5 neurodivergent UX fails while buying Alamo Drafthouse tickets online

I went to the movies this week for the first time since the pandemic began. I looked up showings at the Alamo Drafthouse and discovered little has improved with their payment process since I reviewed it on desktop back in 2016. This time, I completed the purchase on an iPhone using the responsive mobile website in the Firefox browser.

While I found several accessibility issues with the site, I’m highlighting concerns with the “Payment” screen. I’m neurodivergent and this post focuses on five things that cause me anxiety and make the experience frustrating:

  1. Required fields are not marked
  2. Submit button is disabled
  3. Error messages don’t offer suggestions
  4. Data formats are placeholder text
  5. Optional checkbox is already checked

Required fields are not marked

I’ve done enough online ordering that I assumed that all the credit card-related fields are required, but many people will not understand that. E-commerce research suggests that marking all fields, required or optional, improves the customer experience. It certainly lessens my anxiety to know exactly which fields to complete.

screenshot of the payment screen with form fields with placeholder text for Card Number, Cardholder Name, EXP, CVV and Zip code. The "Buy Tickets" button is disabled.

Not only are required fields not clearly marked, but merely interacting with a field causes the display of an angry, red “Required” message. (This does not work for the “EXP” field even though it is required.) These input fields use a combination of the HTML required attribute with an aria-describedby attribute for the error message which causes assistive technology to announce fields are required multiple times.

screenshot of the payment screen with red error messages denoting several fields are required

Submit button is disabled

From the previous screenshots, we can see the next issue that causes me a lot of anxiety when using a website. The “Buy Tickets” button, which is the submit button for the form, is disabled by default. The button becomes enabled only after data has been entered into all the required form fields, which are not clearly marked.

There are two more required form fields below the credit card fields but they are easy to miss because of the sticky footer with the “Buy Tickets” button, meaning that after entering all credit card details, this button is still disabled.

Error messages don’t offer suggestions

The default error message for empty fields is “Required”. If a user enters data in the wrong format, the error messages change to “Invalid”. This doesn’t help the user in any way to figure out how to fix the error.

screenshot of the payment screen with bad data entered into several fields which each have an error message of invalid.

Here are some examples of helpful error messages:

  • Card Number: Please enter 16 digits
  • EXP: Please enter 2-digit year
  • CVV: Please enter 3 digits
  • Zip Code: Please enter 5-digit US zip code

“Zip Code” is the only field requesting numerical data that displays the numerical keyboard on mobile devices. Adding the inputmode="numeric" attribute to every field requesting numerical data will display the numerical keyboard too, which improves the accuracy of data entered into these fields.

Screenshot of the payment screen with focus in the Zip Code field which displays the 10-key numerical keyboard on mobile devices

Data formats are placeholder text

The requested data format for all the “Payment” screen fields are implemented as placeholder text. This means that once a person starts to enter data into the field, the required formatting of that data disappears. People are forced to recall from memory how to enter the data correctly. On top of this, the “EXP” and “CVV” fields allow someone to enter more digits than the data format allows.

The video below demonstrates what a person using assistive technology, like a screen reader, experiences when exploring the form. Notice how placeholder data are not consistently announced by VoiceOver.

Optional checkbox is already checked

Following the credit card-related fields is the “Email Confirmation” section which includes a checkbox that is already checked:

Join Alamo Victory

By checking “Join Alamo Victory” you start earning visits with this purchase for rewards and you agree to Alamo Drafthouse Cinema’s terms of use.

Email confirmation section with email address and confirm email address fields followed by a checkbox that is already checked for Join Alamo Victory

This is an optional field. It should require that I choose to check it. Because of its location behind the sticky footer, it’s very likely people will not see this checkbox and inadvertently join this program. Having to look for sneaky UI patterns like this makes for a bad experience.

Conclusion

This website has made some improvements like providing a “Back” button after timeout and inline form field validation. I also give the developers kudos for appropriately implementing the autocomplete attribute on the credit card-related fields. I’d make the following changes to the “Payment” screen to create a better experience for neurodivergent people:

  1. Clearly indicate which form fields are required
  2. Don’t disable the submit button
  3. Offer suggestions for fixing data input errors
  4. Display required data formats at all times
  5. Don’t pre-check checkboxes for optional promotions

The web is inherently accessible

Originally posted 7 February 2021. Updated 13 April 2022.

