Off the Top: Accessibility Entries
This week I was down in Raleigh, North Carolina to speak at National Extension Technology Conference (NETC) 2008, which is for the people running the web and technology components for what used to be the agricultural extension of state universities, but now includes much more. This was a great conference to connect with people trying to bring education, information, and knowledge services to all communities, including those in rural areas where only have dial-up connectivity to get internet access. The subject matter presented is very familiar to many other conferences I attend and present at, but with a slightly different twist, they focus on ease of use and access to information for everybody and not just the relatively early adopters. The real values of light easy to use interfaces that are clear to understand, well structured, easy to load, and include affordance in the initial design consideration is essential.
I sat in on a few sessions, so to help tie my presentation to the audience, but also listen to interest and problems as they compare to the organizations I normally talk to and work with (mid-size member organizations up to very large global enterprise). I sat in on a MOSS discussion. This discussion about Sharepoint was indiscernible from any other type of organization around getting it to work well, licensing, and really clumsy as well as restrictive sociality. The discussion about the templates for different types of interface (blogs and wikis) were the same as they they do not really do or act like the template names. The group seemed to have less frustration with the wiki template, although admitted it was far less than perfect, it did work to some degree with the blog template was a failure (I normally hear both are less than useful and only resemble the tools in name not use). [This still has me thinking Sharepoint is like the entry drug for social software in organizations, it looks and sounds right and cool, but is lacking the desired kick.]
I also sat down with the project leads and developers of an eXtension wide tool that is really interesting to me. It serves the eXtension community and they are really uncoupling the guts of the web tools to ease greater access to relevant information. This flattening of the structures and new ways of accessing information is already proving beneficial to them, but it also has brought up the potential to improve ease some of the transition for those new to the tools. I was able to provide feedback that should provide a good next step. I am looking forward to see that tool and the feedback in the next three to six months as it has incredible potential to ease information use into the hands that really need it. It will also be a good example for how other organizations can benefit from similar approaches.
Comments are open (with usual moderation) at this post at Getting Info into the Field with Extension :: Personal InfoCloud.
One of the people I have met this past year and come to know better through traveling to and from Web Directions 2006 and hanging with at d.construct is Derek Featherstone. His presentations on the subject of accessibility are the best I have ever seen. The past year I have not had the opportunity to think, talk about, or develop around the subject of web accessibility (I had thought of this as a good thing, but I will explain that shortly) other than as an extension of semantically well structured information, which most conference I have been speaking at are related to in one form or another.
Derek is one of the first presenters that digs deep into accessibility beyond a set of rules, but also looks at usability for those with accessibility needs as the baseline for building great sites that work for all. He frames his presentations not as accessibility is for "them", but as it is for all of us. This focus is astoundingly refreshing and rare.
Lastly, Derek's presentation style is light and easy, which bring many people who are put off my accessibility into listening and learning. It is a great thing to watch people gain interest as he presents about a subject they did not care about. But even better is when they start talking about they now have a good framework to think about and approach accessibility does the power of Derek's presentation style and deep knowledge make a the subject come to life.
Granted I have not been reading much around accessibility for the past year, although I have had some great discussions about it with Matt May and Christian Heilmann at various points this year along the lines of rich interfaces and caring about those with accessibility needs. My lack of interest is not because I do not care about accessibility, but I have been burned out from dealing with the politics of accessibility in the U.S. Federal Government. I enjoyed working with the webmasters on the government side, but outside of that it was really painful. Most people would go out of their way to make unusable, poorly structured, semantically incorrect, let alone unaccessible sites just because they were told to make a site accessible. The long battles, even with those charged with caring and ensuring accessibility, made me very happy not to have to deal with accessibility for quite a while. Since you can get about 90 percent of the way to accessibility with just semantically well structured XHTML mark-up, which is the mark of any decent web developer, I have not considered the subject much beyond that in over a year.
Derek's presentations and our long discussions regarding semantically well structured information as the basis for everything that has improved the web in the past few years, brought me back to enjoying the subject of accessibility. In saying this I am more sure now that those who wrote the U.S. Section 508 regulations and those on the Access Board have failed those who needed real accessibility so they could partake in this freedom of information we embrace.
I am back home from the d.construct trip, which included London and Brighton. The trip was very enjoyable, the d.construct conference is a pure winner, and I met fantastic people that keep my passion for the web alive.
Jeff Barr provided not only a good overview of the Amazon offerings for developers, but his presentation kept me interested (the previous 2 times my mind wandered) and I got some new things out of it (like the S3 Organizer extension for Firefox.
