Timing and timeouts: accessibility for developers

  • Author: Access iQ ®
  • Date: 1 Feb 2013
  • Access: Premium

Quick facts

A number of interactions users have with websites are governed by time limits.

  • Consider different options for approaching timeouts
  • Allow the user to extend the time limit or turn it off altogether

A number of interactions users have with websites are governed by time limits. These fall into two main categories:

  1. A time limit placed on completing a specific activity.
  2. A time out of a connection to a service.

Asking the user to select and pay for concert tickets within 15 minutes is an example of the former, ending the user's session with an online banking app after some activity is an example of the latter.

Reasons for creating these conditions vary but they likely arise from a need for security, managing up-to-date stock levels, or simply to restrict the number of concurrent connections through a secure port.

A retailer with a limited supply of a product may want to reserve one unit for that particular shopper until they commit to paying for it, or the owner of a website may assume a person who has not interacted with the site has left and closing the connection keeps that person's account better secured.

A screenshot of a timer counting down from 15 minutes during which the user must complete registration.

To people with disabilities, these timed connections present more difficulties than for people without disabilities. For example, if a blind person is booking concert tickets and it is counting down the time available, depending on how this has been technically achieved, they may not be aware the timer is running. To other people with more cognitive disabilities, seeing a timer onscreen may induce more stress than required for the relative importance of the task at hand.

The problem is that time limits tend to be defined according to averages: the average user's average time required to complete the average action. To make your website accessible to people with disabilities, you must accommodate the needs of people who are not average, including:

  • Blind people
  • People with low vision
  • People with limited dexterity, either permanent or temporary
  • People with cognitive limitations
  • People with reading and learning disabilities
  • People using new or unfamiliar equipment
  • People who may be in a distracting or noisy place
  • People using old equipment or on a very slow connection (dialup or weak signal 3G)

The list is not exhaustive but it does highlight that there is a very wide range of people who will be affected by a timed event.

WCAG 2.0 includes several success criteria designed to ensure that people with disabilities have enough time to complete the actions required by a website.

In order to meet the criterion, several techniques are available, geared towards letting users adjust the length of any timed connection. It may seem counter-intuitive to have a process set a time limit then allow the user to modify it, but allowing the modification allows the timing to pass the success criterion under Success Criterion 2.2.2 Timing adjustable.

Removing all timing constraints is required to meet Level AAA conformance under the Success Criterion 2.2.3 No timing. But if timing is still considered important for business reasons, or you cannot convince the site owners to remove it completely, there are still ways to manage the timing of events and still have an accessible website.

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