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Inside VPR

Introducing Open.VPR.org

Graphic showing quantitative improvement between www.vpr.org and open.vpr.org. Note accessibility score improves from 86 to 100, out of 100.
Noah Villamarin-Cutter
/
VPR
Top, Google Lighthouse audit of VPR's homepage. Bottom, Google Lighthouse audit of Open.VPR.org. Note accessibility score improves from 86 to 100, out of 100.

We are excited to announce the public rollout of a new project focused on accessibility. Our purpose at Vermont Public Radio is "to inspire an informed public and an engaged community." We are committed to including everyone in that purpose, and today's announcement is part of that work. We're calling it Open.VPR.org, a homepage designed from the ground-up to be hyper-accessible, machine-readable and metadata-rich.

Introduction

What is it like to access Vermont Public Radio's website and digital content without sight?

If you haven't had the experience, we can tell you: It's more challenging than it should be. We're excited about this project as a small step to directly address these concerns.

We're doing this for a few reasons:

  • It's the right thing to do. Many websites can be behind the curve on web accessibility. As a public-serving, listener-supported nonprofit radio station, we think it's important to be accessible to all people, regardless of ability, age, or other factors. It's worth noting accessible design isn't just for varying abilities: It can improve every user's overall experience, too.
     
  • While we're used to seeing curb cuts, elevators and other universal design in real life, on the internet, accessibility can often be an afterthought. We felt it was important to develop a product that was accessible by design, not by retrofit.

We're calling this first iteration our "Minimum Viable Product," or MVP. For our MVP, we chose to focus on our blind or visually-impaired audience. Focusing on smaller steps positions us to continually improve while incorporating feedback from users as we go. We partnered with local consultant/designer Jason Pelletier, who developed this MVP following modern standards for accessibility, stability and maintainability.

Added bonus: This page also happens to be phenomenally lightweight (about 100 KBs), meaning folks trying to access our content on slower connections (or older devices) will wait less and listen more. (Context: The www.VPR.org homepage comes in just under 7MB, making Open.VPR.org a 98% savings!)

MVP

Graphic showing the top portion of Open.VPR.org on the left, and showing the whole length of Open on the right.
Credit Noah Villamarin-Cutter / VPR
Screenshot of Open.VPR.org MVP, left. Don't be fooled: Despite the austere appearance, this page is actually very inviting to screen readers. Right, screenshot of the entirety of Open.VPR.org. It may look long, but semantic HTML headings allow screen readers to skip section by section.

Why minimum? Reality. We won't make an end-all, be-all solution right away. By starting with an MVP, we position ourselves to iterate. We can learn from our users, gather feedback, and follow along as universal design practices evolve. Given this, we narrowed our scope to focus on our blind or visually-impaired audience.

We considered what criteria would we have to meet, at a minimum, to deliver this product to the public:

  • Allow anyone to access our streams, on-demand audio and articles, regardless of their visual, cognitive, or physical abilities.
     
  • Meet (as best we can) widely accepted accessibility standards.
     
  • Design a modern, nimble architecture that can adapt and change to fit our needs.
     
  • Create a platform that we have 100% control over, no waiting or relying on external partners.

Here's a quantitative look at our improvement:

Graphic showing quantitative improvement between www.vpr.org and open.vpr.org. Note accessibility score improves from 86 to 100, out of 100.
Credit Noah Villamarin-Cutter / VPR
Top, Google Lighthouse audit of VPR's homepage. Bottom, Google Lighthouse audit of Open.VPR.org. Note accessibility score improves from 86 to 100, out of 100.

Disclaimer: Automated tests are only part of the story when it comes to 1) standards compliance and 2) user experience. "True" accessibility is incumbent on actual, real-life testing by humans.

That being said, these gains represent an overall improved user experience.

As far as real-life testing, we reached out to a longtime fan of VPR who uses a screen reader (and in the past has had issues using it on www.VPR.org). He gave a lot of valuable feedback, but this snippet sums it up well:

"Everything is wonderfully accessible, and I love the layout of this version of the site. Everything is so simple to get to and straightforward."

Next steps

We are conducting user testing, refining, and gathering feedback. Do you use a screen reader? Have feedback? Let us know!

We are continuing to ask ourselves, "What does accessibility mean at Vermont Public Radio?"

It looks like a lot of things, but at the top of our wishlist: Captions on the live stream, and transcripts for all on-demand content.

When developing this concept and product, we strove to meet generally accepted accessibility standards. One of those standards is Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). There are several levels of compliance: A, AA and AAA (highest). You can read more about these guidelines here, but broadly they assess if web content meets several principles: 1) perceivable 2) operable 3) understandable and 4) robust.

While we generally meet the spirit of these principles, we do fall short.

A requirement for a minimum A-rating under WCAG is "an alternative for time-based media … that presents equivalent information for prerecorded audio-only content." Without transcripts for all our on-demand content, we fall short. Unfortunately the solutions readily available are either exceedingly costly, or not very accurate. We're keeping a close watch on this as artificial intelligence and other improved technologies continue to make this more affordable and attainable.

Similarly, we feel the urgency to bring the rest of VPR.org up to snuff with Open.VPR.org. Rather than let the perfect be the enemy of the good, we see Open.VPR.org as an important stepping stone in this work. Starting this work now positions us to learn, adapt and prepare for the future.

Stay tuned for further updates to Open.VPR.org. We're excited about this work and always glad to hear your feedback and ideas.

And, it's worth noting that work like this is only possible with listener support. You can support it (if you'd like) at donate.vpr.org.

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