Jeremy was his usual great presenting form (unfortunately a call from home caused me to miss the some of the middle, but he kept things going well and I heard after that many people learned something from the session, which they thought they knew it all already.
Paul and Simon did a wonderful tag team approach on what Yahoo is up to and how they "eat their own dog food" and how the Yahoo Local uses microformats (Wahoo!).
Aral was somebody I did not know before d.construct, but I really enjoyed getting to know him as well as his high energy presentation style and mastery of the content that showed Flash/Flex 2.0 are fluent in Web 2.0 rich interfaces for web services.
I can not comment on my own presentation, other than the many people what sought me out to express appreciation, and to ask questions (many questions about spamming, which is difficult if the tagging system is built well). I was also asked if I had somebody explain the term dogging (forgetting there was a rather bawdy use of the term in British culture and using the term as those people who are dog lovers - this lead to very heavy laughter). Given the odd technical problems at the beginning of the presentation (mouse not clicking) things went alright about 5 minutes or so in.
Lastly, the man I never want to follow when giving a presentation, Jeff Veen rocked the house with his easy style and lively interaction with his slides.
I am really wanting to hear much more from Aral and Derek now that I have heard them speak. I am looking forward to seeing their slides up and their podcasts, both should be posted on the d.construct schedule page.
The trip also included an overnight stay in London on the front and back end of the conference. Through an on-line resource I had two last minute rooms booked at Best Western Premiers that were great rooms in well appointed hotels. The hotels even had free WiFi (yes, free in Europe is a huge savings), which was my main reason for staying at these hotels I knew nothing about. I really like both locations, one near Earls Court Tube Station and the other Charing Cross Road and SoHo. The rooms were well under 200 U.S. dollars, which is a rarity in central London. I think I have a new place to track down then next time I visit London.
London People & Places
I had a few impromptu meetings in London and an accidental chat. When I first got in I was able to clean-up and go meet friends Tom and Simon for lunch at China Experience. We had good conversations about the state of many things web. Then Tom showed me Cyber Candy, which I have been following online. I was then off to Neal's Yard Dairy to pick-up some Stinking Bishop (quite excellent), Oggleshield, and Berkswell. I then did a pilgrimage to Muji to stock up on pens and all the while using Yahoo Messanger in a mobile browser (a very painful way to communicate, as there is no alert for return messages and when moving the web connection seems to need resetting often).
That evening I met up with Eric Miraglia for a great chat and dinner, then included Christian Heillmann (who has a great new book (from my initial read) on Beginning JavaSctipt with DOM Scripting and Ajax) in our evening. The discussions were wonderful and it was a really good way to find people of similar minds and interests.
On my last day in London I ended up running into Ben Hammersley as he was waiting for a dinner meeting. It was great to meet Ben in person and have a good brief chat. Somehow when walking down the street and seeing a man in a black utilikilt, with short hair, and intently using his mobile there are a short list of possibilities who this may be.
My trip I had a few full English breakfasts, including one in Brighton at 3:30am (using the term gut buster), which was my first full meal of the day. The breakfast at the Blanche House (the name of the hotel never stuck in my head and the keys just had their logo on them, so getting back to the hotel was a wee bit more challenging than normal) was quite good, particularly the scrambled eggs wrapped in smoked Scottish salmon. The food the first night in Brighton at the Seven Dials was fantastic and a great treat. Sunday brunch at SOHo Social in Brighton was quite good and needed to bring me back from another late night chatting, but the fish cakes were outstanding. The last evening in London I stopped in at Hamburger Union for a really good burger with rashers bacon. The burgers are made with only natural fed, grass-reared additive free beef. This is not only eco-friendly, but really tasty. I wish there were a Hamburger Union near where I work as I would make use of it regularly.
Too Short a Visit
As it is with nearly every trip this year, the time was too short and the people I met were fantastic. I really met some interesting and bright people while in Brighton and I really look forward to keeping in touch as well as seeing them again.
I also brought back to the link to just the Off the Top RSS feed, which has nothing but the last 10 entries in archaic RSS .91 format. I still am offering the wonderful Feedburner for Off the Top option, which has Off the Top entries, my del.icio.us entries, and my Flickr photo feed all bundled in one. I have quite a few people reading this in RSS on mobile devices at the moment and I thought I would make it easier for other that are going that route to get just the content of Off the Top.
Adobe buys Macromedia was not the news I wanted to wake up to this morning. My sole issue is competition, as with out these two competing there is little push to advance. This is not a huge surprise, as many rumors the last few years that Macromedia was on the block (most were expecting Microsoft to buy it and then spin out ColdFusion and the application tools to an outside buyer).
