Online & Search Behaviours of Blind Users
Blind computer users often rely on the keyboard only
- Graduates with disability take longer to gain fulltime employment than other graduates 
- People aged 15–64 with disability have both lower participation (53%) and higher unemployment rates (9.4%) than people without disability (83% and 4.9% respectively) 
- This is despite the fact that blind people want to work to be productive and financially independent  — 43.8% of graduates are seeking full time employment .
Our purpose at SEEK is to help all people live more fulfilling and productive working lives, so these figures really hit home — we need to develop solutions with them in mind to move the needle.
At times, we make assumptions about blind users. I’ve heard statements like “blind users know how to use screen readers”, “blind users would just tab backwards” (and many more) from product managers, developers and designers. To be honest, I’m probably guilty of a few of them myself during my career.
I’ve paired with developers, eyes-closed and screen reader on, to try and determine what the order of the document should be and what should be read out. This is a start. Helping to build empathy for how hard the web can be to use for blind users. However we are most certainly not the user in these circumstances. One major limitation of this approach is we have the benefit of knowing what a drop-down, a radio button or a search box looks like. We can’t possibly put ourselves in the shoes of someone who has never seen one. We need to understand what real blind users expect to hear.
As a first step, we often observe internal staff who use assistive technologies to access our website. But as these individuals are SEEK staff they know too much. They know how the website is supposed to behave and can navigate much faster than an unfamiliar user.
As designers we know that assumptions are dangerous things, and that if you don’t talk to, and observe, actual users interacting with your product, you can’t design something that actually works for them.
Primary research initiatives
At SEEK we are undertaking a number of primary research initiatives such as:
- Engaging with external consultants for WCAG compliance audits
- Usability testing and observations with blind and vision impaired participants
Read more about our usability sessions with blind users:
While we get these initiatives off the ground, there is a wealth of academic data on blind users that we can leverage to help us better understand blind users.
UX designers and researchers often jump to primary research to observe and understand users themselves. Secondary research does occur, but is often, in my experience, based on think pieces, op-eds, blogs from peers and perhaps white papers. To help dispel some of the myths about blind users, I turned to my academic side to perform a literature review. This is not an exhaustive, academic, review but intended to help us understand blind users online and their search behaviours.
A literature review was performed using literature found via Google Scholar with particular attention paid to academic, peer reviewed, ACM Journals and other usability journals. Literature was found using keywords such as “blind users”, “search” ,“behaviour” as well as following references from selected papers. The ABS was used for Australian statistics.
The literature agrees that blind users are not homogeneous. They differ as much as sighted users in terms of technical ability and search strategies. Just as not every sighted person is tech savvy, not every blind person knows how to use a screen reader well, or utilizes all the power features. Some people are either blind from birth, or early in life, and know no different. Others develop vision impairments over their lifetime or due to accidents. We have, in the past, made the assumption that blind users listen to the output of the screen reader passively in linear order. This is not supported in the literature. What is consistent in the literature, however, is that blind users are disproportionately unemployed and typically slower at computer tasks and share common frustrations.
Screen Reader Use
While most blind people who are using computers use screen readers, they are by no means all experts. In Australia, there is assistance available to learn screen reader programs via Vision Australia, along with how to readjust to living blind. However one study found most blind participants had no formal computer training . In another study, many users did not know or use all the features of the screen reader software . Due to the complexity of screen reader programs, interaction problems can arise from lack of knowledge of features, misuse or forgetting to activate particular modes . Most blind users use Internet Explorer, due to its compatibility with JAWS the most popular screen reader . Most screen reader users do not use the mouse and many listen at an incredibly fast rate .
Navigation of web pages
Only 5.4% of skilled users & 18.4% of novices listen to a web page in linear order, and typically only when using a page for the first time . The majority (75%) navigate through links and headings as their main strategy [7, 12] “until bumping into content that draws their attention”. Users listen to the first few words of a link or line and move on quickly if not relevant . Some users memorized the number of links to skip to get to main context in pages they were familiar with . Approx. 30% of time online was wasted due to frustrating experiences and difficulties .
Sequential exploration of an interface is tedious and keyboard navigation is slow . Users experience issues with JAWS not reading content, or not reading options in combo boxes . Users may also face issues with screen readers mispronouncing words leading to interpretation issues.
Screen reader users can face reduced page mobility  especially when mouse intervention is required — mainly due to interfaces that were developed without considering blind users.
Some common issues that cause frustrations for screen reader users include:
- A lack of context due to misleading, or absent, labels or markup or confusing instructions from the web page 
- Input errors due to lack of input format instructions , and difficulties with error recovery if appropriate context of errors is not supplied. This, and other “dead ends”  in the interface (such as keyboard traps), lead to user frustrations
- Unexpected content, including bumping in to banner ads  or pop-up boxes with inaccessible information 
- Information overload [5,6] sometimes due to listening too fast  or verbose copy.
