Survey researchers take special care to ensure the instruments they develop are valid measures of what they aim to study, as well as being designed in an easy-to-follow format which minimizes burden and non-response in any mode. In recent years, technological advancement has enabled us to explore the web as a new mode for questionnaire design and administration. By using the web to administer questionnaires, survey professionals have often reduced not only some production costs (associated with labor for administration or entry), but also reduced respondent burden by offering another choice for mode of completion. Many publications have addressed web survey issues such as: who responds, when they respond, and whether there are differences in data quality between the web and other modes of administration. However, very little literature exists discussing how survey professionals can construct web surveys which follow the principles of Universal Design (UD), and are, therefore, fully accessible to a broad spectrum of people.
UD in web surveys takes into account how respondents engage with their computers when they do not receive directives or cues in a visual way through the pages. It also addresses the needs of respondents who do not use a mouse to navigate the screens. Research has shown the state of website accessibility, broadly, is in dire need for improvement (Nomensa 2006). For example, in 2006, the United Nations commissioned a study which entailed a global audit of five key sectors of websites used in daily life, including: travel, finance, media, politics, and retail. The study found 97 percent of the websites tested from 20 countries did not comply with basic accessibility regulations, despite disability legislation existing for over half a decade (Nomensa 2006). These findings have implications for survey researchers administering surveys on the web. While it may not be possible to assume websites and web surveys are equally inaccessible, it is important to consider three key issues. First, web surveys can be embedded within a website which itself may have accessibility barriers. Second, programmers who program websites may also be responsible for the design of web surveys and share a knowledge base. These groups may have had limited exposures to UD concepts. Lastly, survey researchers may not be considering respondent burden or unit non-response from a UD perspective, as evidenced by the dearth of literature discussing the use and features of UD in web surveys.
Why Use Universal Design (UD) in Web Surveys?
Minimizing unit non-response is a critical issue in high quality survey research, as it improves our ability to generalize the findings. Even among the population of digitally literate people with access to the web, opportunity exists for significant non-response bias stemming from programming techniques. When we do not use Universal Design (UD) in web survey programming, we impede the participation of distinct segments of the computer-using population and increase the likelihood of unit non-response bias. These populations include users of either antiquated or cutting-edge technologies, as well as persons with disabilities. Having a disability does not preclude someone from accessing the web, though it may impact navigation. Examples include: people with mobility disabilities who may not be able to use a mouse and navigate a questionnaire via keyboard functions alone; people with cognitive disabilities who may have difficulty navigating complex layouts, or be unable to complete tasks within a predetermined amount of time; and people with a visual impairment who may use a screen reader or may increase the font size on their screens. Other issues can also prevent those without disabilities from participating in web surveys, including: users having antiquated machines or slow internet connections (difficulty downloading image-heavy designs or complex layouts); those with older browsers; and those using new technologies such as: smartphones, Personal Digital Assistants (PDA’s), and other hand-held devices. Following UD strategies enables potential respondents to use a wide range of technologies to participate in web surveys and these users span the socio-economic spectrum. This paper fills a gap in the web survey literature and presents practical strategies for using UD in the programming of web surveys.
Applying Universal Design in Web Survey Programming
The goal for a universally designed web survey is for it to be “usable” by all users, regardless of ability and situation (Clark 2003). This entails a blend of three components: 1) properly crafted HTML forms; 2) the capacity to interface with assistive technology (AT); and 3) adherence to governing standards. Each is described below.
1. Properly Crafted HTML Forms. Respondents experience web surveys as a series of HTML forms where they interface with the design and provide responses. Forms are the foundation for all the interaction between the respondent, the instrument, and the data collected. However, sometimes the design of these forms is inaccessible to some groups of users when forms:
Contain elements such as images or movies that a screen reader cannot interpret or convey to the user.
Contain a graphical logo or a diagram which does not have accompanying text to communicate what was being expressed.
Cannot be navigated via keyboard alone.
Do not have labels and identifiers attached to specific fields of response categories, so respondents cannot determine which question matches which response field.
Expect a timed response, where the page forwards or the form itself expires after an allotted amount of time has passed.
Performs an action without the respondent explicitly telling the page to do so.
CSS stylize the HTML forms to be more attractive.
Server-side languages which can run more sophisticated input checks (ex. checking that an email address is valid) or server-related tasks (ex. sending email receipts).
Developers can both enhance the survey experience and follow principles of UD by using CSS to separate the styling from the content. Understanding HTML (XHTML) forms and form interaction to an expertise eliminates the need to create complex layouts, scripting, or other add-ons. As a result, respondents will experience the web forms as “intuitive and easy-to-use.” Appendix A describes how these forms, the AT, and UD standards apply in several features common to web surveys.
2. Interface with Assistive Technology (AT). A universal design approach to programming promotes the inclusion of users of AT, as recent technological advances have enabled access to the web to people who are blind or visually impaired. Examples include:
- Screen Readers. A software program that reads contents of a screen aloud to a user, presenting “a two-dimensional graphical web page to a user who is vision impaired as a one-dimensional stream of characters, either spoken or displayed in Braille” (Thatcher et al. 2002, p. 54).
- Voice Browsers. A web browser which presents an interactive voice-user interface, presenting information aurally, using pre-recorded audio file playback or using text-to-speech software by obtaining information using speech recognition and keypad entry.
- Screen Magnification. Interfaces with a computer’s graphical output to present enlarged screen content (typically between 1.5x to 32x). (Thatcher et al. 2002).
Older respondents who have digital literacy and access to computers (e.g. aging baby boomers) may be more likely to utilize screen magnification or screen readers as they participate in web surveys. This demographic may not consider themselves “people with disabilities,” but may interact technologically in similar ways to those with disabilities.
3. Governing Standards and Organizations. Advocacy organizations are attempting to bridge the gap between those who design and construct HTML forms and those who use these forms with the help of AT. One such organization is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3.org/WAI), which launched the global “Web Accessibility Initiative” (WAI). It develops resources to help make the Web accessible to people with disabilities and leads the effort to create standards and guidelines for programmers. Governments are also responding to this need. United States legislators incorporated Section 508 as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to eliminate barriers in information technology, to increase opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies to achieve these goals.
These three guidelines provide the foundation for all UD web survey construction. The next section discusses how to incorporate UD standards into web survey testing.
Universal Design and Web Survey Testing
As technology evolves and the computer-literate population diversifies, survey researchers must approach web survey design considering the many possible ways respondents can access a web survey. Programmers must follow guidelines set forth by the World Wide Web Consortium to ensure the forms interface successfully with AT. Failure to take these steps results in inaccessible forms, which may have a negative impact on response, even among digitally literate people with access to the web.