Bruce Lawson's personal site

Making accessible DocuSign forms

Last week I observed a blind screen reader user attempting to complete a legal document that had been emailed to them via DocuSign. This is a service that takes a PDF document, and turns it into a web page for a user to fill in and put an electronic signature to. The user struggled to complete a form because none of the fields had data labels, so whereas I could see the form said “Name”, “Address”, “Phone number”, “I accept the terms and conditions”, the blind user just heard “input, required. checkbox, required”.

Ordinarily, I’d dismiss the product as inaccessible, but DocuSign’s accessibility statement says “DocuSign’s eSignature Signing Experience conforms to and continually tests for GovernmentSection 508 and WCAG 2.1 Level AA compliance. These products are accessible to our clients’ customers by supporting Common screen readers” and had been audited by The Paciello Group, whom I trust.

So I set about experimenting by signing up for a free trial and authoring a test document, using Google Docs and exporting as a PDF. I then imported this into DocuSign and began adding fields to it. I noticed that each input has a set of properties (required, optional etc) and one of these is ‘Data Label’. Aha! HTML fields have a <label> associated with them (or should do), so I duplicated the text and sent the form to my Work Bezzie, Stinky Taylar, to test.

DocuSign's back-end to add fields to a PDF.

No joy. The labels were not announced. (It seems that the ‘data label’ field actually becomes a column header in the management report screen.) So I set about adding text into the other fields, and through trial and error discovered how to force the front-end to have audible data labels:

I think DocuSign is missing a trick here. Given the importance of input labels for screen readers, a DocuSign author should be prompted for this information, with an explanation of why it’s needed. I don’t think it would be too hard to find the text immediately preceeding the field (or immediately following it on the same line, in the case of radio/ checkboxes) and prefilling the prompt, as that’s likely to be the relevant label. Why go to all the effort to make an accessible product, then make it so easy for your customers to get it wrong?

Another niggle: on the front end, there is an invisible link that is visually revealed when tabbed to, and says “Press enter or use the screen reader to access your document”. However, the tester I observed had navigated directly to the PDF document via headings, and hadn’t tabbed to the hidden link. The ‘screenreader mode’ seemed visually identical to the default ‘hunt for help, cripples!” mode, so why not just have the accessible mode as the default?

All in all, it’s a good product, let down by poor usability and a ‘bolt-on’ approach. And, as we all know, built-in beats bolt-on. Bigly.

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