If this goes through, we have Dreamweaver/HomeSite as the dominant web development tool (it is making great strides towards standards compliant development and GoLive needs much more work), desktop publishing is Adobe only, market share of image editing and creation (Photoshop and Illustrator) go to Adobe, application development goes to Macromedia with ColdFusion, then we have the tough call with Flash and SVG. Flash is dominant, but SVG is open and Flash lite (for mobile) has really upset many developers as the player is up to the carrier and phone maker to deploy, not the content creator. This last step has really pushed many Flash developers away from Macromedia as they work to focus on mobile. Rumors that Adobe was working on a SVG mobile tool with open deployment had many developers for mobile really excited.
My hope would be for Macromedia customer service and pricing and Adobe Premium Suite with Dreamweaver and Flash thrown in for a well rounded package.
Today I gave my Accessibility is Little More Than Web Best Practices (124kb PDF) to the Adaptive Path User Experience Week 2004 DC attendees as a lunchtime presentation discussion. It was good to find folks that are in the DC area interested in Web Standards (a very big part of best practices) and figuring how to sell accessibility to their clients that are required by law to have accessible sites. This presentation is quite similar to my STC presentation, but has the addition of the few things that are required for accessibility that are not part of web best practices (these apply to tables and forms).
I have posted the Using Section 508 to Improve Internet Access to Information for Everybody presentation (in PDF) presented at the STC 51st Annual Conference. The session was a progressive panel on Section 508 (the U.S. law on accessibility for the U.S. Governemnt). The session focusses on the advantages of building accessible Internet information, which is very little more than using best practices for the Web. The presentation points out who else benefits from accessible sites, which is nearly everybody. But, the group the benefits the most is mobile users as accessible sites have all the optimization that mobile users need: Images can be abandoned; Navigation can be skipped; Users can use their keyboard to move about the page and site; The information linearizes properly; etc.
I will be speaking at STC in Baltimore (STC conference listed in Upcoming.org) on the subject of Using Section 508 to Improve Internet Access to Information for Everybody. It has been wild to watch people spend far more time and energy trying to shirk accessibility requirements than do what is needed. Meeting Section 508 (accessibility) requirements is rather easy, well for those that are even partially competent. One great benefit of accessible sites is the breadth of users that benefit from the steps taken to meet accessiblility requirements.
Oddly, there are those that are against meeting accessibility requirement. The only logical explanation is these people are not interested in getting their information into the hands of those that can use the information. Or another possible explaination is the producers of the information love irony.
Ironically, the FCC posts nearly all of its documents in PDF. Most of these documents are not even remotely accessible (accessibility is not fungible for 508 complient, as an item can be defined as accessible but still not meet Section 508 compliance, as accessibility is a very widely defined term). The irony is the organization that is behind pushing for mobile connectivity provides document that 95 percent of mobile users can not use on a mobile device. It seems the FCC just does not care (I would certainly hope they know better).
I had read the Arthur C Clarke Humanity will survive information deluge interview from OneWorld South Asia. I had pulled the print version of this article into AvantGo and read it on the train commute.
The article had some great insights into the flood of information. He pointed out that over time we have adapted our ways to cope and manage information. When the printing press was developed people wondered how they would ever keep up with everything and how they would ever read 1,000 books. Most opted not to read everything and became selective. The selection of reading benefitted the whole.
The interview does a wonderful job of highlighting responsibility and the challenges ahead. We have access to an extreme breadth of information and we must find ways to expand the access and accessibility to that information to all that are willing. Sir Clarke points out that not all technology is helpful and neither is there a technological solution for every problem, in fact technology can impinge progress.
I encourage you to read the article itself and get inspired.
There are two articles that are direct hits on managing information for the individual and allowing the individual to use the information when they needed it and share it as needed. Yes, this is in line with the Personal Information Cloud.
The first article, The inter-personal information manager (iPim) by Mark Sigal about the problem with users finding information and how the can or should be able to then manage that information. There are many problems with applications (as well as the information format itself) that inhibit users reuse of information. In the comments of the article there is a link to products that are moving forward with information clients, which also fit into the Personal Information Cloud or iPIM concept. (The Personal Information Cloud tools should be easily portable or mobile device enabled or have the ability to be retrieved from anywhere sent to any device.
The second article is from the MIT Technology Review (registration required) titled Trash Your Desktop about Mitch Kapor (of founding Lotus Development fame) and his Open Source project to build Chandler. Chandler is not only a personal information manager (PIM), but the tool is a general information manager that is contextually aware. The article not only focusses on Mitch and the product (due late 2004), but the open and honest development practices of those that are building Chandler at the Open Source Application Foundation for Windows, Mac, Linux, etc. distribution.
