Guidelines for increasing the accessibility of sustained e-services

Riitta Hellman

Karde AS, P.O.Box 69 Tåsen, N-0801 Oslo, Norway


Electronic self-services for citizens and businesses (e-services) require careful accessibility design in order to be successful. A large number of accessibility standards and design guidelines exist and are widely applied on websites offering e-services. In the context of compound or sustained e-services, time plays an essential role. As a result from ongoing research we present a taxonomy and some examples of e-services according to the dimension of time. We propose seven design principles that will add accessibility to sustained e-services that are being used repeatedly and over time. These principles are: 1. Overview and general information. 2. Targeted and relevant information. 3. Safety and trust. 4. Support for multi-channel platform and "family resemblance". 5. Logical process and progression. 6. Storage and retrieval of information. 7. Timeline. We show how existing design principles from established sets of guidelines support the implementation of these principles, and thus increase the accessibility of sustained e-services.

1. Introduction

Governments all around the world are taking quantum leaps towards the implementation of electronic self-services (i.e., e-services) for citizens and businesses. The e-society strategies such as the i2010 of the European Union, the growth of internet access in general, and the development of e-government implementation plans in many countries have had a remarkable impact on the development of the information society. The i2010 strategy (EU, 2005) is coming to a close, but clearly, it has borne fruits, and new electronic services to citizens and businesses keep evolving. Governments are offering a rapidly increasing number of on-line services to citizens and businesses, often on a so-called 24/7-basis (24 hours a day, 7 days a week), i.e., available at all times without interruption).

Currently, most e-services are implemented as web-based solutions, neatly realizing the 24/7-goal of availability. Another important development is the electronic accessibility (or e-accessibility). This means the ease of use of ICTs by people with disabilities. For instance, web-sites and web-based electronic services must be presented so that disabled users can access the information and utilize the functionality of the web-site or the web-based e-service. The European Union has developed a policy (EU, 2008) of accessibility and usability of ICT-based products and services for all (e-accessibility).

Usability and accessibility of e-services are, of course, of great importance to all citizens, but of crucial importance to people with special needs and requirements. Elderly people and people with cognitive disabilities are examples of e-service users who depend on excellent usability and high accessibility of the services. During the last years, a number of accessibility standards, guidelines, practices, as well as accessibility measurement methods and monitors, have been developed to promote and implement e-accessibility. Most European governments seem to follow accessibility guidelines when implementing new e-services.

A general understanding is that over 10 % (UNESCO, 2005), and most probably approximately 20 % of the population has some kind of disability. People with disabilities together with the elderly make up a large part of the population. This, in turn, makes accessibility a major issue. Many, although not all of these people, have disabilities that make it difficult for them to use ICTs in general or web-based e-services in particular.

The major categories of disability, frequently used as a frame of reference for accessibility guidelines, are: Sensory impairments (visual, hearing), motor impairments (loss or damage of limbs, loss of dexterity, shivering etc.), and cognitive impairments (problems connected to learning, reading, writing, memory, concentration, focus, problem solving etc.). Each of these categories of disabilities must be taken into account in the design and implementation of web-based electronic services (i.e., the content and the functionality). Many governments internationally follow this obligation. New generations of ICTs provide new opportunities for all, including people with disabilities and the elderly. However, new technologies can also be rather challenging from an accessibility point of view.

Current accessibility standards and guidelines are designed to increase the accessibility of situated e-services, or in other words, e-services that are used "here and now". Such standards and guidelines are intended for use in planning, designing, developing, acquiring, and evaluating ICTs, including software, hardware, equipment and services. They aim at improving the accessibility of ICTs at work, in the home, and in mobile and public environments, and they cover issues associated with user challenges for people with a wide range of sensory, motor and cognitive abilities, including those who are temporarily disabled, and the elderly.

So far, so good. According to our research and practice, the current understanding of accessibility is insufficient in the context of electronic services which are used over time, thus gradually forming a "continuum". In other words, the aspect of time is inadequately treated by accessibility standards and guidelines, although time plays an essential role in the use of many e-services. In the Read Thread-project (cf. Acknowledgements), we study sustained e-services and the challenge of including time in the accessibility concept.

The remainder of this paper will treat this matter, and is organized as follows: We first present a taxonomy of e-services, including the cyclic character of these, which explains the role of time. We also give some examples. Second, we propose seven design considerations (principles) that will add accessibility to e-services that are being used repeatedly and over time (sustained e-services). Third, we show what kind of design principles from established sets of guidelines support the implementation of the proposed principles, and thus increase the accessibility of sustained e-services. Finally, we discuss the proposed approach.