It all started when I built the Accessible Web tool which removes CSS and JS from a webpage, leaving plain HTML. I built it as a sarcastic response to a developer who changed his website to require visitors to disable JavaScript before they could view the content. The reactions to this gatekeeping on Twitter were hilarious! So many angry developers didn’t get the joke that they put up similar barriers when they require that people have JavaScript enabled to view anything on their websites.

I created an About page for the project that requires the user to disable CSS to view a message about web accessibility and the importance of semantic markup. The following is a blog article version of that webpage with code examples.

Accessible Web - please disable CSS to view this website

The web is inherently accessible

Your weekly reminder that the web is accessible by default and it’s our design decisions that stop it being accessible #a11y

k.mar (@Kevmarmol_CT) on Twitter December 7, 2020

Why did you have to disable CSS to view this webpage? No reason other than a design choice that excludes sighted people.

Did you know? This is how many visitors “view” webpages already:

  • Search engines
  • Bots
  • Site crawlers
  • Analytics
  • Blind people

This webpage is fully accessible to people with screen readers and Braille displays. But many websites are not due to poor design choices that exclude some people.

What is web accessibility?

When a page is accessible, it was developed with the intention of working for as many people with disabilities as possible. A good place to start learning is the W3C’s Introduction to Web Accessibility. Find out the different ways people with disabilities interact with the web.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

WCAG is a set of success criteria for determining if a page is accessible, led by four guiding principles:

  • Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
  • Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable.
  • Understandable: Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable.
  • Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

These contain guidelines and a hierarchy of success criteria from Level A to Level AAA. Many accessibility laws, and current best practice, point to WCAG 2.1 Level AA compliance. There are 50 discrete success criteria to evaluate, though many are not applicable to all pages. For example, if a page doesn’t contain video, you don’t have to evaluate against success criteria for captions or audio descriptions.

See the full list of success criteria

Did you know? The WCAG guidelines were first published in 1999. Web accessibility is not a new concept but a lot of people are learning about it only now.

Semantics

So what’s the point? The point is to develop accessible pages from the bottom up, starting with semantic HTML. A whole lot of developers think they know HTML but are actually pretty sloppy about it. Many don’t think it matters if they use a link or a button, but it does. Every semantic mistake introduces accessibility issues into your code. If you’ve never really “learned” HTML, check out this beginner’s guide to writing good HTML.

By far, CSS color contrast issues are the most frequent accessibility issues I encounter, but the HTML ones are problematic too. Outlined below are the top HTML-related accessibility issues I encounter.

Headings

If you visually scan this page, you can quickly see how it is broken up into sections. That’s due to using headings or the h1-h6 elements. It’s important that every page have at least one h1 so people and search engines know what the topic of the page is. From there, cascade down to h2, h3, and so on.

Did you know? People using screen readers can navigate by headings in much the same way that sighted people can visually scan the page for items of importance.

Buttons and links

Buttons and links may seem similar but they have very different semantic uses. If you use them interchangeably, people can get confused about what a button or link is going to do when activated.

Buttons

Buttons are used for controlling actions on the page, such as a form submit button or toggle button.

It’s preferable to use a native button element instead of creating a custom one:

  • It already has the button role
  • It’s keyboard focusable
  • It’s activated with ENTER and SPACE keys

The button element can have various states depending on its purpose:

Collapsed

<button aria-expanded="false">Menu</button>

Expanded

<button aria-expanded="true">Search</button>

Not pressed

<button aria-pressed="false">Light mode</button>

Pressed

<button aria-pressed="true">Dark mode</button>

Links

Links are used for navigation, literally for linking to another page or place on the same page. When you use a link, people expect to go somewhere new when it’s activated.

It’s important that the link text properly convey the link purpose. Avoid generic text like “click here”.

Same page link

<a href="#headings">Headings</a>

New page link

<a href="/site-map/">Site map</a>

External link

<a href="https://eff.org">EFF</a>

Email link

<a href="mailto:info@eff.org">info@eff.org</a>

Images

The one thing about accessibility most people know is that images need alt text. This may seem straightforward but let’s look at three examples.

1) Alt text

Semantically speaking, every image needs an alt="" attribute. This alone will pass an automated accessibility checker. If an image is purely decorative, you can even leave the alt value empty. But if an image provides context to the content, the alt text must accurately describe the content of the image for people who cannot see it.

<img src="cats.jpg" alt="two cats on an easy chair under a blanket">
two cats on an easy chair under a blanket

2) SVG

Inline SVG doesn’t support the alt attribute. Instead, add role="img" to the svg element to identify it as an image. Give it an accessible name using the aria-label attribute on the svg.