Tim Bray has posted an excellent essay on the state of Web browsers, which encompasses Netscape dropping browser development and Microsoft stopping stand alone browser development (development seemingly only for users MSN and their next Operating System, which is due out in mid-2005 at the earliest).
Tim points out users do have a choice in the browsers they choose, and will be better off selecting a non-Microsoft browser. Tim quotes Peter-Paul Koch:
[Microsoft Internet] Explorer cannot support today's technology, or even yesterday's, because of the limitations of its code engine. So it moves towards the position Netscape 4 once held: the most serious liability in Web design and a prospective loser.
This is becoming a well understood assessment from Web designers and application developers that use browsers for their presentation layer. Developers that have tried moving to XHTML with table-less layout using CSS get the IE headaches, which are very similar to Netscape 4 migraines. This environment of poor standards compliance is a world many Web developers and application developers have been watching erode as the rest of the modern browser development firms have moved to working toward the only Web standard for HTML markup.
Companies that develop applications that can output solid standards compliant (X)HTML are at the forefront of their fields (see Quark). The creators of content understand the need not only create a print version, but also digitally accessible versions. This means that valid HTML or XHTML is one version. The U.S Department of Justice, in its Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities report advises:
When posting documents on the website, always provide them in HTML or a text-based format (even if you are also providing them in another format, such as Portable Document Format (PDF)).
The reason is that HTML can be marked-up to provide information to various applications that can be used by those that are disabled. The site readers that read (X)HTML content audibly for those with visual disabilities (or those having their news read to them as they drive) base their tools on the same Web standards most Web developers have been moving to the past few years. Not only to the disabled benefit, but so do those with mobile devices as most of the mobile devices are now employing browsers that comprehend standards compliant (X)HTML. There is no need to waste money on applications that create content for varied devices by repurposing the content and applying a new presentation layer. In the digital world (X)HTML can be the one presentation layer that fits all. It is that now.
Ginny Redish and Mary Frances Theofanos have written Observing Users Who Listen to Web Sites article for the STC Usability SIG Newsletter. This article is a great insight into how blind and partially sited individuals interact with Web Sites that are being read to them by devices. This is a must read article.
This article helps developers understand how auditory reader users consume information. There are many similarities to users how use their eyes, but some of the devices we commonly use to assist auditory readers, like skip navigation, are not used as many developers think. The accessibility assistive technologies are still needed and still requested, as thie article points out. This article provides a great insight for those people who do not have a sight challenged user to learn from and to test their products with. Those who do not actually test their work or have never seen their work tested can only guess what is going on. This article helps developers get insight that helps us develop for accessibility from step one, which is where we must be thinking of accessibility.
I awaiting Jeffrey Zeldman's Designing with Web Standards, which is available for order from Amazon (Designing with Web Standards). I have been a believer in designing with Web Standards for years, but it was Jeffrey that pushed me over the edge to evangelist for Web standards. One of the best things going for Web standards is it make validation of markup easy, which is one of the first steps in making a Web site accessible.
I work in an environment that requires Web standard compliance as it provides information to the public as a public good. Taxpayers have coughed up their hard earned dollars to pay for research and services, which are delivered to them on the Web. The public may access information from a kiosk in an underfunded library with a donated computer on a dial-up connection, but they can get to information that they are seeking. The user may be disabled and relying on assistive technology to read the public information. The user may be tracking down information from a mobile device as they are travelling across country on their family vacation. Each of these users can easily get the public information they are seeking from one source, a standard compliant Web page.
Every new page that is developed by the team I am on validates to HTML 4.01 transitional. Why 4.01 transitional and not XHTML? We support older browsers and 4.01 transitional seems to have pretty good access to information no matter the browser or device. We are not on the cutting edge, but we know nearly everybody can get the information their tax dollars have paid for. I dream of a day job building XHTML with full CSS layout, but with the clients I work for we still aim at the public good first.
I am very happy that Jeffrey has his book coming out as it should bring to light to more developers what it means to build to Web standards. Every contract that is signed buy the agency I work for must validate to HTML 4.01 transitional, but very few of the sites do when they come through the door to be posted. We provide a lot of guidance to help other developers understand, but finding a solid foundation to work upon is tough. When hiring folks many claim to have experience building valid sites, but most soon realize they never have to the degree to getting a W3C validation.
Building our pages to 4.01 does not mean we are going to stick with 4.01 forever. We plan for XHTML by closing all tags and stay away from tags deprecated in 4.01 strict. Much of what we create only needs a few scripts run to convert the pages from HTML to XHTML 1.1 transitional. Having the closing tags makes scripting to find information and search and replace much easier. (Enough for now, buy the book, we will have more later).