These issues leave blind users feeling frustrated, angry at the computer, angry at themselves, helpless  and uncertain or confused 
When frustrated, determined participants in  often kept trying. Other strategies included:
- Moving around the page 
- Retracing or back tracking their steps 
- Waiting 
- Restarting their task from the beginning 
- Giving up 
Addressing blind user’s frustrations actually makes your site better for everyone i.e. clear context & input instructions and less verbose copy. Think about those who have English as a second language; those with cognitive and attention difficulties; or even users who are a little bit tired or distracted while trying to use your interface.
Two studies showed blind participants took twice as long to explore search results [6,10]. Sighted users can quickly select interesting results & discard irrelevant results while blind users take longer due to linear access .
Blind participants took three times as long to explore the pages opened from from search engine results page (SERP) [6,10]. The cost of exploring a new page for sighted users was 36 seconds vs 106 seconds for blind users . 67% of sighted users explored 2 or more pages of search results, compared with only 15% of blind users . 80% of blind users only accessed top 2 results .
Blind users were less likely to find what they were looking for. When asked how often they find what they are looking for 90% of sighted users said ‘almost always’, while only 39% of blind users replied ‘almost always’. 8% of blind users responded ‘almost never’ . Blind users found search engines difficult to use — 92% of sighted respondents thought search engines were easy to use vs less than 7% of blind respondents.
Participants usually specified more than one keyword (92% sighted & 69% blind) , however blind users had difficulty choosing the right keywords (38% blind vs 67% sighted) . Blind users tended to submit a new query, rather than refining the existing one(as sighted uses did) .
In  they explored how long randomly selected job applications took blind users. They did not bench mark these against sighted users, however the numbers are telling in themselves. The quickest successful application form took the user 23 minutes to complete, while the longest successful applications took 121 minutes (~2hours) and required intervention from the facilitator. The longest application was abandoned at 229 minutes (~4hours) — the participant gave up and indicated that they would not continue applying.
Call to arms
This has been a heavy article filled with negative experiences, which I hope empowers you to join the a11y fight to make your products accessible to everyone. Many of these frustrations noted by screen reader users can be rectified with inclusive design. Understanding online behaviours of blind users is the first step in achieving this.
If you’re in the need of some comic relief after this head over to Tommy Edison’s XP YouTube channel — Tommy has been blind since birth and uses humor to answer the most popular questions about living without sight
Written by Kayla Heffernan, User Experience Designer
- ABS. (2011) 446.0 — Disability, Australia, 2009. Available at http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/0/49BEE5774F0FB1B1CA256E8B00830DF6?OpenDocument
- Vision Australia (2012). Blindness and vision loss. Available at http://www.visionaustralia.org/living-with-low-vision/newly-diagnosed/blindness-and-vision-loss
- Graduate Careers Australia (2015) Grad Stats Dec 2015, Employment and salary outcomes of recent higher education graduates. Available at http://www.graduatecareers.com.au/wpcontent/uploads/2015/12/GCA_GradStats_2015_FINAL.pdf
- ABS (2015) Disability and Lab our Force Participation, 2014 Available at http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4433.0.55.006
- Lazar, Jonathan, Aaron Allen, Jason Kleinman, and Chris Malarkey. “What frustrates screen reader users on the web: A study of 100 blind users.” International Journal of human-computer interaction 22, no. 3 (2007): 247–269.
- Andronico, Patrizia, Marina Buzzi, Carlos Castillo, and Barbara Leporini. “Improving search engine interfaces for blind users: a case study.” Universal Access in the Information Society 5, no. 1 (2006): 23–40.
- Vigo, M., & Harper, S. (2013). Coping tactics employed by visually disabled users on the web. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 71(11), 1013–1025.
- Buzzi M., Andronico P., Leporini B. (2004) Accessibility and Usability of Search Engine Interfaces: Preliminary Testing. Adjunct Proc. of 8th ERCIM UI4ALL Workshop, Vienna, Austria.
- Leporini, B., Andronico P., Buzzi. (2004). Designing Search Engine User Interfaces for the visually impaired. ACM International Cross-Disciplinary Workshop on Web Accessibility 2004, NY, USA, pp 57–66.
- Ivory, Melody Y., Shiqing Yu, and Kathryn Gronemyer. “Search result exploration: a preliminary study of blind and sighted users’ decision making and performance.” In CHI’04 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 1453- 1456. ACM, 2004.
- Leporini, B., Andronico, P., & Buzzi, M. (2004, May). Designing search engine user interfaces for the visually impaired. In Proceedings of the 2004 international cross-disciplinary workshop on Web accessibility (W4A) (pp. 57–66). ACM.
- Theofanos, M. F., & Redish, J. G. (2003). Bridging the gap: between accessibility and usability. interactions, 10(6), 36–51.