I think we can all agree that the field of web accessibility needs more good data. Many of the arguments we make for “best practices” and guideline development are not based on substantive data. And much of the data that we do have may be fundamentally flawed due to loss aversion. This is an interesting principle that can affect your own web site accessibility decisions.
What is Loss Aversion?
Loss aversion is an aspect of psychology and decision theory that refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Studies have shown that a person’s aversion to loss is twice as strong as their interest in gains.
For example, a person will lose more satisfaction by losing a $100 bet than they gain by winning a $100 bet. In the field of accessibility, the suggestion of decreased accessibility may be more significant than the suggestion of increased accessibility. This is loss aversion.
Loss Aversion and User Opinion
Loss aversion can have notable effects upon the accuracy of collected data, particularly when surveying a subject’s opinions. In the field of accessibility, most of our data is based on opinion.
We have seen evidence of this in our own surveys of users with disabilities. If you ask a user if they would prefer more web content or less web content, they predominantly indicate that they want more, regardless of the drawbacks. Subjects generally indicate that they prefer more verbose alternative text, explanatory descriptions, etc. Of course nobody wants to be left out. But sometimes users have difficulty telling you what they actually want. Actual user testing often indicates that people with disabilities really prefer efficiency over verbosity.
In short, there may often be a disconnect in accessibility between what users indicate they want and what they actually prefer.
This is NOT to suggest that we should ignore the opinions of users with disabilities. But we do need to consider the impact of loss aversion when we create recommendations or prescribe “best practices” based on those opinions.
“It is better to give blind users more information than less.”
This is something I’ve often heard, and accessibility guidelines generally prescribe as much. This idea can cause authors to provide verbose descriptions when considering alternative text, for example. Authors often provide alternative text (rather than
alt="") for images that do not convey useful content. We sometimes see off-screen, screen reader-only text used to provide instructions and descriptions for page elements that are already fully accessible. Long description pages for images, table
summary attribute values,
title attribute values, ARIA labels/descriptions, etc. often include additional information just for screen reader users.
Are these approaches for providing additional accessibility information really best? Or are they based on loss aversion?
WCAG Techniques for Alternative Text
As an example, WCAG techniques for providing alternative text for images with ARIA labels,
title attributes, and
<figcaption> are currently being considered. Despite providing efficient image alternatives, adequate accessibility, and meeting the normative requirements of success criterion 1.1.1, these techniques have generally been poorly received in favor of traditional methods.
Alternative techniques have been suggested that would require duplication of alternative text – typically once in a label, caption, or adjacent text, and once in the
alt attribute on the image. There have been suggestions that references in the
alt attribute to the actual location of the alternative text (e.g.,
alt="The image content is found below.") are required for conformance (I believe presenting anything other than alternative text in the
alt attribute to be misuse).
The techniques above are based on the notion that users always prefer knowing that content is presented in images over simply being presented the content once in text. And this notion is based on users’ opinions that they want more information, not less. And these opinions might be based on loss aversion.
Do users really prefer duplication of content to support image detection over content being presented efficiently? Is it possible that these new WCAG techniques to support ARIA and HTML5 may be rejected because of deference for opinions that may be based on loss aversion and the notion that more really is better? Are there other areas where loss aversion may be prescribing techniques that are not really optimal for end user accessibility?
Addressing Loss Aversion in Accessibility Data
Consider the following question posed to screen reader users:
Do you prefer that the presence of images be identified even if this results in redundancy?
I suspect that most screen reader users would answer “Yes”. They would not want to lose the information about the image being present. Loss aversion?
What if we instead asked:
Do you prefer that alternative text be repetitively duplicated or do you prefer that it be presented efficiently?
I think users would predominantly indicate that they prefer efficiency.
The problem is that current techniques can’t really support both opinions – users don’t have an option to avoid the repetition when reading the page. It is forced upon them. It is, therefore, important that we prescribe techniques that result in optimal accessibility.
The Need for Better Data
Of course the best approach is not to simply ask users what they think, but to actually test users in real-world environments and situations to determine what best affects their experience. Good user testing and data collection is largely an untapped area in web accessibility. As guidelines and technology evolve, and as users with disabilities become more savvy, it will be vital that guidelines and best practices be based on substantive user data.