Talk about the passion

So, I’m back home after a week in Spain. The main purpose of my trip was to serve as General Chair of the International Cross Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility (W4A 2009) held in Madrid on 20-21 April. I thought I’d reflect on how I felt the conference went, and the key messages emerging from presentations and discussions.

But first, some background. W4A was started up by a group of accessibility researchers at the University of Manchester, and was first held in 2004; founders Simon Harper and Yeliz Yesilada still do an enormous amount of work behind the scenes each year.

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the last three W4As in various roles. What makes W4A different from other accessibility, web standards and human computer interaction/usability conferences?

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Can’t get there from here

Earlier this week I presented a very influential paper to our reading group: Damaged Merchandise? A Review of Experiments that Compare Usability Evaluation Methods, by Wayne Gray and Marilyn Salzman. Reading it again reminded me why it had such an impact on me first time around, and I thought I’d share my views on why I think it’s such a worthwhile read, even 11 years after it was published.

The paper critiques 5 prominent (i.e. published in prominent academic publications and subsequently cited) studies that compared different Usability Evaluation Methodologies (UEMs). It found that for each study the experimental design casts doubt over the validity of the conclusions made.

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Living well is the best revenge

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.

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Beat a drum

Education, Education, Education. Much of the buzz filtering back through Twitter from this year’s South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) surrounded the launch of the Web Standards Project’s InterAct Curriculum.  It builds on the efforts of Chris Mills and colleagues at Opera in developing their Web Standards Curriculum, and, while it’s still work in progress it looks – from a first glance – like it will grow to be an excellent set of resources to promote the teaching of best practice in web design.

These initiatives are all evidence of a brighter horizon, the product of efforts by web standards advocates to improve the quality of web design education, and thus the skillset of people entering the web design industry. This follows criticism of the standard of web design education, particularly at university level.

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Sweetness follows?

There have been reports in the UK press of plans to reduce the speed limit of traffic on rural roads from 60 to 50 miles per hour (96 to 80km/h). The main argument, of course, is to improve road safety, but there is also an argument that speed limits on their own do not necessarily lead to safer drivers:

  • a speed limit may imply that driving at, or just below, that limit automatically means ‘safe’.
  • a safe driving speed depends on context – weather, time, road condition, surrounding environment, visibility, to name but a few factors.

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How the west was won and where it got us

I read a blog post by web standards advocate Drew McLellan yesterday, the opening sentence of which alarmed me greatly:

As a web developer, there’s little I dislike more than building sites to be accessible.

That’s some confession. Now, cards on the table – I don’t know Drew, though I do appreciate his efforts in promoting web standards adoption. And I’m not here to suggest he is arguing against accessible design – on the contrary, from his blog it’s something that he feels obliged to do, so he does it:

So as much as I find it an unpleasant chore, I’m firmly committed to building sites that can be accessible as I can make them.

What I do take from the blog, though, is that this is an example borne of frustration that accessibility considerations are stifling innovation in web application design and development. As I’m not yet familiar with the technologies discussed in the blog, I’ll leave the details of the argument surrounding those technologies to others.  I will say that much of Drew’s ‘accessibility’ objections seem to focus on the avoidance of dependency on JavaScript – which, since publication of WCAG 2, is no longer considered a disability accessibility showstopper (in other words, the very use of JavaScript does not immediately exclude a particular group of users on account of a disability).

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Perfect Circle

One of the most frustrating yet fascinating challenges to achieving an optimally accessible Web is trying to complete a perfect circle. Three parts of that circle are covered by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative’s triumvirate of guidelines: conformant content (WCAG), created by conformant authoring tools (ATAG), and accessed using conformant user agents (UAAG). This approach has some practical flaws – not least in that there’s a missing part of the circle: conformant users.

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