Accessibility and usability report for AtoM

Earlier this year I blogged about our recent upgrade to AtoM 2.4 and hinted at a follow up post on the subject of usability and accessibility.

AtoM is our Archives Management System and as well as being a system that staff use to enter information about the archives that we hold, it is also the means by which our users find out about our holdings. We care very much what our users think of it.

When we first released the Borthwick Catalogue (using AtoM 2.2) back in 2016 we were lucky enough to have some staff resource available to carry out a couple of rounds of user testing - this user testing is documented here and here.

We knew that some of the new features of AtoM 2.4 would help address issues that were raised by our users in these earlier tests. The addition of ‘shopping bag’ functionality in the form of the new clipboard feature, and the introduction of an advanced search by date range being two notable examples.

We did not have the capacity to carry out a similar user testing project when we upgraded to 2.4 but as a department committed to Customer Service Excellence we were very keen to consider our users as we rolled out the new version.

We decided to take a light touch approach to this problem and take advantage of the expertise of other colleagues across the University.

We approached our Marketing team with a request for support and were pleased that the Senior User Experience Designer was able to act as a critical friend, giving us a couple of hours of his time to take a look at our catalogue from a usability perspective and give us some feedback. Thanks!

A quick note:
We use a slightly customised version of the Dominion theme. Some of the issues raised will be relevant to other AtoM users (particularly those with the Dominion theme) and others are more specific to our own customisations (for example the colours we use on our interface).
The Borthwick Catalogue at
iPhone 5 size with browse button
partially visible

Mobile responsiveness

We have already done some work on mobile responsiveness but our usability guru highlighted that there was still work to do. At some screen sizes parts of the top navigation were cut off the screen. At other screen sizes a white block appears to the left of the search box. This appears to be an issue not limited to our AtoM instance.

One of the customisations we have is a footer (similar to that found on our website) at the bottom of every page. It was noted that at certain screen sizes (below 1200px) the right end of the footer is cut off.

I had some discussion with a technical colleague who supports AtoM and we agreed that whilst this isn’t a deal breaker, we would like it to be better. He is going to investigate this in more detail at a later date.

Our footer for the Borthwick Catalogue - with information on the right truncated at smaller screen sizes

Bold text not appearing on a Mac

When viewing our catalogue on a Mac, it was noted that text that should have been bold was not appearing as such. This is a minor irritation but again something we would like to investigate further.

Colour contrast

There was a fair amount of feedback on colour contrast and how this may be problematic for some of our users.

Specific areas of concern were:

  • The text colours we had specifically chosen for our theme - for example the light orange and grey in this example
The light orange and grey text that we use for our catalogue have may not stand out enough to be legible
  • The buttons (for example ‘search’ and ‘reset’) in this example look a little faded.

Buttons in AtoM use subdued colours which may cause problems for some users
  • The clipboard notification bubble in the top menu bar is blue on dark grey. There were concerns about the visibility of this.
Lack of contrast between the blue and dark grey here

I need to try and find some more suitable (stronger) colours for our theme. Never an easy task but the WebAIM colour contrast checker is my friend!

Colour alone used to indicate links

It was noted that colour was the only method of indicating that some of the text within the interface was a link. 

This is not too much of a problem in some areas of the site (for example in the navigation bar on the left where it is more obvious that this will be linked text) but particularly when included in the static pages this could be problematic for some users.

An example of how colour is used to indicate links in our static pages - these visual clues will not be apparent to some users

Alt text for images

Alt text gives visually impaired users a description of an image on a website and is particularly necessary if an image conveys important information. Read more about alt text here.

The images within the AtoM interface (for example in the static pages) utilise the image filename as the alt text.

Having a file name as alt text is not always very helpful. It would be better to have no alt text if the images are purely illustrative or to allow AtoM administrators to add their own alt text to those images that do convey important information.

There doesn’t appear to be a method of including alt text in AtoM currently. It would be helpful if the syntax to include an image in static pages supported an additional alt text argument. 

Living in hope, I tried to include some alt text for an image within the static pages but unfortunately this was not picked up when the page was rendered in the web browser.

Login button

There is a login button in the top right corner of AtoM. This is because staff use the same interface to create records in AtoM as users use to search and browse. By logging in, staff have access to information and features that are not available to other users (for example the accessions records, draft records and import and export options).

A user coming to our catalogue may see the login button and wonder if they need to login in order to unlock additional functionality or perhaps to enable them to save their session or the contents of their clipboard.

By default the login button on the AtoM interface is simply labelled 'Log in'. I discussed with colleagues and the AtoM mailing list how we could avoid confusion for users and we talked through several different options.

For now we have taken the quick approach of altering the label on the button so it now reads 'Admin Login'. This makes it clearer to our users that the feature is not intended for them. 

Artefactual later announced that they had been able to carry out some work to resolve our problem and have added the log in button to the Visible Elements module of AtoM - enabling adminstrators to configure whether they want to show or hide the button to unauthenticated users. This will be available in AtoM 2.5 - thanks Artefactual!

Clipboard feature

A couple of comments were made about the clipboard functionality. 

Firstly, that users may be confused by the fact that the clipboard can appear to be empty if for example you have been collecting Authority Records rather than Archival Descriptions. As the clipboard shows Archival Descriptions by default, it is not immediately obvious that you may need to change the entity type in order to see the items you have selected. 

Secondly that the feedback available to users when adding or removing items from the clipboard is not always clear and consistent. When viewing a list of results the clipboard icon just changes colour to indicate an item has been added.

The small clipboard icon on the right of each item in a list changes colour when you add or remove the item

However, when on a archival description or authority record page, there is also a text prompt which helps explain to the user what the icon is for and what action is available. This is much more helpful for users, particularly if they haven't used an AtoM catalogue or encountered the clipboard feature before.

When viewing a record, the clipboard icon to the right is much clearer and more user friendly

So, some useful food for thought here. It is always good to be aware of potential usability and accessibility issues and to open up discussions about how things could be improved.

I hope these findings are of interest to other AtoM users.

Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist


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