Accessibility and usability gurus, interactive agency Reading Room reveals its passion for keeping user interaction at the heart of Web site design.

Founded back in 1996 by Simon Usher and Margaret Manning when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, Reading Room is now one of the UK’s top full-service interactive agencies with offices in London and Sydney, Australia, and plans to open an office in Manchester.

Before setting up the company, Usher had been the webmaster for the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales. Having convinced the organization of the value of the Internet to its business and the benefits of outsourcing the contract for Web services, he pitched for the work and won. With the support of Manning – a chartered accountant by profession and previously a group financial controller for Longwall International, Reading Room was born.

In the early years, the majority of Reading Room’s clients were accountancy, financial and legal firms, which still represent a large section of clients for the company today, according to Manning.

In the late 90s, the company’s client base broadened to include some of the UK’s foremost charities with high-profile campaign sites for Cancer Research UK, the National AIDS Trust and Shelter. Libraries and museums also feature in the agency’s client list with large information sites created for the British Library (www.bl.uk) and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (www.mla.gov.uk).

Broadening client list

Public sector and government-funded clients such as the Energy Saving Trust (www.saveenergy.co.uk) and the Disability Rights Commission (www.drc.org.uk), are a growing sector for the company says Manning, along with membership organizations, such as the Law Society of England and Wales and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. Corporate sites such as those for GlaxoSmithKline and the OnMedica Group, as well as consumer brands such as Janet Reger and AOL are also represented by Reading Room.

Evident in all of its projects is the Reading Room’s commitment to constructing usable and accessible Web sites.

One of the leading UK developers in this area, the Reading Room team are acknowledged experts with W3C guidelines, Bobby, NoF, the eGif, Dublin Core and RNIB guidelines. It was this expertise that won the company the Disability Rights Commission site in the face of competition from over 200 competing firms, says Manning.

“Our reputation for usability came from our opposition to many of the bleeding-edge design features used on Web sites during the dot.com boom,” she explains. “We’ve always believed that Web site design is fundamentally about users. In fact, it can be said that Web sites only exist through user interaction.

“For this reason, an understanding of the needs of a Web site’s target users is part of the structure within which our designers work. An appreciation of how this audience will wish to use the Web site provides a valuable direction to the design process – which results in better Web site design,” she says.

Accessibility is an integral part of usability, adds Manning. “It comes back to the basic point that designers have to be aware that they’re not designing for themselves – but for a variety of other users, who may have different needs and requirements,” she says.

All Reading Room designers, coders and marketing staff are trained in usability and accessibility as a matter of course, says Manning, and the company’s usability analysts conduct testing at each key stage of a site’s development. The team are often asked to act as usability and accessibility consultants on Web sites that have been built by other agencies. “Depending on budgets, we can implement quick-win changes to the existing sites to improve usability rather than undertake a full redesign,” she says.

While accessibility and usability guidelines are important, it’s important to take an intelligent approach to both, Manning stresses.

“It really is a tragedy that, so often, it’s the guidelines themselves that become the focus of accessible Web development,” she says. “Usable and accessible Web design is fundamentally about an empathetic approach to the user experience. If Web sites are built from this point of view, they will tend to follow the guidelines anyway.”

Aside from working with the Disability Right Commission, Reading Room has completed numerous high-profile campaigns since its launch in 1996. “Each project has its own challenges,” says Manning. “We know that every project we do becomes someone’s baby because they behave like proud parents when they announce the launch to the rest of the company.”

Memorable and rewarding projects, she says, have included building the National Aids Trust site (www.worldaidsday.org) in just three weeks in time for Worlds Aids Day, Cancer Research UK’s Race For Life (www.raceforlife.org), an online festival site for World Book Day (www.worldbookdayfestival.com) and The Save Energy campaign for The Energy Saving Trust.

The latter – an integrated marketing campaign across several media – saw Reading Room working alongside Rainey Kelly for the press and TV advertising, Interfocus for direct marketing and sales promotion, and Consolidated for PR. With clients now viewing Web sites as part of their wider communications strategy rather than isolated entities, the demand for integrated marketing strategies is becoming more common, says Manning.

“Clients today are more knowledgeable about the medium and are less likely to ask for whizzy interactivity or animation just for the sake of it,” she says. “Four years ago, a client might have seen a flashy feature on another Web site, and asked for something similar on their Web site – whether or not it was relevant to their audience or subject matter. Nowadays they tend to have a much better understanding of how to engineer successful audience interaction – that you need to provide features that are actually useful to the user.”

