Tag Archives: Accessibility

Researching web information architecture, usability, and standards

If you are a web developer, web designer, web architect, web usability expert, in a similar role, or just have an opinion on the subjects of web architecture, usability, and standards, I need your help! I am doing a research paper on the arguments in favor of having large enterprise organizations develop policies for the following issues:

  • Implementing and enforcing a standardized user interface for an enterprise web presence.
  • Developing an enterprise web information architecture.
  • Developing and enforcing a web style guide.
  • Enforcing web standards (i.e. valid XHTML, CSS, DOM scripting using ECMAScript standard, etc.
  • Usability and accessibility issues (Section 508, case law, etc.)

Broad category? Yes. But hey, it’s easier than writing about how to curb global population growth or global warming. I’m trying to positively influence the world through better enterprise web strategy. My goal is to bring standards-based web design out of the sidelines and fully into the mainstream at the enterprise level. I think the case has been made clear for small web infrastructures and web 2.0 plays, but the enterprise still lags in this area and it is a far more challenging problem due to the information and organizational complexity of such behemoths.

I need your help! If you have any suggestions, opinions, recommended books, citations, essays, or good URLs to post, please let me know in the comments! Any opinion on this topic is welcome.

Thanks!

The Four Pillars of the Web

My old high school was deeply involved in Round Square – an international organization of high schools that practiced education that strongly aligns with the following “pillars”:

  • Internationalism
  • Democracy
  • Environment
  • Adventure
  • Leadership
  • Service

My XML teacher mentioned this in the current week’s discussion, almost as a passing thought, but I thought this was a poignant list that is worthy of expounding upon here. These pillars are:

  • Valid code
  • Accessible code
  • Semantic code
  • Separation of content from presentation

Valid code (standards compliance)

Web code should validate according to the specifications set forth for what you’re using. Browsers today often let you get away with murder here by still allowing tag soup to occur – mostly due to documents being still served as text/html instead of application/xhtml+xml. Blame IE6 for now. But standards-mode does exist in all modern browsers, enabled by the power of the DOCTYPE declaration – a simple declaration of independence from browser-lock. Imagine an enterprise architecture, nay an entire Internet, where web applications are completely standards-compliant and the user could move freely between platforms, applications, browsers, and websites without fear or concern for compatibility.

Accessible code

Creating accessible code means thinking about the bare framework of your website infrastructure first, and adding on bells and whistles in a way that gracefully fail over in case of a problem on the client. You can’t predict what people will want to use when they show up to your website, so start with the lowest common denominator. Turn off all your CSS, Javascript, plugins, and images. Only deal with your app in terms of the HTTP requests coming in and out, and the HTML that presents itself. Would you build a house without pouring a foundation first? Heck no. Make a purely accessible web experience your foundation and then add your 15 pieces of flair, Mr. Fancypants. Make sure that your site is as usable to a Lynx, phone, or screenreader user as it is to your cutting-edge IE7 and Safari 3 folks.

Semantically correct code

What the hell is this box of beer bottles doing in my garage? Had I tagged it appropriately, I would clearly see that it is glass non-twist-off bottles suitable for home brewing. Not that I am able to drink most homebrew due to the barley malt causing me reactions due to celiac disease, but I digress…

XML encourages the web author to tag their content appropriately, explaining in-line what the meaning is for each item. Using XML technique in coding your XHTML documents means you are applying more meaning than the usual “here’s a paragraph” markup, information that could be used by future generations. Won’t somebody think of the children?!?

Separation of content and presentation

Spend some time at the CSS Zen Garden and you get the point. Content and presentation do not like to sleep in the same bed. They like to flirt with each other, play the field, sleep around. Tying them together with presentational markup and inline styles just means an unhappy, possessive relationship where neither party is able to grow.

So those are the pillars. Things I’m sure the Round Square would approve of. Keep these in mind and help your code realize its true potential as a member of society.

Pimp my Reader

I am a fan of the Google Reader application for managing my RSS subscriptions. The advantage of having all my feeds organized in one convenient web repository is proving to be quite handy (much as del.icio.us has been for bookmarks) and I like Readers’ own ability to produce new RSS feeds from my content categories.

But the UI, much like a lot of Google’s apps, leaves a lot to be desired. (Gmail – I’m looking at you.)