Jeff Veen discusses the Macromedia attempt at accessibility for Flash in his most recent post. Flash MX is a great improvement, but still is not all the way to accessibility, and can still keep a well done site from meeting Section 508 compliance. One of the big downsides of the current Flash build is using Flash mixed in a page with HTML. A user must have the ability to use alternate methods to move around a page, which means with out a mouse. This is often done with tabbing or voice commands. Flash does now have the capability to replicate what has been done for years in HTML, but if you add a Flash element into a HTML page the focus never releases from the Flash component. A user can not tab anywhere or even escape from the page as the cursor is stuck. If the person could use a mouse this would not be a problem, but that is not what leads to compliance.
If you use mobile devices the Flash interface is a miserable experience as Flash is vector based and will shrink to fit the screen size. Imagine trying to use a screen designed for 800 pixels wide on a 220 wide mobile screen. Forget it.
The forms in Flash are not quite ready for prime time either. I was at a rack server trying to update information in a Flash form on the Macromedia site and I was tabbing because the hyper trackball was horrible. Flash walked me down the page, but the focus moved under the bottom scroll bar with out bringing the screen focus up so I could see the form box I was having to deal with. This is flat out unacceptable, as HTML has had this right for years. Not only that, but I had a validation error and the alert was placed at the top of the Flash screen and out of site as it had scrolled up. The ability to scroll or move the screen until the alert was clicked was disabled, this took expanding the screen to full size to click the bottom of a button on the alert that I could not read.
Flash needs a motto like, "Flash -- the tool that gives uneducated interface developers the ability to create unusable forms and user experiences just to have buttons and scroll bars with indiscernible color shades" or "Flash -- for interfaces you don't want people to use"
Macromedia seems to have taken large strides with Flash, but then just stepped right over the cliff.
Owen broke the news today that glasshaus books is gone. So is its parent company Wrox books and all the other imprints from this publisher. Matt has very kind words to say about glasshaus and I will concur that they were wonderful to review books for. I looked in to my work bag and found two of my five reference books that travel from home and work are glasshaus (Cascading Style Sheets: Separating Content from Presentation which is a great book to get to understand CSS1, CSS2, and the box model, and Constructing Accessible Web Sites a great reference book on accessibility). I have a few others that I get great use from also, including Usability: The Site Speaks for Itself as an overal inspiration book for redesigns and understanding the use of various pages.
A few years ago I was picking up Wrox books left and right. I have a few ASP, PHP, UML, and XML books (some that have migrated to boxes in the basement as I do not use or prefer that language at the moment. On the whole Wrox and glasshaus had great authors that really communicate well and create books that are very useful as resources and good reads.
My trip to bookstores in Florida had me seeing what the person on the street sees as computer books, "Dummies" guides. There were eight shelves of Dummies computer books with a handful of Microsoft publisher books thrown in for color variation.
When I returned home I took a trip to Barnes and Noble and found the computer Web section filled with GUI tool books (Dreamweaver, FrontPage, GoLive, etc.) where there were shelves of HTML, DHTML, CSS, Perl, proper design (by Zeldman and Veen), or Information Architecture books. This trend worried me more than what I saw in Florida. The GUI books did not get into proper markup or understanding of information. The books were concerned with how to make better use of more bandwidth. Not one place in the many books I pulled off the shelf did I see any mention of the user or information use (let alone information reuse). The beauty of learning how to develop properly is knowing when the GUI tools are wrong, but better is knowing what is built properly will work well on broadband and on mobile devices. If the information is important and cared about it should be made available, accessible, and usable.
I began reading Smart Mobs by Howard Rheingold the past few days. It is a fantastic book that covers a lot of ground, including free riders, game theory, mobile technology, information creation, and information use and reuse. The book is proving to be an excellent follow-on to Steven Johnson's Emergence. The two books are wonderful mind-joggers and fodder for new preceptions about information, technology, and the world around us. A trait that both share is excellent bibliographies and end-notes (the end notes in both books were not very user friendly and would seem to be structured for hypertexting and not paper books).
These two books put the focus on being future friendly, which does not mean any thing new, but reinforces my belief in properly structured information. Information use and reuse are the key elements in both books, which embrace bottom-up information creation and knowledge sharing. The need for access to information drives Smart Mobs, whether it is to grow open development or for mobile use access is important. The best access environment we have in place at the moment is valid HTML/XHTML that is used to properly structure the information.
