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Checkpoint 3.3

From: Jo Miller <jm@bendingline.com>
Date: Mon, 11 Mar 2002 13:12:13 -0500
To: w3c-wai-gl@w3.org
Message-id: <p05101404b8b279af6d58@[10.0.1.25]>
At the 28 February teleconference [1], we discussed the points raised 
in my recent post on Checkpoint 3.3 [2]. In particular, we talked 
about how to divide the success criteria according to types of 
written content.

Broadly speaking, written content can be divided into two types:

1. Text that the web author can edit (that is, new copy that is being 
written specifically for the web, or text that is being rewritten or 
adapted for web presentation).

2. Text that the web author is not free to edit (e.g., proceedings of 
the Hague tribunal, works of Shakespeare, transcript of the Prime 
Minister's speech, text of a federal budget plan, etc.). This type of 
content can be annotated and supplemented, but not rewritten.

(Note: we seem to have reached some consensus that step-by-step 
instructions merit their own checkpoint separate from 3.3, so I am 
setting them aside for now.)

Gian suggested that we should write the success criteria as if all 
content fell into category 1, and treat category 2 an an exception (a 
special case where some of the criteria would not apply). This 
suggestion sounds reasonable to me, though I am not sure yet how to 
present the success criteria in this format and would welcome ideas.

Gian also agreed that providing examples for both types of content 
would help readers understand the distinction we are making between 
"editable" and "uneditable" content.

Graham brought up Charles Munat's earlier suggestion that "artistic 
expression" be separated from other types of content. I can think of 
a number of reasons why we might want to make this distinction (for 
one thing, requiring web authors to write a full set of Cliff's notes 
to accompany any work of literature they want to post seems like a 
pretty effective deterrent to online publishing of artistic work). On 
the other hand, if we're not very careful, we could easily create a 
clause that is open to abuse by people who wish to use "artistic" 
claims as a loophole ("I don't have to edit my web writing for 
comprehensibility -- everything I write is ART"). I've asked Charles 
for his thoughts on this matter.

Finally, we discussed the fact that some proposals for 3.3 success 
criteria are testable but not very useful, while others are not 
testable but are nevertheless good advice. The only proposal 
currently on the table is to separate testable criteria from advice 
within the WCAG 2.0 document itself.

Therefore I am attempting to:
1. draw out the success-criteria suggestions that are in the current 3.3 draft,
2. consolidate and re-phrase them to eliminate redundancies and confusion,
3. consider whether they are testable,
4. evaluate whether they are, in fact, conducive to clear and simple 
writing, and
5. list questions that are raised by each proposed criterion.

Here goes:

"Provide an outline or a summary for your document."

Testable? Yes, I think so. People can provide worthless outlines, of 
course, just as they can provide worthless alt-text, but it is 
possible to test for the presence of a summary or outline.

Useful? Yes, I think so. Any content, whether editable or 
non-editable, might benefit from a summary or outline. Not all 
content admits of easy outlining, but it should always be possible to 
provide some sort of summary or introduction as framing material to 
aid comprehension.

Questions: What is being summarized/outlined? A page? A set of pages? 
A section of a page? Do we simply rely on the web author's common 
sense and trust him not to over- or under-summarize?

"Use short paragraphs with no more than one main idea per paragraph."

Testable? Maybe, maybe not. One idea per paragraph strikes me as 
testable, but "short" is a relative term (how short is short?). The 
problem is that any attempt to set a word limit on paragraphs (or 
sentences) would be arbitrary and probably not useful. We can ask web 
authors to aim for paragraphs of fewer than five sentences, but to 
mandate a certain length in the success criteria would be overly 
restrictive and not universally applicable. It would also contradict 
the checkpoint itself, which asks authors to write as clearly and 
simply <em> as is appropriate for the content </em> . We are leaving 
it to the author to decide what is appropriate for her content.

Useful? Absolutely, though this advice is probably most useful when 
phrased in terms of the editing process, i.e. "Break up long 
paragraphs into shorter ones, with one idea per paragraph". Likewise, 
"break up long sentences into shorter ones" is a good piece of 
editing advice. Hardly anyone (with the possible exception of James 
Ellroy) writes sentences and paragraphs of appropriate brevity in a 
first draft. (If 3.3 can establish the simple but generally 
overlooked fact that writing must go through successive drafts in 
order to achieve clarity and simplicity, then we will have achieved 
something important.)

"Highlight your document's structure and its key points with 
appropriate markup (e.g., headings and subheadings, emphases, lists) 
to facilitate skimming and reading."

