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GMail

Standard View or Basic HTML View?

Google provides two user interfaces for interacting with GMail: the Standard view which contains all of the rich interactive features of Gmail, and the Basic HTML view which provides a more static version of the interface. The Basic HTML view is described as a version that is more compatible with older browsers, has less functionality than the Standard view, but has more accessibility features than the Standard view. However, the Standard view is also stated to be “quite accessible with JAWS 9, 10 and 11 due to JAWS support of ARIA” (http://support.google.com/mail/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=146375) It should be noted that JAWS is currently on version 13, and version 12 was released a year and a half ago in October 2010 but there is no mention of either of these versions in Google’s documentation. (As a further note in the lack of documentation support, there are fundamental misspellings of terms like “live regions” as “livergents” on pages such as http://support.google.com/mail/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=90559)

There was a lot of debate among project participants about which version of GMail to test in the evaluation. Arguments for the Basic HTML version were

  • It is more likely to be the version that current screen reader users will be actively using, and
  • It includes some additional accessibility features like additional headings and ARIA landmarks.

Arguments for the Standard view were:

  • It contains all of the features that Google considers part of the “standard” GMail environment, rather than an environment with limited functionality.
  • It is updated with new features well in advance of the Basic HTML version, if the features ever make it to the Basic HTML version. (As an example, the ability to create a task out of an email message is absent from the Basic HTML version.)

It needs to be noted that in the Basic HTML view, which is promoted as being the more accessible version for screen readers, there are still some basic accessibility errors such as the “To”, “Cc”, “Bcc”, and “Subject” fields being unlabeled form elements. This means that all screen reader users will not be able to properly address an email message unless they guess at what information is being asked for in each form field. (JAWS and NVDA do not attempt to label any of these input elements. ChromeVox announces the “To” field but none of the others. VoiceOver announces the “Cc”, “Bcc”, and “Subject” fields, but not the “To” field.) Given this lack of fundamental accessibility support we cannot recommend using the Basic HTML view as an “accessible” GMail alternative. Users with disabilities should have access to the same features and functionality as non-disabled users. Further, Google documents that GMail Standard View is “quite accessible”. Therefore, Standard View was used in the current evaluation.

Also, it should be noted that GMail utilizes fairly standard HTML and JavaScript coding practices (in contrast to Google Docs, which contains very advanced on-screen/off-screen relationships dictating how the majority of the application operates). Therefore GMail could be made accessible using standard and well-established coding techniques.