This also requires thinking through every pixel on a Web page and understanding its purpose. Understanding the user will help provide a framework for building information interfaces. The information/content should take importance also that is why users are reading, not the entertaining graphics. Keep in mind we structured information can be reused on mobile devides that may not use your images, information may be scraped and repurposed, information may be printed, or read aloud to a person using a site reader while they are driving or read to a person with visual difficulties.
You may want to get your hands on either or both books and take a look for yourself and you may be inspired in new ways or have your beliefs in information and its used renewed.
I was reminded today of Marcus a persona in Mark Pilgrim's Accessibility tutorial for Weblogs (and anybody else interested). Marcus is actually a real person (as pointed out by Mark), which drives the persona home. This may be my favorite example currently for accessibility.
At work we constantly get outside developers turning over non-accessible sites or applications. The client I work for is put through the painful task of explaining what needs to be done to meet Section 508 requirements. The teeth pulling the client goes through is shameful as the outside contractors want every single item spelled out and they want to know why (they usually have built the application or site through reusing a previous product built by somebody that is no longer there and that way they can do the job cheaply and make a better profit, had they built from the beginning knowing and understanding the requirements it would have been easy and inexpensive to do). Often times I am asked to help define what needs to be done and why something fails compliance, usually as a sanity check (accessibility has been an area of strength for four years or more). The regulations are very broad and do not define the exact actions that should be avoided (this is the correct approach to allow for technological improvements).
Marcus is a great example to have on the shelf as much of the information I work with during the day is public information that the taxpayers paid for, whether they are sighted, physically able, have their hearing, or not. We know that there is a decent number of users that come to government sites from publicly available systems (like in libraries) that have technology that is nowhere near current. These people should be able to get to the information and use the information and applications around it as others can use it. Marcus is usually what we see as worse case scenarios using Lynx, but also what we think of as our baseline. Knowing Marcus exists and is really helps greatly.
There is also a benefit side to building accessible information, it is future ready information. The information that is fully accessible is ready to use with no (or is rare cases slight) modification on mobile devices. This is the wonderful thing about building accessible information. One of the first steps is building information that validates to a standard. The next thing is separating style from the content by using style sheets, which make it easy to over ride any style that is problematic or to easily allow for scalable styles. This two helps create information that is future compatible. Accessible information can also be easily reused in from its presentation as it is built to standards that ease.
Accessible information is also structured properly. Structuring information properly is far more than how it looks, it is how is marked up. A header on a Web page has an "h1, h2, etc" tag around it, which eases the ability to build a table of contents or use that header as a contextual aid to summarize the information below it (that is if headers are tagged properly and the content in the header is properly descriptive). Structuring the information helps the information be reusable out of the Web page as that is what HTML does, provides structure elements in the markup tags. If information to be reused has needs (including structure and context that is easily discernible), which validating HTML provides as a basic foundation -- of course there is much that can be improved upon the basic HTML markup, but it addresses the information needs. Building accessible information applications (Web sites included) keeps money from being wasted in the future and it does not require buying a third-party application, which are often cause more problems than they solve where accessibility is concerned (this will not always be the case).
As Joe Clark's book, Building Accessible Websites points out accessible does not mean ugly or plain. Joe walks the reader through how to make beautiful sites that are also wonderfully to folks like Marcus (side note: Mark Pilgrim edited Joe's book). Another excellent book on accessibility, and is my favorite book on accessibility, as it works very well for Web application developers (and I agree with its approach to information in complex tables more than Joe's approach) is Accessible Web Sites. These are two great resources for leaning how to do things properly. I will be working on longer reviews of each in the near future.
The GlassHaus Constructing Accessible Web Sites book has been a great find. I began working to build sites and applications for use in Web browsers that had to be used by individuals with disabilities in 1997. Over these years I picked up a lot of hard won knowledge and experience, but have never run across a resource that fully backed what I had gathered. The GlasHaus Accessibility book not only echoes what I have learned, but has provided new insights to improve upon what I already have. The best part of this book is that I can point others to it and I am assured they will be able to build an accessible site or Web applications that can meet high standards.
Many folks think accessibility is a great inconvenience, but it takes a little thinking and planning to do it right from the beginning. Having a great resource at hand makes the process a cake walk. Not only are the processes and guides helpful for creating sites that are accessible for those that are disabled these steps outlined also make the information in the site future ready. Sites that are accessible are much easier to use with a handheld PDA device or from even a cell phone browser. Accessibility for everybody in more situations improves with structuring the information properly, which is all making Web enabled information really requires to get it ready to be consumed. Is your information ready to be consumed by everybody?
