The Happiest Time of the Year?

Twinkling lights, way too many sweet treats, and of course, the post-holiday hibernation period. You know, the time just after New Year’s Day when we all wish we could take a few more days off before heading back to work.

One of the reasons for this much-needed post-holiday lull: a break from our rushed frenzy, also known as Christmas shopping. I’m probably in the minority when I say that I enjoy holiday shopping. I love picking out gifts for people, and anticipating the day when they will unwrap them. For me, it’s a way to show my appreciation for the people around me.

The majority of people, though, dread the busy stores, long line-ups, and other cranky shoppers. So it should be no surprise that the U.S. online Christmas shopping trends were expected to grow 14.8 percent in 2018, versus the 2.7 percent for brick and mortar retail outlets.

Just the other day, there was a commercial on the radio offering shoppers large amounts of money to shop in-store instead of online, indicative of recent shopping trends.

Personally, I like having the online shopping option for a myriad of reasons, one of them being that I’m a person with a visual disability. The convenience of having so many products available for purchase from the comfort of my couch is extremely desirable.

But, Hold It.

Is the convenient shopping experience really available to the population of people who use screen reading software? The quick answer is, NO.

So in reality, the question shouldn’t be Is it available, but rather, why isn’t it available?

One of the things that I love about online shopping is that I get to browse without being on someone else’s schedule. As a person with a visual disability, when I go shopping in a store, I usually need someone to either go with me or I ask the clerk to assist me. Either way, my shopping experience is contingent on someone else’s schedule.

For Me, Shopping Online Presents Some Challenges

When the option of browsing online became available, I was elated! I could spend 30 minutes searching out dog leashes without boring my shopping companion to death. Unfortunately, my potentially stress-free browsing experience then became disrupted by the lack of accessibility to commercial websites.

Essentially, the screen reader software that I use to read and navigate websites doesn’t communicate smoothly with the website, due to website design flaws.

My Cursor is All Over the Place!

Suddenly, the user experience goes from one of independence and enjoyment to a whole lot of frustration. One of the most irritating design flaws is the inability of cursor for my screen reading software to remain static. In other words, I can’t move through the content of the website, let alone read it, because my cursor is bouncing all over the page. Imagine trying to read something that shimmies and shakes like a laser pointer — it is not really functional.

One minute I’m reading about women’s size 9 running shoes, and the next I’m dancing back and forth between social media buttons and an advertisement about a hair loss cure. There’s no browsing going on here. If I can’t even read through website, how am I supposed to make a purchase?

Buyer’s Remorse – For Different Reasons

How many times in your life have you found yourself asking: What did I just buy?

I have had the same experience, but probably not for the same reason. Often, people purchase an item, particularly big-ticket items, and end up experiencing buyer’s remorse. I have certainly had that experience, but my buyer’s remorse often revolves around having bought the wrong thing.

Sometimes my screen reading software and websites will get along, and sometimes I manage to perform website navigation gymnastics by making educated guesses. When this works, I can usually browse products and pick something out:

A size medium red sweater for my mom, and a heavy-duty electric shaver for Dad.

I Sure Hope I Bought the Right Size

However, the buttons that allow a shopper to select a product on websites can be mislabeled. When that happens, I don’t know if I’m selecting size medium or extra large. This usually means I don’t make the purchase at all because I have no idea if my mom is going to end up wearing the sweater like a tent. It really does nothing for the convenient shopping experience.

It is also problematic when the buttons haven’t been labeled at all. It’s quite frustrating trying to buy a Christmas gift, and all your cursor reads is “button” when the screen reading software interacts with the website. Suddenly, Mom’s vanilla candle turns into a chainsaw and Dad’s getting a cigar carrying case (He doesn’t even smoke cigars!).

It’s never a good idea to push a button if you don’t know what it does. This brings us back to the point: online shopping is not as accessible or convenient and hassle-free as it’s supposed to be.

The Convenience of Shopping Online

Many consumers opt for online shopping because it is viewed as a time saver. Instead of wasting time standing in long lines, shoppers are able to browse more products from various vendors in a more efficient manner. That aspect of online shopping is appealing to me as well.

Credit Card Payment Forms – Please Label Fields Correctly

There are some websites that do label products and/or the correlating buttons, and I’m able to actually select gifts. Can you imagine my dismay though, when I reach the credit card information page and the form is not accessible? I have spent so much time painstakingly picking out the perfect Christmas gifts, my virtual cart is full and at checkout, I am unable to put my purchase through because the edit fields will not allow my screen reading software to interact with them. This essentially means I cannot type any information into the necessary boxes to complete my order.

Please Let Me Finish My Purchase

This can also happen with inputting your mailing and/or billing address. The only saving grace is that at least I’m not left standing embarrassed in front of an angry mob of Christmas shoppers, but I’m still left with the frustration of now having wasted a bunch of time and energy with nothing to show for it.

Visual Impairments and User Experience

Currently, the people with a visual disability population are considered to be a small percentage of the population. Perhaps that’s why retailers aren’t concerned with making products available to people who use screen reading software.

Interestingly though, the number of people with a visual disability population is expected to double by 2030 due to the aging population. Not only will the numbers increase, but the spending power of this group will also increase.

Clearly, it would be in the best interest of online retailers to create accessible spaces in order to tap into all potential revenue opportunities.

The above website design flaws obviously do not apply to just Christmas shopping. Anyone using screen reading software trying to make online purchases, for whatever occasion, encounters these difficulties.

All I Want for Christmas…

So, where did all of this leave me last Holiday Season, in regards to my Christmas shopping list?

With just days to go, I still had two dogs, my parents, my coach, and some friends to buy for… so really, I hadn’t even gotten started — and it wasn’t for lack of trying!

I had fun things picked out for the pooches, but at checkout, I wasn’t able to fill in my credit card information. The sweater fiasco described earlier is a true story.

If anyone out there happens to talk to Santa, or maybe even the web designers for online retail websites, can you please tell them that all I want for Christmas this coming year is an accessible website so that I can buy presents for my family and friends?