2. The role of time in sustained e-services

Electronic services for citizens and businesses become more and more numerous and increasingly sophisticated. There are different e-services available in many life-situations. Some of these occur once in a lifetime, others are used frequently or several times during a person's lifetime. Some of these services are "unavoidable", i.e., the use of the e-service is based on legal provision. Other services are voluntary to use. Below, we illustrate the many dimensions (Figure 1) of current (e-)services connected to life situations (according to Nordic practice):

A. Mandatory, (semi-)automatically initiated services on a once-in-a-lifetime basis:

B. Mandatory, cyclic services on regular basis (e.g. yearly):

C. Mandatory services on an irregular basis (occasionally):

D. Voluntary services on a regular basis:

E. Voluntary, cyclic services:

F. Voluntary services on an irregular basis:

Icons showing the temporal and repetitive aspect of services.

Figure 1. Icons showing the temporal and repetitive aspect of services, presented as line drawings.

As we can see, the aspect of time is essential. Some services are used repeatedly although irregularly, while others are cyclic in nature. When these basic services are implemented as e-services, accessibility will be challenged. We claim that the current accessibility standards and guidelines mainly focus on situated use, whilst they are weak in treating the accessibility of the users' dialogue with sustained services (Figure 2).

Names of life situations and (e-)services for the citizen, together with data base symbols.

Figure 2. The myriad of life situations and (e-)services for the citizen.

3. Accessibility principles for sustained e-services

Citizens and businesses meet electronic services in a number of different situations. In the case of citizens, we call these "life situations". Moreover, the services are delivered on a number of different platforms – most often on the web, but also on self-service kiosks, digital TV (DTV) and mobile phones. (Figure 3).

In order to increase the accessibility of the user's dialogue with sustained e-services on any platform (i.e., those that are accessed and used even at years intervals), we propose a set of principles to be considered together with, and based on, established accessibility guidelines. These principles are:

  1. Overview and general information.
  2. Targeted and relevant information.
  3. Safety and trust.
  4. Support for multi-channel platform and "family resemblance".
  5. Logical process and progression.
  6. Storage and retrieval of information.
  7. Time-line.
Sustained electronic service dialogues inside a triangle of users, life and business situations and ICTs.

Figure 3. Sustained electronic service dialogues in the use context.

Below, we give an account of each of these. In order to approach a concrete implementation of these principles, we have departed from existing accessibility and usability guidelines (Center for Universal Design 1997; Difi 2008; NBT 2008; Nielsen 1990; Shneiderman and Plaisant 2005; Tognazzini 2003; Teknologirådet 2006; WebAim 2010). We have surveyed these and other guidelines and extracted and rephrased pieces of advice that support the principles above. There is, of course, a need for refinement of advice within each category. This overview is intended only as a starting point for further work with time-related accessibility.

3.1 Overview and general information

The first step of using any (e-)service is locating the service among numbers of portals and other access points (Figure 1). For this purpose, information about available services should be collected and disseminated so that easy access is possible. Joint portal solutions (i.e., "one-stop-shopping") seem obvious. This information should also include information about the scope and purpose of the e-service, and about access methods (username, password etc.).

3.2 Targeted and relevant information

Users of e-services should get updated information about the service, descriptions of the service itself, access methods, and the methods of use of the service. In particular, if e-services are accessed rarely, such as those in category B (cyclic services on a yearly basis), it is important to ensure that the user – to begin with – finds the service, and that s/he recalls the method of use.

3.3 Security and trust

Security and privacy are central themes in the context of accessibility. Security and trust are also essential for sustained e-services. In particular, storing information for years in a secure manner is crucial. Users need to trust that personal information is safe and that relevant processes can be accessed again. Both the presentation of security and the actual security and privacy mechanisms have to correspond with the users' expectations.

In the following, we give examples of accessibility and usability guidelines that may promote security and trust in sustained electronic services:

3.4 Support for multi-channel platform and "family resemblance"

Sustained e-services for citizens will in the future be delivered on several technology platforms. Already today, web-based applications can often be accessed from a PC or a mobile phone. This supports the idea of platform independence; the user may start the work process on one platform, quit, and continue on the other, such as switching between PC and mobile phone. Here it is important that the user can recognize the application on all relevant platforms, i.e., that a certain "family resemblance" exists. In order to do this:

3.5 Logical process and progression

Logical process and progression means that the user's work process is organized and supported so that s/he has the opportunity:

These requirements should apply also for e-services which are used at longer intervals, or when the current use session can be ended and continued later.

