April 2007 Archives

Accessibility - Avoiding the Retrofit

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Accessibility is another scary word for many people, often associated with high costs and strange tags. But having worked with it the past few years, I think the real problem isn't making your products accessible in the beginning. The real problem is RETROFITTING it.

I've had to retrofit accessibility, and I know what a colossal, time-consuming pain it is. But if you build it from scratch, it's almost seamless - just a matter of adding some descriptions at the right time. Here are two examples of how can spare yourself some grief by adding in accessibility up front.

ALT TAG

The ALT TAG (or attribute) is the code that describes your image in words for a screen reader. It's also what appears if your image doesn't download correctly (so non-screen readers can benefit from this tag as well).

If you retrofit, you have find all your images on all your pages and insert ALT tags. If you have a large Website, you will be spending a lot of time hunting, updating and maybe even asking "what is this anyway?" You probably will be looking at the HTML code to match images and alt tags. It will take several hours if not days to do it all. There will be cursing involved.

If you do it from scratch, you just add an ALT tag every time you insert an image. If you use Dreamweaver or other accessible aware development system, it even prompts you for an ALT tag when you insert an image! It's just an other 30 seconds per image, and you usually remember what text to add.

The same is true for creating accessible tables and forms. Adding the correct tags at the beginning during development is much less of a burden than putting them all in later.

TRANSCRIPTS

Great audio will usually require a great transcript or caption. And some people (like me) may actually prefer the transcript if 1) their audio is buggy or 2) they read faster than they listen. There are some tricks to getting one without hiring a part-time temp.

The key is to write out what you want to say beforehand. If you're doing a solo podcast, voice-over, role play or audio for a Powerpoint, you can save yourself a lot of grief if you write down what you plan to say first. Not only does it give you a transcript, but it will make recording your audio much smoother.

There are times when you can't pre-transcribe - especially if you want to capture spur-of-the-moment interviews or reactions, but if you prescript everything else, your transcription crunch will probably be reduced.

Tags or Categories?

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Movable Type supports both tags and categories, so which one is best?

The answer is that either works, but that whichever one you pick should be used consistently (e.g. always use "blogs" as a tag/category not "blog" in some cases and "blogs" in another).

I'm a "Categories" person myself and here's why

  1. I'm a lousy typist - I place the category in once and it becomes a menu item. I also only have to correct my typos in one place.
  2. Sidebar links - I like the sidebar listing which is sort of a mental map of my weird little mind.
  3. Subcategories -It allows me to chunk my entries according to the 7 &plumn; 2 rule instructional designers like. If my list becomes too long, it's probably time for another subcategory.
  4. I can create them on the fly - If I find myself writing entries on the same theme, I know it's time for a new category. You're not restricted to a fixed list (I think some tag advocates are struggling with inflexible category menus...which are counterproductive)
  5. I can assign multiple categories - Not all category menu systems allow that, but the good ones do.
  6. I have to ponder information architecture - The effort to create categories is just annoying enough that I have to ask myself if I need it. It prevents overkill IMO.

But there are lots of tags advocates out there, which is why it's nice to have both options...

What made me switch to XHTML? XSLT!

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I read an interesting article from HTML Goodies reminding me that the switch to XHTML was mostly hype for a long time
http://www.htmlgoodies.com/beyond/xml/article.php/3669451

As Philbin points out, most of the reasons given aren't valid. This is because XHTML and HTML 4 pretty much have the same functionality, so basically:

  1. Well formed HTML is as valid as well formed XHTML. HTML Strict is pretty strict by the way - no FONT tags or ALIGN attributes allowed.

  2. You can make the same stupid accessibility glitches in either HTML or XHTML (did you know that black on black text is valid code...but illegible?)

  3. Browsers will be supporting both HTML and XHTML for many, many years to come.

  4. Not all browsers support ad hoc combinations of XML and XHTML.
BUT Philbin did miss one thing that made me switch - XSLT. This is another XML schema which lets you convert non HTML XML into XHTML. But because XSLT is an XML schema, it can only reference another XML file...and only XHTML fits the bill. If you want an XSLT generated page to mesh well with the rest of the site, the entire site should really be in XHTML.

This may be a case of the future is coming, but it really takes 5-10 years for it to arrive.

By the way, Dreamweaver 8 was my "bestest" friend ever in the switch. You open any document, then go to the File menu, then Convert, then pick your format (I recommend XHTML Transitional for beginnners, unless you were already HTML Strict).

Once you do this, Dreamweaver magically converts all <br> tags to <br> tags, and all <img> tags to <img /> (and it adds the pesky slash to all your single line meta tags). It also adds the correct DTD statement (so I'm not having to cut and paste that either). After that your WSYWIG editors is set to produce the XHTML versions of the tags and Dreamweaver valildation is generally picker when it's XHTML so it finds basic glitches much faster.

Now...we just have to worry about XHTML 2!

Fun ICWSM Conference Links

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I just attended an intense (but fabulous) session on Web 2.0 technology and how to search it. The conference site is http://www.icwsm.org

Below are some interesting URL's I picked up along the way

- Top 500 Topic Folders in Bloglines - http://morpheus.cs.umbc.edu/bloglines/
- Twitter on a Map - http://www.twittervision.com/
- Text Map (Who's Hot Now!) - http://www.textmap.com/