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Re: A another thought on accessibility

From: David Woolley <david@djwhome.demon.co.uk>
Date: Mon, 31 May 2004 11:38:01 +0100 (BST)
Message-Id: <200405311038.i4VAc1Q03799@djwhome.demon.co.uk>
To: w3c-wai-ig@w3.org

> faster data entry people to enter the stories.  There were over 200,000
> veterans there and speed was essential.  But what about their homes?  I
> think we need to focus some attention on input/output as a general area
> for accessibility.  And work towards improving the content for those with
> cognitive disabilities.  This area is definitely very weak in

The cognitive difficulties that dominate this age group are not really
tied to literacy.  My impression is that they would find the Peepo
approach demeaning, and it would force them to learn a *new* language.

There are two basic types of problem:

- loss of short term memory, which makes it almost impossible to learn
  anything new, even on a temporary basis; this affects a significant
  number, but not the majority;

- for the majority, a combination of the following:

  * a fear of making mistakes (children will play with user interfaces,
    but seniors will not) - this also probably underlies the "can't 
    program the video recorder" syndrome;

  * the need to catch up on at least a decade of knowledge on how user
    interfaces work and the design conventions used by web sites (current
    GUI interfaces are *NOT* simple to learn from cold);

  * a reduction in the speed of learning, combined with with a greater
    perception of what has to be learned results in de-motivation, aids,
    like check lists, to get you started until you have memorised the
    rules, only work if you can reduce the whole web to a set of rules
    that fit on one side of paper - certainly possible if authors didn't
    suppress standard user interface behaviour and conventions;

  * dexterity problems in getting good hand eye coordination with a mouse
    and problems getting a good focus on a screen whose optimum distance 
    is half way between reading and distance vision.

> accessibility.  There needs to be more work on lowering the average
> reading level on the web.  The newspapers are generally written to those

Language level does have an impact, of course, as:

- there is a specific vocabulary associated with user interfaces; even "click"
  is actually a technical term; and a shopping basket icon is also a technical
  term, in an ideographic language, and particular subject to artistic 

- a lot of material is aimed at the, assumed to be affluent, 18 to 24 age group
  and may use their slang, and their cultural references - which are in
  part intended, by that clique of users, to exclude their parents and
  grand-parents' generations - web site authors don't want to be seen
  as part of such excluded generations;

- material aimed at businesses is normally written in the marketing speak of
  "solutions", "leverage", "downsizing", etc., which, I guess, is also
  about appearing to be in the clique (personally I find it to often
  say nothing at all, but use a lot of long words to do so - actually,
  I suspect it is because the people who have to summarise to senior
  management don't have anything solid to say, either);

- some academic material may be in jargon, but that can be a positive sign, as
  it can mean that the people who really know what they are talking about are
  writing the pages - the commercial tendency is to dumb down pages to the
  point of distorting the content [Note 1], or to pick on some detail that
  is long established for the engineers and stress that instead of the 
  true innovation [Note 2]. Often the choice, at that level, is between 
  having the jargon or not having the information on the web at all.

In general, web sites are advertisements, and the modern (well 20th
century) advertising industry is about not communicating facts,
but about influencing emotions, so anyone expecting to find clearly
understandable, real, information, on a commercial web site, has
unreasonable expectations, even though that is exactly the purpose behind
the original web.  (My feeling is that sites (typically governmental)
with a mission to inform are corrupted by staff who want to get into
the more lucrative commercial web site market and by using
companies who developed for the commercial market, as external 
contractors, rather than developing pages internally). [Note 3])

> with a 5th grade (US) reading level.  Then there are the senior citizens
> who may not have the "typical" learning disability but have not grown up
> with computers.  There are an awful lot of web page designers that like
> the flashy,

That's because they are trying to identify with the 18-24 market and because
they cannot distinguish their product from the competition on the basis of
facts, so must push stress branding and create emotional associations.

>             yet not obvious to those learning to surf the web, webpages. 

This is the key problem with all pages that attempt to create their own
user interface conventions (most commercial pages).  I don't believe it would
be particularly difficult to write a one a two page operating guide describing
how to use basic form controls and links, but there is no point in doing
so, as there aren't enough useful sites around to even allow one to use
it to practice with the abstract user interface elements, before learning
that things that really look like links can be abstract buttons,
and that many links look like ordinary text.

> Does this mean the website has to be boring? NO, but why hide areas of
> text/images/links only to pop up if the mouse is on a particular, random
> looking for those new to surfing, pixel.  Other accessibility problems

<cynical>They do that because the other tactic, namely to put them in low
constrast, small print, right at the bottom of the screen, that they use
for other legal (or search engine based) requirements (copyright notices,
fallbacks for non-scripting browsers, etc.) won't work for something that
has to be early in the reading order.  Page designers really don't want 
those elements at all.</cynical>

> with this aside, my point is not about the flashyness, its about being
> obvious on what the user should do to get to the information the user

Personally, I always find that flashyness is an indication of a lack of
real content.  Where there is real content and a low graphics page, I
generally find the low graphics page much easier to navigate.

You basically have to accept that web page design is a branch of
commerical visual arts, not of technical writing or computing.  Web pages
belong to the advertising budget and big web site design firms are the
new advertising agencies.

> wishes to retrieve and understand.  Seeing these vets telling their
> stories, many were fascinated with the technology but I doubt they would
> be able to effectively tell their stories on their own.

A few years ago, I commented on the lack of simplicity in one web site
nominally associated with a WW II ex-servicemen's association for one
particular (less well known) theatre of war.   To be fair, this site is
being run on voluntary basis (although with advertising revenue, but for
cost recovery, not the primary reason for runninig the site) by someone
not actually employed by the charity.  However, their response was that
they didn't expect the site to be used by the veterans themselves but
by their grand-children, and possibly children.

[Note 1] Even before the web, my experience was that computer documentation
written by technical authors, might use simple words, but it almost always
missed the point on technical issues.

[Note 2] Some years ago, electronic watches were marketed as the "magic
of quartz", when the real innovation (and even then more of a logical 
conclusion of long line of development) was electronics small enough and
low power enough for the application.  Using the piezo electric effect in
quartz as part of a frequency standard was common place in WW II and must
have been known about for much longer.

[Note 3] I suspect one factor in the use of external web site designers
by governmental bodies is they are under political pressure to have the
new communications technology reach as large an audience as possible,
but it is too difficult to write simple, but internally consistent (and
acceptable to the lawyers), summaries of legislation and work done, so
they resort to the commercial tactic of hiding incomplete information
behind a flashy exterior.
Received on Monday, 31 May 2004 07:56:20 UTC

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