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Marketing Week: 31 May 2001

Tesco launches visionary website

Tesco has opened a new website that has won the RNIB's first award for being accessible to the blind, writes Sean McManus

The Royal National Insitute for the Blind (RNIB) invited Tesco's IT Net Technologies Manager Nick Lansley to their offices for a demonstration of how blind people were struggling to shop at Tesco.com. Software can read the text in webpages aloud, but the Tesco site didn't have descriptions for the images or the graphical buttons. Lansley watched in embarassment while a blind person tried to place an order. "After half an hour he hadn't managed to put anything in the shopping cart," says Lansley. "So I banged my fist on the table and said: 'I'm so sorry. This is dreadful.' I made a promise that I would change the site and walked out of the building a changed person. This was an example of one of the people who could benefit most from home shopping and he couldn't use it."

Since then, Tesco Access has been in development. Alpha testing involved 20 people who had various sight problems and took place between June and September 2000. The website developer would sit beside each alpha tester watching them use the site, looking out for problems, tweaking the design and then testing the reaction to design changes. Once the interface was finished in September, Tesco's programming team worked on integrating it with the live ordering system. From January, the site was tested by around 70 blind and partially-sighted people placing live orders who were recruited with the help of the RNIB and through online discussion forums.

The delivery team was trained to separate goods that need storing in a freezer, fridge and cupboard and was trained to place the shopping on a table top so that vision-impaired customers can easily find it.

Tesco Access launched to the mass market on 22 May 2001. In contrast to the main site, the only image on most of the site is the logo at the top of the screen. All the links are clearly described in text and the layout flows from the top to the bottom of the page, instead of the main site's columns-based layout, eliminating a problem that Lansley found on the old version of the site. "Because of all the frames and images," says Lansley, "blind people couldn't get anywhere. They couldn't form a view of the site in their mind's eye."

Tesco has taken the controversial approach of creating a new site for greater accessibility, instead of redesigning its core site. "There is an overriding rule that customers must be able to shop in fifteen minutes. The standard grocery site meets this need for sighted people and has visual cues to help them bounce around the site. Blind people are denied these visual cues, so we've created a site that uses very simple language and has lots of links."

Lansley says that the site also has a spin-off that it is easier to use on other devices such as handheld digital assistants and digital television and Tesco.com has conducted promotional launches with set-top box manufacturers ON Digital and Bush Internet.

The access site puts Tesco in a strong position to test whether shoppers do prefer graphics-heavy websites, given that most UK customers are still using relatively slow dial-up connections, or whether they'll go for a rapid text-only site. "It's quite likely that people will find the access site delivers faster to their machine," says Lansley. "It may turn out that people who can use the standard site prefer the access site. We don't know. But we have the systems in place to find out by watching orders and customer levels."

The RNIB cites the Disability Discrimination Act and says that companies might have a legal and not just moral obligation to make their websites accessible. But it also puts a strong business case. Tesco.com took 700,000 orders a week in the run-up to Christmas, with an average spend of £95. The RNIB says that if the UK's two million blind did their Christmas shopping there, it would generate an additional £190 million. John Browett, chief executive of Tesco.com, says: "Not only do we get the satisfaction of doing the right thing, but it's a great market opportunity in its own right. It would be fantastic if we got two million more customers a week. It would certainly make a difference to our figures!"

Tesco.com is the first site to carry the RNIB's 'See it Right Accessible Web Site Award', a logo which indicates that the site has been audited by RNIB's in-house useability specialists. The RNIB says the award aims to inspire designers to think about how they can make their sites accessible to people with sight problems without compromising on entertaining design. The award will also be used to direct blind and partially-sighted surfers to websites they can use.

Footnote

In October 2003 Julie Howell, digital policy development officer at RNIB, told me: "Work undertaken by Tesco.com to make their home grocery service more accessible to blind customers has resulted in revenue in excess of £13m per annum, revenue that simply wasn't available to the company when the web site was inaccessible to blind customers."

Tesco has now abandoned its strategy of maintaining a separate accessible site. Instead, the company provides additional accessibility options for its main site.

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