to discuss the matter, but at a time when the user was unable to take the call. A time was arranged to revisit the following week at which point an email was received by the user citing that when taking down the number again over the phone it was incorrectly transcribed. Presumably the agent for the FIA still has the email with correct details in their records for cross-referencing at this point but clearly did not otherwise they would have been able to call the user back as agreed.

The user responded with the telephone number again and suggested times they would be available to receive a call and discuss the matter. This email on the 29th September 2009 receives no call back and it is not until the user takes it upon themselves to email again on 12th October 2009 that they are finally contacted the following morning and able to fully discuss the problem originally initiated in August.

Response to Fifth Contact – FIA

Summary from telephone conversation:

The FIA’s agent informed the user that he and his colleagues did not find the problems navigating the moreactive4life site that had been reported in the original email, making particular reference to them having successfully used the keyboard to tab from link to link and access each one’s destination.The user pointed out that unlike the FIA’s internal staff (who would presumably have a simpler time of doing this having a certain familiarity with the site), that the average member of the public would not, and in the case of the user themselves, definitely did not have the same inherent ease in navigation from first attempt.

The agent asked if the user did not see the destination of whichever link was highlighted when tabbing around on the site via the status bar on Internet Explorer [IE]. The user had to remind him that, as per the initial email explaining the technology being employed, the user was primarily a Firefox browser and that when alternatively trying IE as the user had done, and it was inappropriate to assume that all other users would employ the same browser software.

The agent assured that this method of navigation would work and the user had to remind him that the status bar tool is a visibility option not mandatorily displayed as part of the IE interface, but only when selected as a custom viewing option, so only worked for users who had opted in to a visible status bar within their browser settings.

The FIA agent informed the user that this was the only occasion on which they had received a complaint regarding the site, and asked what they might suggest as a solution.The user explained that the addition of highlighting links selected by keyboard focus would make it much easier to know where they were within any page on the site, and that it was a reasonably standard mechanism employed by many websites. The user also took this opportunity to mention that the lack of timely response or support from the FIA was disappointing since their responses to the enquiry had come long after the campaign had expired.The agent informed that the campaign would recommence in January 2010, but when asked if they intended to make any changes to the website given the difficulty in navigation that the user had articulated to them, was told this was not likely since it would be costly to make changes based on a single complainant when they had tested the site and none of their users had found the difficulties reported.The user asked whether they had employed any testers who were primarily keyboard navigators, and if not then would they consider testing with such users in advance of the January campaign?The agent said he would discuss the matter with his colleagues and let the user know about this and further details of the January campaign by telephone on Friday 16th October.

The user received no further contact by email or telephone on or beyond this date.

Since the 31st of August 2009, the homepage for the MoreActive4Life site has continued to display the following message:

The moreactive4life campaign ended August 31, but watch this space for upcoming activities!

In Summary

The main problems of the case were a failure to implement suitable procedure for feedback or develop a mechanism for improvement beyond a campaigns’ go-live date; a poor understanding by customer contact staff of the problems faced by their service’s disabled users.

While there is little likelihood that such a drawn out and exhaustively unfruitful user journey for making a complaint (or presumably a comment of any kind by way of feedback) is at all intentional, it would appear that any testing carried out prior to the campaigns launch was seen as definitive and therefore not giving scope or consideration for further feedback and improvement.

Ouch. Sorry about all that, friendly web user. Any one else out there with similar experiences?

One Response to “How to complain about inaccessible websites”

  1. Ouch indeed! A quick look at the site in question shows that a major part of the problem that the user was experiencing on the site was down to the use of CSS to suppress the ‘focus rectangle’ – that thin dotted line that by default Internet Explorer and Firefox put around the element that has the keyboard focus (it’s line 9 of their stylesheet, should anyone want to take a look).

    This is a piece of poor practice we at Communis have sadly seen many times before – check out our blog post on keyboard focus visibility back from June 2009. Things like this are simple and cheap to fix for an experienced web developer, and it can make a world of difference to a lot of users!