Fortunately, Jon Hicks has put some lipstick on this pig. Enter Google Reader Theme. Installation is fairly trivial, and the result is a more pleasant and usable interface. As of this writing, it works for Firefox, Camino, Opera, Omniweb, and Safari.

Nice work! Looks much better now – thank you.

Jon also mentions he was using CSSEdit for the skinning work. I like this tool – have been using it since somewhere in the 1.x days. I find it very useful for quickly digesting the styles in an existing theme, such as an open-source project that I want to skin by leveraging existing styles. For starting from scratch, nothing can beat TextMate or Dreamweaver for cranking out standards-compliant XHTML and CSS in rapid-fire mode.

This is a great capability, to be able to create your own skins for sites you visit frequently. User customization supports even further the idea that we as web developers need to continue to separate content from design as much as possible, to produce semantic, meaningful markup, and to make our code as simple and as well-documented (self-documenting/semantic) as you can.

Acrobat Reader Feature Requests

I find it easier nowadays to use PDF documents and other screen-based formats for my reading needs than to use books. The reasons are that I can enlarge the fonts, I can scroll with minimal effort in a comfortable position (which helps with speed-reading), and text-to-speech features found in Acrobat Reader and the Mac OS X system-wide speech service.

The text-to-speech feature is particularly helpful for me. I have a very slight blind spot at the point of focus in my right eye, probably gained from neglecting to use the polarization filter during late-night moon observations with my telescope many years ago. It is difficult sometimes for my eye to focus on a line, especially if I’m a bit tired. The text-to-speech feature helps keep the focus moving along. For Mac OS X’s Preview application, I set a keyboard shortcut to start reading, although I couldn’t seem to get a shortcut to take hold to stop the reading. Good enough though. I keep Preview as my default PDF application on my system, although I would consider Adobe Reader again if it could address some of my concerns.

So on to my feature requests for the Reader freeware:

  • Add a feature to read aloud only the current selection.
  • Give me a way to change the voice and speed of the voice that is reading. It is not picking up my system preferences for speech and it reads way too slow for my tastes.
  • Get rid of the infernal Adobe Download Manager for installing and let us just download a binary package installer. The download manager does not work with my firewall configuration.
  • Make software updates a standard download and install feature rather than forcing it to go through the broken Adobe Download Manager. (No I am not going to disable my firewall to download your security updates. That is the wrong solution.)

The Download Manager really bums me out. This is probably the number one reason why I gave up on Reader.

AppleTV and iTMS

I had my first look at an AppleTV yesterday. Two things I could say right off the bat:

  1. The user interface is spectacular
  2. Why would you want to show sub-par quality videos on HDTV??

The user interface was incredibly easy to use. The only complaint I have is that the remote is small and feels cheap. On the other hand, it’s probably cheap to replace… those things have got to have a lifespan when small children are involved. In fact, the user interface was just startling – it was so simple to get at just about every bit of digital media I wanted to on the system. Very impressive. Selecting things to listen to or watch was such a piece of cake. And the Photos features were spectacular – very cool stuff.

So now really my complaint is the downloads from the iTunes Music Store, which is no longer solely a music store, nor does the “tunes” part really fit the iTunes brand. But I digres… the main point is that the quality of the videos one downloads from the iTMS are obviously not HDTV quality – the are jagged and grainy. The target market here cannot be the traditional Mac-using designer base, because obviously those folks all have their high-resolution monitors and are used to looking at imagery in excruciating detail. But even a casual user should notice that these downloaded video files, be they music videos, TV shows, or movies, all look poor on HDTV systems. The HDTV actually amplifies the poor quality of the media. These things look spectacular on iPod Videos, and presumably will do so as well on the iPhones, but that’s about the limit. Thinks like podcasts I can understand. But for movies, I really don’t see the point in downloading from iTMS for a low-quality video at this point.

Another thing I don’t like about the downloads is the lack of subtitles and closed captioning. This is an enormous omission for persons who cannot hear or speak different languages. Even an English language track with English subtitles can help someone who does not speak English all that well get more comprehension from the show, and I am seriously concerned about deaf users being completely left out of the loop on this one.

What I’d like to see on the iTunes Music Store includes:

  • An option to get a discounted purchase the full commercial DVD-version of the programming.
  • Video downloads with subtitle tracks and closed-captioning functionality
  • Higher-quality video downloads

While I’m a big fan of the music offerings of iTMS, I think the video offerings leave a lot to be desired.