Sphere’s Blog Search Isn’t All I’d Hoped For

May 10, 2006

Topics: Accessibility, Reviews.

It’s rare that I find a topic which makes me blog on both this blog and my SEO Blog, but here we are. On May 8th, I posted about Sphere, a new tool focused on searching blogs. In that post, I was thinking generally about the concept of blog search and how it can effectively apply to local search. In the course of my brief research, I noticed that the design for Sphere had been done by Adaptive Path.

Although Adaptive Path is not explicitly a design agency focused on accessibility, they are sometimes considered to be at the cutting edge of usability, standards based design, and have certainly had some impact on the world of accessibility. So, when I noticed that they’d designed this new tool, I thought I’d take a look under the hood and see what they’d done. Also, of course, I read their own article about the design process.

In general, it’s pretty good. But there are a number of very basic accessibility features which are just flat out lacking – and which would have been very simple to incorporate. This is really kind of disappointing.

I started out with the very basic tack of doing some automated testing. As much as automated testing is imperfect, it does provide a great starting ground. Running Sphere’s results page through Cynthia Says, an online test for compliance with the Section 508 standards. Compared to the full WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 1.0, Section 508 standards are simple to match.

The site only failed on one point. But it was, frankly, a big one. The big input for the search field is unlabeled. It has no indicator anywhere what purpose it actually serves. To a sighted user, this is obvious – but if you were navigating blind, you would need to continue past the input form to the search button in order to know what should be entered there. However, having arrived at this button, you still wouldn’t know for certain that it referred to the previous input. Without an explicit labeling convention, it would still be quite possible for there to be another input field which was actually attached to the search button.

The second test was to validate the site. Again, the home page came up just a little short. Rather than a nice clean "this is valid XHTML (eXtensible HyperText Markup Language - HTML reformulated as XML (eXtensible Markup Language)) transitional" message, I got a number of errors. They’re all minor errors, and probably won’t have any great impact on accessibility. There were a large number of unescaped ampersands, one invalid attribute ("valign") and a mistakenly capitalized anchor tag. Not terrible, but still disappointing.

Finally, the eyeball test at the front page. Again, not quite perfect. Sphere has this very cool feature, the "SphereIt" bookmarklet, which is advertised at the bottom of the page. The anchor text for information about the bookmarklet is the famous "Click Here". Fine for a sighted user, lousy for a screen reader.

This is just a very brief look over the site; but on the whole I’m a little disappointed. There are just a few things here which are lacking, but they’re all such easy fixes. Hopefully, I’ll check again in a few weeks and find these mistakes all cleared up – it is a brand new site, after all.