In order to realize this principle, existing accessibility and usability guidelines can be used as a point of departure. Examples of such are:

3.6 Easy storage and retrieval of information

During work processes, users need to find, retrieve and save information. Mechanisms that facilitate the management of information and enable the user to return to the task or process later on should be provided. Examples of accessibility and usability guidelines that can be used as a point of departure for the implementation of this principle are:

3.7 Timeline

Last, but not least, visualization of temporal data and time-based events in the work process is essential for sustained electronic user dialogues. Since many services are used repeatedly it is important to add a timeline to the accessibility framework for e-services. Providing snapshots of historical events may be realized in a number of different ways. Timeline charts may be implemented as annotated lines which clearly visualize time and events on an axis, or the events may be ordered as lists. The main asset of a timeline must be that it is easy to read, it presents information in a logical manner, and that it supports the user in (re-)grasping the task or process even after a longer period of latency. This topic is discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

4. Discussion

Visualization of temporal data on a timeline has been approached in a number of projects. One example is the Simile-project which basically addresses semantic interoperability (MIT 2006-2009). The Timeline-widget allows the user create an interactive timeline with temporal events, thus letting the user understand the time dimension of data and events (Figure 4). Another application is GapMinder (2009) which visualizes statistical data within e.g. environment, health and economy by playing a "gap-cast" on a timeline (Figure 5). The Google news timeline (Google 2010) allows the user to search for news articles which are organized on a timeline on daily basis (Figure 6). Last but not least, the LongRec-project (LongRec 2007-2009; Myrseth et al. 2010) has developed a pilot application which provides an information service in which information from the public registry is related to other external sources of data and presented along a temporal dimension. The graphical user interface is split into several parts, including a timeline (Figure 7). The primary objective of the LongRec-project is the persistent, reliable and trustworthy long-term archival of digital information records with emphasis on availability and use of the information.

Timeline as implemented by means of the Timeline-widget of the Simile-project.

Figure 4. Timeline as implemented by means of the Timeline-widget of the Simile-project.

Gap-cast of a timeline  by GapMinder.

Figure 5. "Gap-cast" of a timeline by GapMinder.

Google News Timeline.

Figure 6. Google News Timeline.

The components in the LongRec user interface: The zoom scroll-bar, Primary records, Secondary data.

Figure 7. The components in the LongRec user interface.

All these presentations of a timeline are rich in detail, whilst none of these present the information in a usable or accessible way. This is particularly true for users with cognitive disabilities.

Good, usable and accessible e-services have many characteristics, as shown in Figure 8. They are secure, and they can be accessed on different technology platforms. They may be compound services provided by a number of collaborating organizations, and still rendered seamlessly in a uniform manner during the user dialogue. They are accessible.

Governmental and other e-services require careful accessibility design in order to be successful. In this paper we have proposed to add the dimension of time to accessibility considerations in an explicit manner, and we have shown how this can be approached. We regard the time dimension as central in the design of sustained e-services. The list of principles is a first attempt to systematize accessibility guidelines so that the aspect of time becomes clearly visible and is treated explicitly.

As we can see, the principles clearly focus on the cognitive aspects of accessibility. However, this presupposes such activities as understanding and remembering the location, appearance and use of the e-service over time – i.e., the sustained character of the e-service and the user dialogue. This becomes more and more relevant as governments implement services not only for situated service needs, but also e-services which build on the idea of continuous – i.e., sustained – service dialogues.

Features of usable e-services: Accessible, Sustained, Seamless, Secure, Platform independent.

Figure 8. Features of usable e-services.

The proof of concept is connected to the implementation of real sustained e-services in which the dimension of time is essential for the user, and clearly visible. The provision of compound e-services which imply sustained service dialogues is becoming more and more usual. This developemnt increases the need for accessibility and inclusion of the time dimension in accessibility guidelines. In this paper, we have proposed a small number of approaches to emphasize this accessibility requirement. We have proposed the use of timeline as a central metaphore for increased accessibility of sustained e-services. However, more research is needed to explore the full potential of timeline as an instrument for increased accessibility.

5. Acknowledgements

This research is part of the ongoing Red Thread-project (in Norwegian: Den Røde Tråd), supported by the Norwegian Research Council’s IT Funk programme. Det Norske Veritas (DNV) is the project owner. Tellu AS participates in the project and provides the project team with technology prototypes demonstrating the use of timeline in an e-service context.

6. References