<svg role="img" aria-label="Bar chart showing the years 2016 to 2021 as the percentage of US consumers with a streaming video service increased from 52% to 78%." xmlns:xlink="http://www.w3.org/1999/xlink" version="1.1" xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" viewBox="0 0 650 400">...</svg>
US Consumers 52% 64% 69% 74% 78% 78% 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 0 20% 40% 60% 80% 100%

Go to the Tables section for information on providing access to all data points in the graph.

3) Icons

Any time you display icons that convey meaning to the user, you must provide a text equivalent for users of assistive technology. For example, it’s common to insert an external link icon after link text that opens in a new tab or window.

Icon fonts are not announced reliably by assistive technology. First, hide the icon using the aria-hidden attribute. Then provide a text equivalent with visually-hidden text.

Exposed icon

☎ 1-800-799-SAFE

<a href="tel:1-800-799-7233">☎ 1-800-799-SAFE</a>

Hidden icon

Call 1-800-799-SAFE

<p><a href="tel:1-800-799-7233"><span class="visually-hidden">Call</span><span aria-hidden="true">☎</span> 1-800-799-SAFE</a></p>

Tables

There are many legitimate uses for tables on the web but they are often coded incorrectly. Table data cells need corresponding table headers. This allows the applicable table header to be read by a screen reader before the table data cell contents. Additionally, tables need captions to provide a description of the table to people using screen readers.

In the SVG example under Images, we looked at a svg bar chart where we provided a snapshot of the data using aria-label. We need to provide all the data in a format that assistive technology can navigate and an easy way to do that is to provide all data points in a table.

US consumers with a streaming video subscription
Year US Consumers
2016 52%
2017 64%
2018 69%
2019 74%
2020 78%
2021 78%
<table>
  <caption>US consumers with a streaming video subscription</caption>
  <thead>
    <tr>
      <th>Year</th>
      <th>US Consumers</th>
    </tr>
  </thead>
  <tbody>
    <tr>
      <td>2016</td>
      <td>52%</td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
      <td>2017</td>
      <td>64%</td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
      <td>2018</td>
      <td>69%</td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
      <td>2019</td>
      <td>74%</td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
      <td>2020</td>
      <td>78%</td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
      <td>2021</td>
      <td>78%</td>
    </tr>
  </tbody>
</table>

Forms

Every input needs a label. It’s really that simple. The label needs to be visible and persistent (avoid using placeholder). This helps people remember what information they’ve entered. Programmatically link each pair matching the for attribute on the label with the id attribute on the input.

This enables a couple things:

  • People can now click or tap on the label to give focus to the input. This is especially useful for checkboxes and radio buttons that often have small hit areas.
  • People using screen readers will now hear the label announced when the input is in focus.

When you have a group of related form fields, like checkboxes or radio buttons, group them with a fieldset element and provide an accessible name for the group with a legend element.

<fieldset>
  <legend>Cat's Colors</legend>
  <p><label for="black"><input type="checkbox" id="black"> Black</label></p>
  <p><label for="white"><input type="checkbox" id="white"> White</label></p>
  <p><label for="brown-tabby"><input type="checkbox" id="brown-tabby"> Brown tabby</label></p>
  <p><label for="orange-tabby"><input type="checkbox" id="orange-tabby"> Orange tabby</label></p>
  <p><label for="torbie"><input type="checkbox" id="torbie"> Torbie</label></p>
  <p><label for="gray"><input type="checkbox" id="gray"> Gray</label></p>
</fieldset>

Many modern browsers do cursory form field validation with the required attribute though error messages are not always accessible. Let assistive technology users know when a field is required by adding the aria-required="true" attribute to inputs.

<label for="email">Email<span aria-hidden="true"> *</span></label>
<input type="email" id="email" autocomplete="email" name="email" aria-required="true">

For a deeper dive into forms, check out my blog article and talk Structuring accessible forms.

In summary

  • Web accessibility is an ongoing process
  • Use semantic markup: Native HTML + ARIA
  • Headings help people navigate
  • Buttons and links do different things
  • Images need text equivalents
  • Use tables for data
  • Structure forms in accessible ways

Structuring accessible forms

On 28 September 2021, I was a guest on Ben Myer’s Twitch stream where we demonstrated best practices for structuring accessible forms. Following is the example code and an explanation of what we covered.

See the Pen Accessible Forms by Rachele (@racheleditullio) on CodePen.

