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Structural Plans to Ensure That People Can Access Your Web Pages

When publishing your Web page, it's often imperative that you "keep up with the Joneses." You want to show that your record company is as hip as the next guy's, and you want to appeal to an audience that has a particular demand for style. As a Web designer, you can do many things to ensure that your pages are as universally readable as possible while keeping your technical sophistication at a bleeding-edge level. These structural suggestions can help you have your cake and eat it, too:

  1. Place key information in places that don't require sophisticated software. What do your readers need from your Web site? Do they need reports? Driving directions?

  2. Present options. Wherever you want to use technology that could be a barrier for some users, give them an option not to use it. Examples include high/low bandwidth, Flash/no Flash, and frames/no frames.

  3. When possible, write with Lynx in mind. Unix's text-only Web browser is the bottom line. It's always a good idea to test your Web pages in Lynx because this is how it's going to look to some subset of your users.

  4. How does it sound? Imagine that you're blind and listening to your Web page on a voice synthesizer. Is there a screen of useless text at the top of every page before navigation options? These people are already on edge: The speech synthesizer reads all the startup information. How many times would you want a computer voice trying to sound out your SCSI device assignments, saying stuff like "Left bracket colon zero right bracket" all the time?

  5. Don't bury your downloads. If people might come to your site looking for certain information (drivers, hours of operation, contact information, directions, assembly instructions, and so on), link to this directly from the home page. Assume that many people will want to come to your page, get information, and leave quickly. Make sure that this information can be obtained without the use of advanced Web technologies.

  6. Use alt tags. Alt tags show up on browsers that have graphics turned off or that weren't graphics-capable in the first place. An alt tag can be as simple as "Photo of our New York office on a sunny day."

Let's take a look at the "Media in Peril" home page again, with a very few simple changes (see Figure 4).

Figure 4 Simple changes—in this case, the use of alt tags—can greatly increase the usability of your Web page.

Just by using alt tags (setting the alt to " " (quotes included) will result in nothing being displayed. The usability of the Web page has been enhanced for people using graphics-incapable browsers.

In 1999, the National Federation for the Blind sued AOL because its Web pages were not navigable by the blind. The NFB held that this was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The suit was dropped when AOL agreed to work with the NFB to create pages that were more easily navigable. And AOL actually wasn't the first: The year before, a Sacramento California man sued the California Metropolitan Transportation Commission for failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. That suit was also settled out of court. But you shouldn't design your page to be easy to use for fear of a lawsuit; you should do it because you want the maximum number of viewers possible. It's good for business.

One other thing: Not everyone without graphics is blind; many of them live in places without high-speed Internet access and are running their browsers with graphics turned off.

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