I have been missing a lot of things on the Web the past few weeks. I just found Steve Champeon's article on the importance of understanding mark-up over at Web Monkey. HTML markup, some call it HTML code (not correct), helps structure information so that it can be used and reused properly in the proper context. This is extremely important when you are trying to add style to the content, such as adding the desired size and weight to a header or modify positioning to an unordered list. I see a lot of HTML tags that are not used properly in the work we clean-up on a regular basis. There are very few applications, like MS Word that come close to using HTML markup properly. Cleaning up application generated markup is demoralizing as getting markup right in the first place is easier than having to clean up the mess made. Go read Steve's article and anything else you can put your hands on that he has written and you will be much better off than before, believe me.
Why is markup important? Many folks and applications try styling the information without considering the structure of the information. If you have much of a background in communication, journalism, information science, etc. you understand that information needs structure. There are headers that indicate to the user what the content and tone of the content that follows will contain. There are many elements on a page that need structure, like knowing where a paragraph begins and ends, where in the body of text an image should be tied, words that need to stand out (strong), a string of items in a list, or a structured ordered list with sub-elements. Not having thes information properly marked up would make understanding how to best treat that information very difficult. This may seem irrelevant to those that only deal with a Web browser, but if you want to read the informaiton on a PDA, print the information and use the best styling for reading, or need a screen reader to vocalize the words on the page and give the words that compise the information being communicated the same understanding you need structured information. It would be like trying to bake a cake with out sides on the pan, the cake needs structure to rise and be best consumed. People that guide you away from properly strucutring information, more often than not are not informed on the need and the benefits to structuring information.
A stop in to the local bookstore today has been strongly considering Constructing Accessible Web Sites and Usability: The Site Speaks for Itself both are Glasshaus imprints and seemingly very well written and well produced. The accessibility book covers a topic that is tough to get ones mind around initially and the book handles the topic wonderfully. I have been working with the accessibilty issue for a few years now and the book points out some areas that were of a help to me.
I balk a little at the hefty price of the books, which means I will be buying them on discount or sale. I know some of the folks that have contributed to the books, which helps me justify the costs, but not everybody is me. If the cost were a little lower, say a 30 U.S. dollar price point, it would be easier to buy a couple or more and hand them out to folks that really need them. The accessibility issue book is one that really needs a lower price point, but I know there are solid methods for pricing the books just under 50 U.S. dollars.
One thing that I have had the benefit of viewing and discussing while at SXSWi is Flash. Folks from Macromedia have shown their soon to be released version of Flash. Flash MX (as it is named) has some very good new features, in its providing common Web development objects to help developers create scroll bars and the like very easily. The application seems to provide object or extensions to Flash that streamline the process to building something usable and consistent in Flash.
The best new feature of Flash is content can now be made accessible for those with sight disabilities. This is greatly helpful as Flash is largely a visual information development and presentation tool. The information is now usable by site readers that read information aloud stored in Flash. This has been a large hinderance for many folks who would like to adopt Flash into their development tool belt, but had restrictions that limited the use of Flash because it locked out a segment of the users who had visual disabilities.
There is one large element in Flash that is completely disappointing still. The information is not accessible for reuse. All Flash can provide is visual information presentation, which restricts a user's ability to copy and paste or to have the information machine readable. The information is locked in an unusable format for these purposes. What does this affect? If a hotel provides their phone number and address in their Flash presentation the user can not copy and paste the information out into their PIM (Outlook, Access, Palm desktop, etc.), to an e-mail, or text message that the user could read from their PDA or cell phone (given messaging capabilities). The user would also be restricted from grabbing the information to put together a matrix from which to make decisions or to supply to others to make their comparisons. The locking of information in Flash requires the user to retype the information provided, which introduces the ability for errors in the information that was carefully crafted.
Not only do human users have the inability to re-purpose the information, which is a great benefit to those providing the information, but machines are precluded from accessing the information. If the same hotel wants to be included in their city's chamber of commerce listing on the CCoC Web site the hotel information can not be easily extracted by the CCoC as it could be from HTML (using an id tag) or XML. The information is locked again in an unusable and un-reusable format. The creators of the content lose, and could possibly lose big by not having information that is easily reused. This becomes increasingly important with the growing use of Web Services that rely on machine readable or machine accessible information.
Why the hotel scenario? Macromedia used the hotel demonstration to highlight some of their great new features. As I watched the presentation I kept wondering if the information was still unusable for purposes other than reading or having the information read to the user. It was later confirmed the information was still un-reusable, but Macromedia is also aware of this strong down side to the information presentation and is working hard at fixing the issues.
