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Analysis

Virtual Assistants improve accessibility
Peter Abrahams By: Peter Abrahams, Practice Leader - Accessibility and Usability, Bloor Research
Published: 3rd December 2010
Copyright Bloor Research © 2010
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For anyone with a disability, navigating a website is likely to take longer than it would for a fully able person. If you have very good eyesight, good hand-eye coordination, the ability to scan text and images quickly, and an understanding of how the Webmaster's mind ticks, then with a few quick moves of a mouse and a few deft clicks you will get to the information you require simply and quickly. If, on the other hand, you have to use a screen magnifier and can only use the keyboard you can spend a frustratingly long time finding the link you are interested in, and this will be repeated for each page you have to traverse to get to the information, or process, that you need.

There are several ways in which a website can be made more navigation friendly, including:

  • A well structured, understandable menu hierarchy.
  • Jump to, skip to, links to the most important parts of a page.
  • A simple heading structure within a page.
  • Potentially an A to Z of all the website.
  • A search function.

But none of these are as easy to use as asking a real person questions like "How do I pay my parking fine?" Or "What time are the trains from London to Cambridge next Sunday morning?" The real person may be able to answer the question immediately or may need to ask you some additional clarification questions, but you will get to the correct answer or procedure very quickly.

The Virtual Zone (http://www.thevirtualzone.co.uk) now provides consultancy and software to create virtual assistants that can provide the ease-of-use of a real telephone operator within a website.

The software provides the ability to analyse natural language and extract the salient information from the question and then initiate:

  • A direct connection to the relevant webpage.
  • A structured question-and-answer session similar to those used by real telephone operators.

The consultancy is needed for the initial analysis of the type of questions that may be asked by visitors to the site and how the relevant answers can be retrieved from the site.

When the virtual assistant is initially put into production it is expected that it will be able to answer about 80% of the questions put to it. The software records all the questions and answers in a database, which can then be analysed to see how the process can be improved. This learning process should quickly bring the hit rate to above 95%.

Because this technology greatly reduces the number of links traversed to get to the answer and is also a human friendly interface it will appeal to all users; but particularly those who find using the Internet difficult, either because they have a disability or because they are not that familiar with the technology.

I have played with several sites that include this solution and have been pleasantly surprised at how easy it is and how quickly I found the information I was looking for.

To make the technology as user-friendly as possible it is important that the function is well signposted so that a new user to a site will be immediately aware of its existence. This probably requires that it is near the top left-hand corner of the homepage, and also that it is signposted by a ‘jump to' link at the very top of the page (those of my readers not familiar with this concept it is a link that is read out by a screen-reader that says something like "jump to virtual assistant", the user can then hit enter and go straight to the requisite part of the page).

The technology is already being used in a variety of different types of site including:

I would recommend trying out a few examples to see how you could adapt the technology to your industry and website.

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