Changing the Face of Web Surfing

CARDIFF, Wales – ‘If you want a job done properly, do it yourself,’ the saying goes. Web users frustrated by poorly designed sites are increasingly applying that logic to the Net.

Many who are fed up with high-profile design mess-ups are taking it upon themselves to publicly correct conspicuous corporate faux pas, right under embarrassed proprietors’ noses.

These volunteer make-over consultants receive neither a paycheck nor permission for their efforts. Regarded as Good Samaritans in Web circles, many can instead expect the threat of a day in court.

Oxford University math graduate Matthew Somerville was only trying to do fellow movie fans a favor when, flummoxed by the ‘highly inaccessible’ website for Britain’s Odeon cinema chain, he decided to redesign the service himself.

Out went the JavaScript, cookies and confusing menus that had muddled many visitors looking for movie times. Somerville hosted a slimmed-down, simplified imitation on his own server, which garnered praise from many users.

The cinema chain, currently for sale in an auction that has seen bids reach 380 million pounds (about $710 million), even fixed bugs on its site after being alerted by Somerville – then served him with a terse cease and desist, claiming he was breaching copyright and data laws. Under legal pressure, he reluctantly killed off his unauthorized Accessible Odeon Website this week, counterclaiming that the official site breaks disability discrimination law.

‘I was not taking any commercial advantage from the site – it existed only to provide a service to others and to provide a greater access than that currently provided by the official site,’ said the self-styled accessibility hacker, who has also voluntarily given makeovers to National Rail, The Hutton Inquiry and BT’s telephone directory site to meet Web standards.

Odeon spokeswoman Kim Greenston said the official site gets over 800,000 monthly visitors, has earned 1 million pounds (around $2 million) in online tickets so far this year and is due to be tweaked according to the recommendations of a recent audit by accessibility consultants.

The redesign’s resemblance to the official site, which is not visible at all to users of the Firefox and Safari browsers, had duped unwitting customers into giving personal information to a stranger instead of to Odeon, she said.

But Somerville is not a lone crusader in the unofficial march to accessibility, which ensures websites can be viewed correctly across a range of browsers and by visually impaired people – Fleshbot, Slashdot and the Internet Movie Database all have the dubious honor of having been redesigned by their own users.

Neither is he the only one to get into hot water for showing up the professionals.

David Jones republishes articles from Wales’ National Assembly website on his own Assembly Online site because the official designers ‘clearly don’t know what they’re doing.’

‘They’re singularly clueless; the HTML and CSS are invalid,’ he said. ‘I was exasperated, so I thought I’d do it myself to show them how it might be done. My employer – an Assembly-funded body looking to secure next year’s funding – cited it as a disciplinary offense. I don’t work for that company anymore.’

Though common standards for building Web pages are developed and governed by the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, few can force designers to make a site that’s easy to use. The result can often be code that clutters pages and confuses users.

Usability guru Jeffrey Zeldman, who co-founded the WaSP (Web Standards Project) coalition to promote good accessibility practices, said it makes ‘perfect sense’ that wayward websites are brought into line by the people who use them.

‘It could be a win-win,’ he told Wired News. ‘Mr. Somerville did Odeon a favor by solving problems that prevent customers (from) using the site. The company could easily have spent six figures learning the same thing from a consultancy.

‘Even if the next volunteer who cleans up after a big site’s mistakes is also shot down by the legal eagles, the buzz that gets generated by these events will make others think about their own sites’ accessibility.’

This movement of ‘unsolicited consultants’ is raising accessibility awareness in the industry because many pro designers still do not understand the guidelines, Zeldman added.

But, with the United Kingdom’s anti-discrimination Disability Rights Commission saying it is ‘ only a matter of time‘ before companies are sued for having inaccessible websites, usability is gaining a higher profile.

Judy Brewer, director of the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative, said the consortium’s standards ensure a good experience for both disabled and other users – if designers play by the rules.

‘Not all businesses have yet understood the advantage in ensuring their websites are accessible to people with disabilities, who constitute a significant percentage of the marketplace,’ she said.

‘In time, inaccessible websites will likely go the way of buildings with stairs but no ramps at the entrance.’

Until then, Somerville suggests cinema-goers check their local newspaper, not the Web, for movie times.