The press release announcing Four Season’s new site states that it was "thoughtfully designed...to deliver an immersive and effortless experience tailored to every user".
But shouldn't that include disabled users?
The Four Seasons site review focusing on web usability highlighted some important shortcomings in terms of the booking process and other areas, and briefly mentioned some of the accessibility issues.
Here we take a closer look at some of these and the actions that should have been taken to truly make the site available and usable to every user.
Presumably the target audience ('every user' according to Four Seasons) should include those with disabilities who may have to adjust the presentation (such as increasing the font size) or use assistive technology such as screen readers or switches.
Indeed, as outlined recently in another area of the travel sector, sites that fail to do this can not only lose revenues and suffer PR damage but also be at the wrong end of a legal action.
Although not a comprehensive accessibility check alone, simple audit tools such as WAVE 3.0 and the Accessibility Toolbar can quickly reveal some of the main problems, and we have included some images to show this.
The main accessibility issues uncovered can be summarised as follows:-
- Inaccessible functions for keyboard users.
- Poor colour contrast.
- New windows opening without warning.
- Missing/inappropriate alt text.
- Inaccessible forms/poor error reporting.
We take a look at a few of these below.
Alternative text on images
Assistive technologies such as screen readers are very clever, but they cannot interpret images on their own.
The most basic accessibility requirement is to provide alternative text (ALT text) on all images and similar content to allow them to be interpreted by the screen reader.
The site makes three main mistakes in this area:
1. Alt text is missing entirely on many images especially on pages describing the hotels.
Many images that should have descriptive alternative text have only a null Alt text which will not describe the image.
For instance, the screen reader user could benefit from knowing that this is a picture of two golfers walking (and there are many other similar examples).
For some images where they have provided a descriptive Alt text, it is inappropriate.
On a page about meetings, an image shows catering for a meeting and has the unhelpful Alt text of “Accommodation image”.
Furthermore this same Alt text was used repeatedly on pages within the site, potentially causing more confusion for screen reader users who may think they are seeing the same image in multiple locations across the site.
On a more serious note, this suggests that the underlying coding is being lazily copied and pasted without due care and attention.
Giving warning of opening new pages
As shown in the image below from an accessibility checking tool, many links opening new windows do not provide any indication of this.
It also shows another missing Alt text:
For visually disabled users with screen readers the unannounced opening up of new browsers or tabs can be very confusing.
They may be unable to see that a new browser has opened, and may wish to return to the previous page. However, the back button will not work since there is no browser history to return to.
Most accessible sites either avoid opening new browser windows unless absolutely necessary, or they indicate appropriately that a new window will open.
Inaccessible navigation from assumed use of mouse interaction
No doubt the designers of the site use a mouse but they should not assume that all users of the site can. Keyboard navigation is difficult or impossible in many places, blocking these users from the main site content.
Currently these issues make the site unusable by both keyboard and users of screen readers or other assistive technologies which mimic keyboards.
This begins on the homepage, where maps indicating world regions are not accessible by keyboard users, but are only if they are clicked on.
When using keyboard navigation many of the link destinations are unclear (for example - http://www.fourseasons.com/# ) making it hard for users to choose which links to follow.
When tabbing through a page, there is no visual change of style to indicate which link has keyboard focus. Therefore such users have poor indication of their location on the page, removing important feedback.
Also there is no “skip to content” link near the start of the page navigation which is very helpful to allow non-mouse users to move immediately to the page content. Instead they need to tab through (or listen to) the standard set of navigation at the top of each page.
Perhaps most importantly for the business and conversions, the booking engine is not accessible to keyboard users.
The booking engine often appears as a pop-up window, and the keyboard tab sequence takes the user back to the underlying page, or worse they trap the user within the booking engine, neither allowing them to complete a booking nor navigate back to the underlying page.
Screen reader users would have no awareness of this making this feature unusable to them.
There are several other accessibility barriers in the site including colour contrast issues and the presentation of error messages and mandatory fields on the booking forms.
Surprisingly for such a large brand aiming to serve the needs of every customer with their new site, Four Seasons does not seem to have considered web accessibility during the design.
The site has issues with all of the four POUR principles of the WCAG 2.0 guidelines (Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust). Indeed, Four Seasons does not even include an accessibility statement on the site to describe measures they have taken to address web accessibility and how to use the relevant accessibility features.
Some of the issues such as missing Alt text are relatively easy to fix post-launch, but many others that are integrated with the navigation and interaction design will be more difficult.
Hopefully, Four Seasons will be prioritising these shortcomings for future revisions to the site and genuinely make its online services accessible to every user.
Special thanks to my colleague Jamie Sands who led the accessibility review of the site.