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Re: A new iconography? (was:How to convince businesses to be accessible...)

From: David Woolley <david.woolley@bts.co.uk>
Date: Mon, 16 Oct 2000 00:51:39 +0100 (BST)
Message-Id: <200010152351.AAA12858@djwhome.demon.co.uk>
To: w3c-wai-ig@w3.org
> From: Anne Pemberton <apembert@crosslink.net>
> navigation, but only graphics and multi-media can effectively aide the
> comprehension of the content itself. Just as there are times when the

I don't think that anyone is objecting to their use where appropriate,
and as far as I can see they are almost never used appropriately on
commercial web sites (the object of most advertising is actually not
to convey information - real information often puts buyers off or reduces
the differentiation from other products - there are exceptions, but they
are rare).

This thread started on the question of the use of word art, and text
as graphics to control layout and font, and that's a very long way from
the use of graphics for explanation.

> content of a page will be textual, there are  times when the content is
> graphical or multi-media .. and most frequently the content is best
> presented for the widest disabled audience when both text and
> graphics/multi-media are used to aid comprehension and usefulness.

I don't think the guidelines say anything against this, and I'd say
it was also true of a general audience.  For example, I was curious 
about the hand signals used to guide a helicopter in to land, and
found a web site that gives them.  It uses both text and graphics.  I
don't think that either would be completely adequate without the other,
although a blind person (but you need sight to guide one in!) could 
probably have succeeded with the text more than a non-reader could have
coped with just the graphics.  A movie with voice over would have worked
better, but would have made load time impossibly long (the page takes
a long time as it is) and it probably wouldn't have heen done at all 
because the production cost for animation would be much more than
rough drawings and text.

The objections are to the use of word art when plain text would carry
the same information, and to the use of large quantities of multimedia
for atmosphere, when that multimedia, more often than not, fails because
of bandwidth constraints.  It's getting close to commercial Christmas, and
some people are actually intensely irritated by "Have yourself a merry
merry Christmas" playing in every store; the graphics in commercial web
sites normally serve the same purpose as this sort of Muzak.

> Incidently, the different presentations of an icon, for example, the
> printer icon to indicate something can be sent to a printer, is VERY easy
> for young children to negotiate as I learned last year working with K-2nd
> graders (age 5 to 8) when we had an old slow printer for the lab that would

Young children, at least of normal intelligence, are programmed to learn
language at that sort of age, and basically they are learning something
rather similar to written** Chinese, but with a rather limited vocabulary
and simple grammar (real Chinese actually tends to pair simple words to 
identify concepts)++.  Interestingly, the normal response of adults from
non-CJK language environments is to assume that icons rather than 
alphabetic characters are impossibly difficult to learn.

I don't think I'm average, but, in my late thirties, I toured Japan and
learnt quite a few characters from the contexts in which they were used
(e.g. entry and exit) rather than through formal learning of the language.
These characters are highly abstracted from their original icons, but,
whilst they vary in style, there are actually fundamental features about
the arrangements of the strokes that make all the forms similar at a deep
level, to the extent that what I copied down from the displays in the
front of restaurants were recognizable, even though I had no training in
drawing the characters.

However, none of this helps someone whose not prepared/able to learn
how to make a call on a mobile phone.

> jam up everytime a graphic was sent to it. Children with computers at home
> recognized the printer icon and used it ... it caused such a problem

A printer icon is one of the icons that is fairly well standardised,
floppy disk for save and a folder for open are probably the other two.
(Acrobat uses the normal audio equipment icons, which are probably also
well known.)  The problems come when you go outside the basic range,
or when the product is aimed at a mass (which in this case normally
means youth) market.  In the former case, designers basically play word
games to try and make an association between an icon that is drawable
and the function, and those word games are often based on some theme for
the whole product user interface, that may not apply to other products.
In the latter case, the tendency is to stylise everything to the extreme,
to try and make it look as little like a computer as possible.

People like Microsoft and Apple do try to create user interface guidelines
to ensure consistency, but designers have a mental conflict between 
consistency and looking different from the competition (which may even
be a previous release of the same product (e.g. Windows 3.1 relative to
Windows 95).

> getting the kids' work out, that the county techie brought us a new, faster
> printer that can handle the graphics output --- why? Because it's an
> essential part of learning at this age, and for some disabled folks, an
> essential part of comprehension at any age. 

Used appropriately yes; the objection is not to that but to use where it is
of no benefit to the user.  The latter seems to be a much more attractive
use for commercial designers than the former.  All that the accessibility
guidelines ask for in the case of appropriate use is a parallel text version.

** an interesting question is what is the basis on which humans find it so
easy to learn to read when mass literacy is actually only very recent in
our history.

++ I think that technology has moved on from the origins of these common
icons to the extent that they are recognized by their abstract shape, 
rather than because of their resemblance to the real thing, so they are
like the abstracted characters in Chinese in that respect.
Received on Monday, 16 October 2000 02:53:20 UTC

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