Creating our form fields

The two basic parts of a form field are its <label> and <input> elements. We semantically link the two by

  • Using the <label for="uniqueID"> attribute which matches the <input id="uniqueID"> attribute; or
  • Making the <input> element a child of the <label> element

Doing so allows screens readers to announce the field’s <label> when the <input> gets focus. It also enables the <label> as an additional hit area when using the mouse to focus on an <input>, which is especially useful for checkboxes and radio buttons.

We also need to specify the type of input using the <input type=""> attribute. Putting those together, we have a basic form with one text field and two radio buttons.

<form>
  <label for="name">Cat's name</label>
  <input type="text" id="name" name="name">

  <label><input type="radio" id="yes"> Yes</label>
  <label><input type="radio" id="no"> No</label>

  <button type="submit">Send</button>
</form>

A note on combo boxes

As much as possible, use native HTML <select> and <option> elements to create an expandable list of single-select options.

...
<label for="markings">Cat's markings</label>
<select name="markings" id="markings">
  <option value=""> select an option </option>
  <option value="solid">Solid</option>
  <option value="bi">Bi-color</option>
  ...
</select>
...

Grouping similar fields

Our radio buttons are labeled ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but what are they for? We need to use the <fieldset> and <legend> elements to provide that semantic meaning. The <fieldset> groups the related form fields while the <legend> provides a name for the grouping. These are most often used for checkboxes and radio buttons but they can be useful for grouping other related fields, e.g. Shipping address.

Since radio button options may have similar names, group like radio buttons with the name="groupName" attribute. Keyboard users move between radio buttons in a group with the arrow keys.

...
<fieldset>
  <legend>Is your cat altered?</legend>
    <label><input type="radio" name="altered" id="yes"> Yes</label>
    <label><input type="radio" name="altered" id="no"> No</label>
</fieldset>
...

Marking required fields

Let’s create a required field for collecting email address with <input type="email">. Provide a visible indication of the required field for sighted users, such as an asterisk, but hide it from assistive technology using the aria-hidden="true" attribute.

Then there are two attributes we can use to programmatically define required fields: aria-required="true" and required.

Use one (not both) of these attributes to ensure required fields are conveyed appropriately to assistive technology. Screen readers will say required when announcing the form field name, role and state.

...
<label for="email">Your email<span aria-hidden="true">*</span></label>
<input type="email" id="email" name="email" aria-required="true">
...

The required attribute provides a first layer of form validation on submit. Many modern browsers will not submit a form with empty required fields and will even provide a visible error message.

a requried field in a web form that is empty and displays the message please fill out this form field.
Required field in Firefox for Windows

However, user agent error handling is not dependable as these error messages are not always announced or available to assistive technology; they can’t be styled or resized; and they are not persistent.

Handling errors

It’s important to provide a list of all errors at the top of the form or provide them in-context of the field in error. We can programmatically link the error message with the form field using the aria-describedby attribute.

...
<input type="email" id="email" name="email" aria-required="true" aria-describedby="error-email">
<p id="error-email">Email format email@domain.com</p>
...

When assistive technology users focus on the email field, the error message is announced along with the name, role and state of the field.

Verifying data

In addition to marking fields as required for assistive technology, we also have to indicate if the data entered into each field is valid. All required fields should also include the aria-invalid="true" attribute. Update this to “false” when it passes validation.

It’s also an accessibility requirement to make entering valid data as easy as possible. HTML has a set of autocomplete values that we need to use for any fields collecting personal information that might already be stored in the user’s browser. Email is one of these fields.

...
<input type="email" id="email" name="email" aria-required="true" aria-describedby="error-email" aria-invalid="true" autocomplete="email">
...

We can further enforce data validation in HTML for fields that aren’t necessarily required by using the pattern attribute that accepts a regular expression. Let’s create a field for collecting birthday with a required format of mm/dd/yyyy.

...
<input type="text" id="birthday" name="birthday" aria-describedby="help1" pattern="^\s*(1[012]|0?[1-9])\/(3[01]|[12][0-9]|0?[1-9])\/((?:19|20)\d{2})\s*$">
<p id="help1">Birthday format mm/dd/yyyy</p>
...

This pattern matching prevents the form from submitting if the data entered does not match the specified pattern.

Conclusion

I hope you found something to make your forms more accessible. I like forms because they have such a strong semantic structure. There are a lot of things to get right but it’s pretty straightforward what “right” means in this context: Make sure anything that is conveyed visually is also conveyed to assistive technology, including the states of form fields.