Rad Geek People's Daily

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Posts filed under Accessibility

Wednesday Lazy Linking

How Intellectual Protectionism fosters innovation

… by legally prohibiting web designers from taking advantage of elegant standards-based methods for using their favorite fonts in web pages, unless the owner of the font has specifically written them a permission slip for that. Note that if I prepared a copy of the same document using desktop publishing software, and printed 1,000,000 paper copies to distribute by snail mail to Internet users, I would not be breaking any legally-imposed monopolistic restrictions on web embedding. If I then took one of those paper copies, scanned it as a PNG image, and then distributed that image through my website, I would not be breaking any legally-imposed monopolistic restrictions on web embedding, either. If, on the other hand, I try to do the right thing and make my content available to users in a standard hypermedia format that can be properly indexed, searched, reformatted for accessibility, etc., I would be putting myself at risk of a lawsuit. In other words, your web design can be either ugly, broken, or illegal. Pick one.

Thanks, Intellectual Protectionism!

(Link via John Gruber.)

Fiddling while Rome burns

I’ve been fiddling with a new bit of geekery for the Rad Geek People’s Daily for a couple of days; you may have noticed an early version of it if you’ve been poking around the edges of this site earlier today. If you haven’t, here’s the easiest way to see what I’ve added: go to http://radgeek.com/ and scroll down. Then, keep scrolling. As long as you like.

In most web browsers, you should be able to keep scrolling without ever reaching a set of those next page / previous page pairs of links. In theory you could keep scrolling through the complete archive of Geekery Today. The same feature works in category archives, monthly archives, and searches; meaning, basically, that whenever you are scanning through a list of posts on Geekery Today, you can now run through the whole list without having to click through to a new page. The change was inspired by the points made at Humanized 2006-04-25: No More Pages?

Of course, this page-chunking phenomenon isn’t limited to search sites. It’s used everywhere from blogs to forums, from e-commerce sites to e-mail programs. And it’s surprising how often one finds oneself just giving up and going somewhere else when one has reached the end of a page.

The problem is that every time a user is required to click to the next page, they are pulled from the world of content to the world of navigation: they are no longer thinking about what they are reading, but about about how to get more to read. Because it breaks their train of thought and forces them to stop reading, it gives them the opportunity to leave the site. And a lot of the time, they do.

The take away? Don’t force the user to ask for more content: just give it to them.

And so I will just give the other posts to you. But the trick here was to develop a way to make those posts — sometimes hundreds of them stretching over several years — all available to you without making you wait for everything to download. (Not only would that make everyone wait for those posts to download; it would also make the website completely inaccessible for mobile devices and other alternative web platforms.) The solution to the problem was for me to write a little bit of unobtrusive JavaScript, inspired by Humanized’s implementation, and to tinker a little with the WordPress templates on the back end, so as to automatically grab the older posts as you scroll down towards the bottom. That way, for users with conventional web browsers there’s always more waiting for you to read as you scroll down (at least, until you reach the earliest post). But mobile users and other people who have JavaScript turned off can still access the website the same way they already were, with no substantial change.

This is still a work in progress; let me know what you think — and whether you notice anything weird or broken — in comments. If you’re interested in knowing more about how I implemented it, you can drop me a line.

In the meantime, scroll on!

Gmail: tripping blind people is cool

Let’s say you pass a blind person walking down a busy sidewalk, tapping a cane in front of her. Now let’s say that someone sneaks up on her and sticks out a leg to trip her up, putting it between the cane and her legs so that it will not be detected before the unfortunate victim has fallen face-first onto a concrete sidewalk. Let’s say that you ask the assailant why the hell she indulged in such a senseless act of cruelty, and her baffled reply is, Jesus! I was just playing a practical joke. I didn’t realize that people walking down the sidewalk might not be able to see!

Unfortunately, this is not very different from how many Web designers treat the blind on a regular basis. Sites are frequently designed without any thought at all for how people who don’t have normal sight might be able to access them. I’m not saying this to be preachy; bad, inaccessible web design is a sin I’ve certainly been guilty of in the past, and one that I have to make a conscious effort to overcome. It’s not easy just to sit down and produce a website that will be accessible to people with radically different ways of browsing the web. But even when the right thing to do is hard, it’s still the right thing to do, and accessibility is something that we should all seriously think about, and act on, starting right now.

Most of the sins against accessibility on the web, though, are sins of omission; people fail to make use of web design features (such as proper semantic markup or alt text for <img> tags) that make things easier on the blind. There are, however, those who do worse than that: who indulge in sins of commission by breaking standard web features and actively making their sites unpleasant, or simply impossible to use, for people who don’t have normal sight. Sometimes they do this by implementing important sections of their website with glitzy and completely inaccessible technologies like Flash. And sometimes they do it because they think they have legitimate business reasons for trodding all over basic Web standards.

As much as I love Google, it looks like they have decided to put themselves in that latter camp with their proposed free e-mail service. Google, apparently, is worried that people might reverse-engineer their webmail interface and use it in unauthorized ways; in order to get around this they have apparently decided to override basic web conventions (such as, you know, using <a href="..."> for links) and implement the interface through scripting hacks. Mark Pilgrim discusses the astonishing number of usability landmines in his demolition-review of the Gmail interface:

Gmail is the least web-like web application I have ever seen. It requires both Javascript and cookies in order to load at all. It uses frames in such a way that prevents bookmarking and breaks the back button, and frames can not be loaded in isolation because every frame relies on scripts defined in other frames. The entire application appears to have been designed to thwart reverse engineering (of the YahooPops and Hotmail Popper variety).

Furthermore, the most innovative feature of Gmail—the global keyboard shortcuts—appears to have been designed by vi users (j moves down, k moves up, and we are expected to memorize multi-key sequences for navigation). Yet by using fake links everywhere, Gmail throws away the most basic web feature, breaks useful browser-level innovations like Mozilla’s “Find as you type”, and breaks third-party products like JAWS and WindowEyes. So the target market for Gmail appears to be vi users who use Internet Explorer, and have a working pair of eyes.

In short, the only way to use Gmail is the way that the Gmail designers use Gmail. The only way Gmail could be less accessible is if the entire site were built in Flash.

Lots of people have raised privacy concerns about Gmail (see, for example, CultureCat’s remarks on Gmail and the recent Slashdot thread); I think these concerns are understandable, and worth raising, but more than a little overblown. I’ll have more to say on that in coming days, but for now I want to say that this ought to be considered a complete show-stopper. There is no excuse for interfaces that discriminate against the blind like Gmail’s planned interface does. No-one with a conscience could allow their company to go forward with a service like this. I can only hope that Sergey Brin and his compatriots will prove that they have one–by thoroughly rethinking what they are doing, and fixing their interface so that it does not needlessly make life harder for the visually disabled.

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