There is one element in Adobe Acrobat that does not meet the Government's 508 compliance, if this is the yard stick being used for accessibility. The area of non-compliance is complex tables. PDF tags only have TABLE, TR, TH, and TD tags available, which do not accept scope. Scope is what helps the complex tables become compliant in HTML. The only acceptable method for providing information in complex tables is HTML, at this point. One work around is to make the complex tables attachments or addendum and remove them from the original document (should the complex tables be provided in PDF format) and only supply them in HTML.
To keep it clear a complex table is one that has more than one set of header rows and often one of the header rows would span a selection of other rows. An example would be a table showing fiscal quarters of the year and the months that fall within these quarters, which would then show rows of related numbers. The top two rows create a complex header as each quarter header spans three rows and defines the months directly below them. Voice readers will capture these relationships quite well with the use of "scope tags" in HTML (this would look like <th scope="col"> for header tags and <td scope="row" in the first cell of the table's rows). Unfortunately, PDF does not have a corresponding tag.
I also pointed out that the more current Web browsers permit using CSS with printer designations that allow for a better representation of the information. This would help those people build one application, whether it be a Website or a PDF that prints in the desired manner and is accessible.
This may help keep yourself and your readers in the clear if 508 is their standard upon, which their accessibility work is being performed. Unfortunately there are no compliance standards, only guidelines. But, for most federal government organizations it is meet all of the targets to be compliant. 508 is a pass/fail hurdle.
Further information on 508 may be found at www.usability.gov/accessibility/index.html.
Content management is back at the forefront of every aspect of my digital life again. Content management revolves around keeping information current, accurate, and reusable (there are many more elements, but these cut to the core of many issues). Maintaining Websites and providing information resources on the broader Internet have revolved around static Web pages or information stored in MS Word, PDF files, etc. Content management has been a painful task of keeping this information current and accurate across all these various input and output platforms. This brings us to content management systems (CMS).
As I pointed to earlier, there are good resources for getting and understanding CMS and how our roles change when we implement a CMS. Important to understanding is the separation of content (data and information), from the presentation (layout and style), and from the application (PDF, Web page, MS Word document, etc.). This requires an input mechanism, usually a form that captures the information and places it in is data/information store, which may be a database, XML document, or a combination of these. This also provides for a workflow process that involved proofing and editing the information along with versioning the information.
Key to the CMS is separation of content, which means there needs to be a way to be a method of keeping links aside from the input flow. Mark Baker provides a great article, What Does Your Content Management System Call This Guy about how to handle links. Links are an element that separates the CMS-lite tools (Blogger, Movable Type, etc.) from more robust CMS (other elements of difference are more expansive workflow, metadata capturing, and content type handling (images, PDF, etc. and their related metadata needs)). Links in many older systems, often used for newspaper and magazine publications (New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle) placed their links outside of the body of the article. The external linking provided an easy method of providing link management that helps ensure there are no broken links (if an external site changes the location (URL) it there really should only be one place that we have to modify that link, searching every page looking for links to replace). The method in the Baker article outlines how many current systems provide this same service, which is similar to Wiki Wiki's approach. The Baker outlined method also will benefit greatly from all of the Information Architecture work you have done to capture classifications of information and metadata types (IA is a needed and required part of nearly every development process).
What this gets us is content that we can easily output to a Web site in HTML/XHTML in a template that meets all accessibility requirements, ensures quality assurance has been performed, and provides a consistent presentation of information. The same information can be output in a more simple presentation template for handheld devices (AvantGo for example) or WML for WAP. The same information can be provided in an XML document, such as RSS, which provides others access to information more easily. The same information can be output to a template that is stored in PDF that is then sent to a printer to output in a newsletter or the PDF distributed for the users to print out on their own. The technologies for information presentation are ever changing and CMS allows us to easily keep up with these changes and output the information in the "latest and greatest", while still being able to provide information to those using older technologies.
These very closely apply to Web/Internet/Application development's downfalls. Not including the user in the development phases and/or testing with users early and throughout the development process. Having a development team that does not have a balance of visual, technical, and production skills can be problematic. Lastly, projects that are technology for technology's sake, very rarely offer success.
Conversely, success comes from getting these things right, involving the user and understanding how users would interact and use what you are building. Having a balanced team so that visual, technical, and production issues can be addressed and solved appropriately. And lastly knowing when and how to best use what technologies will drive success.
The feature story in October was The Purpose of the Machine is to Augment Us, which focusses on Franco Vitaliano of VXM Technologies in Boston, MA. "Maybe the intelligence of a system is not in the computer sitting inside a war room or on a desktop," he says, "but in what we call the communications cloud."