The '58 sound

Living well is the best revenge

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Last week I gave a session to third year HCI students on the relationship between accessibility, usability and aesthetics. Part of this session was to explore how aesthetic appeal can override apparent usability limitations in influencing the success of a product or interface; and we also explored the extent to which accessibility and aesthetic appeal can co-exist.

One of the discussion topics was “do accessibility and usability advocates lead by example?” Do their web sites exist as inspiring examples of good design? We had a good laugh finding examples of where that answer was a resounding ‘no’ – although disability charity web sites are certainly improving in terms of design quality – and I pointed students to the fantastic Design Eye for a Usability Guy makeover of Jakob Nielsen’s Useit.com web site. The serious point was that if people wish to inspire designers to think about accessibility while maintaining creativity and design appeal, we need to show that it can be done. Not all accessibility advocates are talented designers (I wish I was), but we recognise the importance of getting the message over in an appealing way.

It’s a topic we care a lot about in Dundee; one of my colleagues, Graham Pullin has just written a book Design meets Disability, while by fortunate timing, tonight I became aware of the Enabled by Design web site.

It was ironic, then, that having publicised the schedule for W4A 2o09 today, I noticed a couple of twitter messages deriding the design of the conference web site. You can decide for yourself in what kind of light these comments shed on a web standards advocate; whatever, I’ll not be too proud to take any criticism on behalf of the conference team who developed it. But I did immediately think of Kynn Bartlett’s 2001 article on How to complain to a webmaster about accessibility.

So having used the ‘look at the poor design of some accessibility and usability advocacy sites’ arguments in talking to students, here I am on the end of the very same criticism! It made me wonder – just how critical is the design of a web accessibility conference web site in giving it credibility? How many potential attendees are we (or these Twitter comments) turning away?

I think my answer is that it depends on the target audience. W4A is a research-oriented conference where research is presented – new findings, new theories, new perspectives on an issue, new commercial approaches. Its target market is academics, corporate and public organisations – people who want to learn and share research and development. The attraction is the opportunity to present and publish new work, and to gain – and offer – feedback through talking to one’s peers. If our web site isn’t achingly clever or outstandingly beautiful, are we turning away prospective attendees? Are we stabbing accessibility in the back? I’m not so sure we are.

By contrast, there is a whole other group of web standards and accessibility focused conferences, which are targeted at industry – at web design professionals. The attraction is to come and hear the superstars talk about their new design techniques and web applications, be convinced that accessibility, web standards and a rewarding user experience is something achievable and worthwhile, and go home with knowledge that can be applied straightaway.

Like an academic conference, there is revelation of new information, there is peer-to-peer discussion and sharing, but I think these conferences also have a much bigger role in attracting non-experts – people who are there to learn and be inspired. Thus the conference web site must – I think – work that much harder as a way of attracting people to attend, people who don’t yet know a huge amount about the subject but who may be encouraged by a cool-looking web site much more than a bunch of academics (not that academics have no aesthetic values!).

I’m not writing this to excuse bad design, nor will I take a ‘yeah, but what about THEM?’ approach and write a long post about the usability problems regularly present on HCI and usability conference web sites. Instead, I’ll finish by hoping that W4A 2009 is as successful as last year’s, in bringing together a terrific mix of people to talk about and share new ideas and discoveries in web design – people who want to attend because of what they’ll find out, what they’ll contribute and who they’ll meet, regardless of the appearance of the conference web site.

Just as I hope CSUN, ASSETS, EAFRA, @media, FOWD etc etc all do with equal success.

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