Usability and Accessibility

Yesterday I made the mistake of going to the post office around lunchtime. I needed to get a few things shipped, including important stuff like a present for my god-daughter and a confirmation of my place in the London Marathon in April.

The queue snaked around the office. There must have been 30 people in front of me. 10 of them were actually in the queue to buy envelopes or stamps, rather than the queue for the counter – but that wasn’t easy to spot. Usability problem one – don’t put the stamp counter in the middle of the office, right next to the place where everyone queues for other stuff. Borders in Oxford Street just learnt this and have remodelled their ground floor completely.

But the real reason that the queue was so large wasn’t down to it being lunchtime or it being near Xmas. It was the introduction of “chip and pin” readers. No-one ahead of me appeared to have a clue how they worked. And why should they? The Post Office, with infinite wisdom, requires that you insert the card in the slot upside down – i.e. with the magnetic stripe facing upwards. Every ATM in the country works the other way, so why are we doing it differently here? When I lived in Vienna, the ATMs worked with the mag stripe upwards and there were always queues of tourists trying to figure out why their cards wouldn’t go in the machines. How would they know that Austria had a different standard from the rest of the world? Is it only the Post Office that has done it this time round? So much for consistency.

What got me on to this was reading a piece on the Reg where a group called Knexus – apparently an exclusive club (in the Groucho Marx sense perhaps) for execs in Fortune 100 companies – was raising issues about the problems with accessibility design. The clubsters are worried that it’s not obvious what accessible design really means. One went so far as to say that it’s all a bit “over the top”. Heavens above.

Naturally the DRC laments this point of view and said that it isn’t about “doing the minimum” but about doing it all. They’re going to be at “considerable legal risk” apparently if they don’t get it right.

Tom Adams, at eGU, speaking at a recenty Parliamentary Internet Group (and quoted in this Reg article) took (what I think is) a better line – he said that there needed to be some reference to standards. The DRC doesn’t agree. So companies and public sector bodies are left to do what they think is right, whether it’s A, AA, AAA, LocalGov LAWS standards, RNIB, RNID, Bobby, DDA, DRC guidelines or whatever. Plainly that’s daft. Meanwhile, there are greater than 200 disability rights groups watching to see what happens.

I spoke at a Public Sector Forums conference on Accessibility back in July at my almer mata, City University. I too was worried about the lack of clarity on which standard to follow and that if we wanted real “Universal Accessibility” then a single widely-endorsed standard was required along with accredited test tools and a full awareness campaign. In my list, that doesn’t include the threat of legal action unless someone persistently shows a lack of attention – but that could only be once the other pieces were in place.

My own view is that accessibility follows usability – if you get the design right it will be accessible, but few start with a good design. Instead they layer complexity upon complexity making the web experience frustrating for their customers. Public or private, no different.

Here’s an example: Should you allow inline links (as I liberally scatter throughout this blog) or insist that all links are outside the main body of text (as directgov insists on for its authors)?

Most folks want inline links because they think it makes things easier. I disagree. If you lose a link, you have to edit the text; if a link changes content, you have to edit text. So that scores -2 in ease of management. Screen readers hate inline links – and so do the users of screen readers. So that’s another -2. That’s -4 out of 4. Not much good.

But there are no standards on this and, worse, no agreement. No agreement means standards could be a long way away. And that means a greater legal risk for some companies who might do what they think is right but still be in the wrong.

And the folks that are hurt the most in this are those who want a good web experience, whether they are part of the 14.3% of the population with some disability that affects their ability to use the web, or the 85.7% that don’t have such a claim. Let me tell you though – if you get the design right for the 85-odd%, it will be pretty close to right for everyone else too.

When legal threats start flying it’s worrying. Trying to sue a corporate for not having an accessible site may turn out to be as hard as suing a restaurant for not cooking a steak the way you like it. One man’s rare is another’s medium. There are no clear standards for what “rare” means for a steak. I tend to seek out restaurants that I know cook it the way I like it; and avoid others. I don’t consult lawyers.

