A few weeks ago I kicked off our series on the Bb Blog about Accessibility. Today I want to talk to you in more detail about heading structures and why they matter to users with disabilities and more specifically, to screen reader users.
In a recent follow up survey of screen readers users conducted by WebAIM, it was concluded that while there are "no typical screen reader users" there are some trends in how they navigate and consume content on the web. One such trend, discovered in the initial WebAIM survey and confirmed the following fall, was that over half of screen reader users use the heading structure to orient themselves with a page, find a specific section of content or navigate through a more complex web application.
Starting with Release 9.0 and improved upon in Release 9.1, the heading structure in Blackboard Learn has been carefully designed to allow users to quickly gain an understanding of the content on any page in a consistent manner. Blackboard Learn has many page types ranging from module pages, containing multiple 'boxes' of information, to form pages where students and teachers need to enter and submit content. On module pages, the title of each module is an H3 so that a user can easily jump to the content of interest. Most pages inside a Course or Organization use an H1 to identify the title of the page. This is followed by a hidden H2 for the course menu, the group menu, and the overall content on the page. Additionally, the title of every content item is an H3 enabling students to quickly find the relevant assignment or lecture the teacher has posted to the course. When creating content and using forms, H3s are used to break the form into different sections and aid users in finding the appropriate information.
To recap, the basic structure of headings in Bb Learn is to use H1s to identify the page, H2s to break the page into appropriate sections and H3s to identify specific content elements or form sections. Once users are familiar with this heading structure, moving between and consuming the content on various page types becomes more fluid and more efficient.
Based on the research done at WebAIM and feedback from the clients we work with, it is clear that a solid heading structure is one of the basic keys to an accessible interface. But headings do more than just help users with disabilities. Headings help all users to focus their attention and quickly find the area of the page most relevant to the task at hand. So yes, headings do matter!