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More on 3.4

From: Matt May <mcmay@bestkungfu.com>
Date: Sun, 29 Jul 2001 10:41:14 -0700
Message-ID: <0f7c01c11855$b9cd97b0$6501a8c0@vaio>
To: <w3c-wai-gl@w3.org>
I need to get a little philosophical here to describe (I hope) precisely the
kind of rathole this constant debate is dragging us into. The issue I have
with 3.4 which precedes all others is that we are not justified in telling
authors we know more about their content than they do. This is an
ill-conceived assumption which will backfire if it makes its way out to

The reason the W3C has authority to produce documents such as WCAG (and have
an audience) is as a result of technical leadership. It produces the
protocols and formats, and for that it has the right to state
authoritatively how they are used.

What the W3C does _not_ have the authority to declare is what people are to
say and how they should say it.

I don't object to the presence of Guideline 3. (In fact, I think it might be
better placed above Guideline 2, since most interaction is done after
comprehension...) It is, however, the least technical and the least
normative of the four, and that's no accident. The full cycle of
comprehension is dependent on:

- The domain knowledge of the author (that is, the originator/communicator
of the message);
- The skills and tools of the author to craft the message;
- The medium of communication; and
- The skills and tools of the recipient to interpret the message as
accurately as possible.

What we need to do is to rely on the author's knowledge of the chosen
subject matter and ability to communicate it as effectively as s/he is able.
To that end, we can suggest best practices outside of technology to augment
that knowledge (such as "write clearly and simply" and "emphasize
structure"). We can even suggest to them that images or other media can be
beneficial for important concepts.

It is completely nonsensical, however, to create blanket requirements
respecting the clarity of a message relative to the number of images
present, FOG index, or any other ratio. Comprehension is neither reliable
nor quantifiable. If it were, there would be no need for tests in school,
and anyway, if one were held, everyone would have perfect scores. It is,
alas, not that way. No words-to-pictures (or, for that matter,
words-to-anything) algorithm makes all content quantifiably clearer, or more
universally understandable.

3.4 should acknowledge, at least implicitly, that its effect is limited to
the ability of the author to communicate using non-textual means. It should
be there to draw an author's attention to another means of making a point to
users. What we need not to do is to turn this into anything more than a
"where appropriate". It is an untenable position to say we're sure that for
all content, any image you produce, irrespective of quality or subjective
relevance, is better than none. We _must_ respect the role of the author if
we expect to influence authors.

I feel I've already made all the points I need to make regarding content in
the web design process, as well as the complexity of communicating messages
visually. Frankly, the messages I've seen regarding, say, the insufficiency
of verbal communication with abstract art fail to sway me. In fact, they
only make me more steadfast in my position: the author's grasp of her or his
own subject matter is and should be the determining factor in offering
illustrations. The author doesn't care what the W3C says about content, nor
should s/he.

Received on Sunday, 29 July 2001 13:41:47 UTC

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