A new website has been launched to help developers design sites which are more user friendly for disabled computer users.

The Usability Exchange website - usabilityexchange.com - has been backed both by Orange and the Royal National Institute for the Blind.

It has been set up Phone-Anything, the award-winning phone information service headed by managing director Stefan Haselwimmer.

The launch comes as the British Standards Institution (BSI) unveils new guidance (PAS 78) for those who commission or maintain websites, to ensure that any site they make or maintain is userfriendly for disabled people.

The Usability Exchange allows website developers to receive direct feedback from disabled people regarding the accessibility and usability of their websites - developers can even watch testers attempt to navigate their website through the use of remote viewing software.

According to PAS 78, website managers should conduct regular user testing with disabled people to ensure their websites are accessible. The PAS 78 guidelines stress the importance of disabled user involvement when developing and testing an accessible web-site: "User testing provides the best evidence of a website's accessibility."

Julie Howell, RNIB digital policy development manager, said: "PAS 78 reminds website designers to consult disabled people and involve them in testing their designs at every stage of the site development cycle.

"Research published by the Disability Rights Commission in 2004 showed that testing with disabled users may uncover 45 per cent more accessibility problems than testing with software alone."

However, finding a range of disabled testers to perform user testing can be difficult, and administering usability tests and collecting feedback can be extremely time-consuming.

The creators of the Usability Exchange website says it provides a pool of testers and manages the entire testing and feedback process - offering website developers the first simple, fast and cost-effective way to include disa-bled people in the website development process.

The site has already been tested with disabled users and public and private sector organisations including Royal Mail, Orange, Fortune-Cookie, Adult Dyslexia Organisation, Scottish Parliament, Wandsworth Council and Leicestershire Council.

The Disability Rights Commission will also be trialling the Usability Exchange service from April.

David Burden, Royal Mail group chief information officer, said: "We're delighted to have had the opportunity to work with the Usability Exchange to help shape the development of its new webbased service.

"Our goal is to make our products and services as easy to use for all our customers as possible, and the hands-on usability testing of our sites by disabled users that the Usability Exchange product offers will be invaluable in helping achieve this."

Bill Wessel, usability analyst at Orange UK, also said: "We are keen to ensure our products are accessible by all users. The Usability Exchange offers a simple and effective way for us to test our products with users who are disabled."

The Usability Exchange website will be particularly relevant to public sector bodies who will have a duty to consult disabled people under the new Disability Equality Duty.

Simon Whitworth, of Wandsworth Council, said: "Like other public sector organisations, Wandsworth Council is constantly working to improve the accessibility of

our information. While auto-mated accessibility testing is useful in this regard, there can be no substitute for testing a website with disabled users.

"The Usability Exchange provides a fast and effective way for us to hear what disabled users think of our websites - we get real users' feedback directly and can work with these users to identify and resolve any accessibility or usability issues that might arise."

Through the Usability Exchange, website developers can create simple or complex usability tests and submit them to a range of disabled users.

Once a test has been submitted to testers, organisations can monitor users' feedback in real time, with some testers providing feedback within hours of being contacted.

All testers receive payment for testing websites, offering a flexible source of income for disabled testers.

Stefan Haselwimmer, who originally thought up the site two years ago, said: "We were talking to local authorities about accessibility and were surprised by how few had tested their websites with disabled users.

"Most councils wanted to carry out disabled-user testing but didn't know how to get hold of disabled testers or how to conduct usability tests. At the same time we knew lots of disabled people happy to test websites.

"The idea behind the Usability Exchange was to create a platform where organisations could communicate directly with disabled people to improve website accessibility." ..SUPL: