23 March 2007

50 Ways to experience the web - Designing for ALL possibilities

There may be 50 ways to leave your lover and 100 ways to skin a cat, but what web designers are worried about these days is the perpetually increasing number of ways in which users might be viewing their sites...

From computer ubergeeks to "12:00 Flashers" (every appliance in their house flashes 12:00*), users are coming at websites in a growing variety of ways. They may be using a screen reader to listen to your site, or talking to it from a car. And that’s to say nothing of the unique personal characteristics each user brings to the prospect. Besides varying levels of technical ability, they may be colour blind or low vision, deaf or hearing impaired, and their native language could be French, Zulu or Chinese. It’s enough to send a well-intentioned designer leaping over the proverbial edge.

Likewise, mobile and 3G technologies are clearly no flash in the pan. A mobile phone used to be a humble bulky thing that made a phone call (how quaint). Now it’s practically making dinner and walking the dog. People are playing online video games, getting live stock quotes and even e-learning with their mobiles, and according to ubiquitous technologist Bob Kummerfeld, it won’t stop there. “We are entering an age of “ubiquitous” or “pervasive” computing” says Kummerfeld, co-director of the Smart Internet Technology Group at the University of Sydney, “Computers are getting smaller and more powerful and disappearing into everyday appliances, but are connected to the global internet.” Projects at the University of Sydney’s Pervasive Computing Laboratory, use Bluetooth technology to customise services for wandering users. “For example, we have an electronic notice board that can determine who is standing in front of it and customise the information appropriately,” says Kummerfeld, “Another project involves building a coffee table that can display images on its surface and allow the user to manipulate and share them with others. "Gestures" are used to control the system Instead of a keyboard and mouse.”

It’s no longer about a portable object but an environment that’s embedded with technology, so seamlessly that you forget it’s there. So in the near future we may be dealing with users viewing our websites from table tops, soda dispensers and toll booths. For a peak at the future of human interface design, check out the Hit Lab.

But don’t worry, this is not a cheap plug for a “how to design for refrigerators and coffee tables” short course. This is simply another very good reason to design with web standards. How do you manage an infinite variety of possible technical user scenarios? By tackling them one by one? No way. This is where accessibility comes in – it’s the method to tame the madness. Most people think of accessibility as compliance guidelines that ensure your site can be used by people with disabilities. This is true but it’s not the whole picture. Adherence to accessibility guidelines also means that people using old devices, new devices, handhelds and cutting edge technologies will have a better chance at accessing your site. You’re adding a lot of value at once when you make your site accessible, and if you’re already designing with standards than most of the work is already done.

So what does it take to make a site accessible? An accessible website is essentially, one that’s built with standard html and CSS, and has some additional bits thrown in (like alt text for all images). It adds immense flexibility to the way your site can be experienced and, naturally this means more visitors, and for businesses, more customers.

Unsurprisingly, some of the best resources on accessibility are available online. Joe Clark has generously made his entire book Building Accessible Websites available on the web. If you prefer the incremental approach, you can take accessibility one day at a time with Dive Into Accessibility and learn all you need to know in 30 days. No matter how you get up to speed with accessibility, you’ll need to make a stop at the W3C -- The authoritative hub for all web standards including accessibility. They even put together a list of guidelines that form the basis for legal compliance in many countries including Australia and the UK. There are only 14 guidelines and they want are broken down into levels of importance: priorities 1, 2 and 3. To be compliant, you only have to meet the minimum set of priority 1 checkpoints, which isn't too tricky. So if you'r ein a rush, go straight to the guidelines and apply just the 1st priority set. When you’re done, you’ll be able to boast a Level A compliant site. And, if you don’t find the colour combination too disagreeable, you can even add their compliance logo to your pages.

In terms of catching up on standard html and CSS, the ever popular Designing with Web Standards by Jeffrey Zeldman is a classic place to start. If you already know the basics and want some ideas for implementing your designs, Dan Cederholm’s Web Standards Solutions is a handy little reference. And don’t worry, you don’t have to chuck out your layout tables to meet accessibility requirements. In fact, if you think building to standards means compromising on design options, then you still haven’t seen the world renowned CSS Zen garden.

It may take a little burst of autodidactic enthusiasm to get past the hurdle of learning how to make an accessible site, but it will never go unrewarded, as the need to design with this kind of flexibility is not going away. There’s also an increasing demand for accessibility-savvy designers as top companies begin to realise the business benefits, as well as the need to comply with the law. That being said, the real reward lies in the yogic peace of mind that follows. At the end of a long day, it’s an unparalleled feeling…being able to sit back, flip open a can of a ginseng enriched beverage, and relax, knowing that no matter who’s looking at your site, no matter where they are, it’s pretty much going to be okay.

Experience it yourself

Get a first-hand feel for how others are doing it. Here are 6 fresh ways to experience the web without having to leave your desk.
  • Experience the talking web. Experience the web as a user with visual impairments does when they access a site with software that reads the web to them. Try the screen reader simulation or, watch a blind user do it himself in this brief but amazing video. If you’re really inspired, you can download a demo of IBM home page reader.
  • Change your screen size. These Favelets allow you to view a web page on oodles of different screen sizes including PocketPC, TV safe and our old friend 640x480.
  • Disable your browser. The Firefox ‘Web Developer’ extension is a handy toolbar for the Firefox browser that has a disable menu which allows you to disable images, cookies, java, javaScript, page colours and more, at the click of a mouse. It also makes it easy to validate a page for standards compliance.
  • Go text-only. Try the Lynx browser and see how your site fares in text only. This is also a second best way to experience a screen reader, since someone using a reader to listen to a site is only hearing text. You can get a taste without having to download the browser at lynxview
  • Move backwards. The backwards compatibility viewer is dandy little time machine dedicated to graceful degradation. It gives you a peak at how users with older equipment and older browsers are seeing your site today.
  • Kill the mouse. Unplug your mouse. Go ahead, just do it, you can plug it back in later, I promise. It actually is possible to navigate the web without one. Oh it’s not easy, but it’s possible, and that’s how many people do it. People with mobility impairments like arthritis and those using devices that have no mouse (ie. mobile phones) are pros at it. If you try it out, you’ll find that accessibility compliant sites are much easier to navigate this way. You may even discover the purpose of the “skip navigation” link. Hint: you’ll have to use the tab button to get around.

* Reference from “Welcome to the Internet Helpdesk” by comedy troupe Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie.

This article was originally printed in Desktop magazine.