Testable? I'd like to think that this criterion would pass the "eight 
reasonable people" standard, but what does the rest of the group 
think? There's certainly a subjective element here, and the question 
of sufficiency arises. When has the author done enough to claim 
conformance?.

Useful? I think so. This one could probably use about six or seven 
more rewrites, though.

"Ensure that headings and link text are unique and that they make 
sense when read out of context."

Testable? I think so, at least by the eight-man standard.

Useful? Demonstrably. Examples will help people understand what we 
mean by "unique," and perhaps the Benefits section can explain how 
this measure helps users comprehend a written document. People who 
understand the "why" are far more likely to implement this advice 
successfully.

Questions: Is there a generally understood term that we could use in 
place of "link text"? "Hyperlinked text," or something else? I try to 
avoid "link titles" because of the potential confusion with the TITLE 
attribute.

"Provide definitions for any jargon or specialized terminology used 
in your document."

Questions: What are the acceptable ways of fulfilling this 
requirement? Would a link to a glossary of specialized terms suffice?

This criterion will, I think, require further discussion. I like the 
idea of requiring the web author to define words and phrases that are 
being used in a specialized way, because when jargon is used, the 
reader's own dictionary usually isn't much help. The reader can look 
up unfamiliar terms in the dictionary all day long and still be no 
closer to understanding the web author's usage of the words.

One barrier to conformance will be that the authors are usually the 
last people to recognize that their own jargon needs explanation. 
English Lit grad students assume that everyone knows what they mean 
by "agency" and "unpack," just as business "writers" assume that 
words like "leverage" and "solution" actually mean something.

"Provide explanations of figurative, metaphorical, or idiomatic uses 
of language (for example, 'haven't seen you in donkeys' years' or 
'the sight tore my heart out')."

Useful? If it is true that there are cognitive disabilities that 
prevent people from understanding figurative language, then yes. 
(This criterion undoubtedly would help non-native speakers of a 
language, but we have established that being foreign is not a 
disability, and any benefits that accrue to non-native speakers are 
viewed as merely a bonus.)

Testable? Drawing the line would be a challenge here, and deciding 
what needs glossing and what does not might require an expert. 
Implementation is also a big enough pain in the ass that, practically 
speaking, authors are likely to ignore this criterion. That decision 
is not our problem, as long as it does not lead them to ignore 3.3 
entirely. "Idiom" would cover slang, as well, by the way.

Questions: My examples suck (hey, "suck" is a good example of 
figurative language--can we use that?). But I think examples here 
would help a great deal. Substitutions for mine are eagerly solicited.

OK, these last two bring us to the success criteria that address word 
choice--a thorny thicket if ever there was one. "Simple words are 
words that are easily understood" is a tautology. There is simply no 
way for us to draw the line or make assumptions about the extent and 
particular content of each reader's vocabulary. Length is a 
meaningless indicator of word difficulty, even in English; "meme" and 
"quark" are short words, whereas "complicated" and "individual" are 
long words, but which of these is a fifth-grader likely to 
understand? Needless to say, length is not a reliable indicator of 
difficulty in other languages, either. Tell German and Dutch authors 
that they cannot use long words, and you have effectively limited 
them to saying "yes," "no," and "stop."

At best, all we can offer for usage and word choice is some good 
general advice: "avoid rarified vocabulary" or "choose words that 
readers are likely to understand" or "substitute common words for 
uncommon words where possible." I do not think we can write a useful 
or testable success criterion governing word choice. Any attempt to 
do so would do more harm than good, anyway. (If we are giving general 
advice about word choice, though, I would be inclined to include 
something about using words correctly, according to their dictionary 
definitions. Otherwise, the reader who consults her dictionary to 
find out what a word means will be even more lost than before. A 
recent message about a colleague's "eminent departure" comes to mind, 
as do certain comments about "devaluing" the yen.)

So what can we require, since we have no way of knowing what words 
each reader will understand, and since we cannot (and should not) 
issue web authors a standard "acceptable lexicon" on which to draw? 
Well, links to dictionaries (either internal or external) would be 
one idea. We've already said that the author should define terms that 
are not being used according to their dictionary definitions (jargon, 
figurative usage, etc.). Providing a link to a dictionary would help 
users who are having trouble with the remaining words -- words that 
are not jargon and are not being used figuratively. Other ideas?

The criteria discussed above are only those appearing in the first 
draft of 3.3. The additional research material gathered by Lee, 
Graham, and Lisa's contacts has not yet been incorporated into the 
checkpoint.

Discussion?

Jo


[1] http://www.w3.org/WAI/GL/2002/02/28-minutes.html
[2] http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/w3c-wai-gl/2002JanMar/0413.html
Received on Monday, 11 March 2002 13:12:48 GMT

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