There’s been a clear move of ownership of Web projects from the IT to the marketing department, she adds. “Eight years ago, issues surrounding branding, for example, were lower down the agenda than they are today,” she says.

Future trends

In turn, this has had an impact on the type of work Reading Room is asked to do to include microsites, online ad campaigns, viral games, and SMS and email campaigns.

“We’re particularly interested in the use of personalization features to respond to the usability challenges of large information or portal sites,” Manning says of challenges facing the company going forward. “At the same time, the increased penetration of broadband introduces new possibilities in media-rich interactivity. The challenge will be to continue to implement ever more complex and immersive multimedia features, while maintaining high standards of usability and accessibility.”

The latest software packages such as Flash MX with its accessibility features, are helpful in allowing Reading Room to develop sites, but according to Manning the team are more interested in the ideas themselves than the software that helps produce them.

Reading Room’s design process usually begins with brainstorming sessions and, in some cases, its designers will simply use pen and paper to present their creative ideas to clients.

Interestingly, the majority of Reading Room’s designers come from a product design background according to Manning. “We think that understanding how things ‘work’ rather than just how they look is a key distinction between purely graphic design and online design,” she says.

She adds that the design teams take inspiration from a variety of sources, including TV advertisements, which she singles out for the sophisticated way in which they understand and target their audience and communicate a specific brand image - “often without the audience necessarily being aware of the complexity of this communication,” she says.

Modern art is another source of design inspiration with Reading Room’s Soho offices home to an art gallery, where a variety of modern artists exhibit their works. Recent exhibitors have included Keith Coventry and Sebastian Horsley. The company also work with the Proud Galleries Group in London, and patronizes a number of local artists through its association with the Soho Society.

The Reading Maze www.readingmaze.org.uk

As part of a nationwide initiative launched by the Reading Agency in libraries throughout the UK, The Reading Maze Web site (left) is an animated site aimed at encouraging children to read. The site presents a media-rich ‘maze’ environment that children can explore, thereby uncovering a variety of author habitats. These habitats offer children the chance to find out more about an author’s work. Reading Room created a semi-virtual tour of each habitat using a 360-degree panorama landscape containing links to film and sound clips. By zooming in and out, and panning, children can explore each landscape.

“The general rule for children’s sites is to make navigation as simple as possible, but the core challenge here was to make navigation fun,” explains Manning. “It was for this reason that we presented the site as a maze, rather than an ordinary Web site. Rather than clicking links within a Web site, the child navigates by piloting a funny character around the different content areas – picking up information along the way. The child’s understanding of what they’re doing is that they’re playing a game, when in fact they’re navigating content on a Web site.”

The site makes good use of the broadband capabilities now becoming available in libraries, says Manning. Its movie and sound content is streamed, and uses advanced file compression techniques to increase clip quality while ensuring they download and play quickly. By offering additional access controls for users with special needs, the site is highly accessible.

Disability Rights Commission www.drc.org.uk

“We were delighted in the face of strong competition to win a project to build an interactive, engaging site that had exemplary accessibility,” says Margaret Manning, co-founder of the Reading Room.

“The key challenge of the Disability Rights Commission project was to produce a Web site that was accessible across the widest possible range of user interfaces and settings, while countering the prevalent argument at that time – that Web sites had to be boring to be accessible,” she explains.

Both Reading Room and the client were keen to include games, interactivity and high-impact design to show that interactivity and accessibility can work together to the improvement of both. This is demonstrated in features such as the Access Options page, which allows visitors to tailor the interface to their preferences. Visitors can change text size, and colours, and add dynamic HTML and/or ‘browse aloud’ features.

“This improves the user experience not only for partially-sighted users, but for any user who wishes to alter the Web site’s presentation – whether because of the particular platform they’re using or simply to change the colour,” says Manning.

The site makes use of several interactive and multimedia features – many of which had never before been implemented within an accessible framework comments Manning. The Shop of Horrors game (pictured middle left) use Flash MX’s accessibility features to allow users who rely on screen and Braille readers to play. It also allows users to customize the games controls, for example the Tab keys version can be operated effectively by users of ‘switch technology’, in addition to users who don’t use a mouse. An HTML version of the game is available for users without the Flash plug-in.

The site also makes extensive use of streaming video (pictured middle right). To ensure this was accessible, Reading Room included synchronized captions and a BSL interpreter is featured in each video.

The site’s Inaccessible Website demonstration (pictured below right) takes an illustration of a Web site with poor accessibility, and actually puts users through the experience of using such a Web site with a variety of different disabilities such as impaired vision.

Reading Room created a fully accessible content management system, which means the Commission’s staff can add and edit site content regardless of disability.