In practice, sites will need to adhere to some basic standards – most likely the AA – and then common good sense will enhance that slightly (to include some of the additional checks that, say, RNIB want). But that’s not the end of the problem – the wide range of disabilities and varying levels of them coupled with the disparate monitoring groups will mean that, at any one time, most sites are not fully accessible to one group or another.

So, good design will matter most; and accessibility will follow that.

Passing Time

Last week I was sampling the delights of New York. I’ve probably been there 30 or 40 times over the last few years but not since 1989 have I spent “time” there, that is, time for me rather than for a company or a project. It’s not the same place as it was then. The WTC is gone of course, there are more, taller, buildings – the Time Warner centre at the SW corner of Central Park for instance, taxi drivers even seem to know the city better than I remember from before. But some things don’t change: New Yorkers (the few that you can discern inbetween all of the European tourists) are the same, and Central Park is as beautiful an oasis as ever.

One thing that let me enjoy the city more like a local though was Vindigo, installed on my Treo (still a 600 but soon to be a 650). This is a proverbial killer app. Tell it your location and it will tell you about restaurants, stores, movie theatres, bars and music clubs within a defined radius of where you are. Vindigo is how I ended up on Friday lunch time listening to Jazz in the restaurant in the church hall of St Barts, it’s how I sampled the best breakfast in the entire world at Norma’s and how I knew which days the Met Museum of Art was closed (Monday) and then the new exhibitions started. It’s also how I managed to get between the pre-dinner bar, the restaurant for dinner and the post-dinner bar. All it needs now, to be perfect, is GPS built into the phone so that it can take your location with no input. Vindigo has data on London as its only European city but it covers the USA far more widely. I have NYC, London and Miami stored in the phone right now.

Vindigo coupled with Robert Parker’s entire wine database are the two apps that make the Treo absolutely indispensable. This latter app has saved me more than a few times from pitching into an over-priced and under-rated bottle of wine in restaurants that should know better. Of course, you have to agree with Parker’s ratings and like his numeric rating system – Jancis doesn’t and nor does Clive Coates – which is fine by me. We could use a similar rating system for government websites; that would sort a few things out.

I could do with the Blackberry code on the Treo to get email as the present app is pretty clunky, but I wouldn’t swap the Treo for a Crackberry. Besides, the ‘berry doesn’t have Mazera which is an excellent way to waste time when you have nothing else to do – I’m pretty sure it will take you at least 7 or 8 solid hours to get through the game and given that you’ll only ever put 5 minutes at a go into it, that should last a fair few weeks. And if you’re nowhere near Halo 2 it’s not an unreasonable substitute.

Am I back?

Sort of I guess. More yes than no at least. Blogger tells me that this is my 627th post but that I’ve posted only 4 times since the end of July. There are good reasons for that, perhaps I’ll go into them another time.

Meanwhile my PC problems have taken over from where Simon Moores’ left off. I’m writing this on the Mac, with Firefox of course. My Tosh Tablet PC whilst working fine for most things seems unable to open a “create post” page in Blogger. No idea why – it’s been like that for a couple of months (and that’s a bit of an excuse for why there have been so few posts, but is far from the main reason). I’ve tried a bunch of things to fix it including cleaning up the registry and fiddling with this and that but no joy so far. Most of the time it refuses to go very far with any secure pages – banking, stock trading and whatnot. Odd.

I’ve been in New York for the last few days taking advantage of the incredibly weak dollar. It’s the first trip I’ve made there since May 2001 so the first time I’ve seen the empty hole where the WTC once stood. I saw that, and the rest of Manhattan, from the window of a helicopter. The best way to see it and only a $100 or so. If you’re there, be sure to visit BLT – the best steak I have ever had (ever as in anywhere in the world, ever).

I’ve got a few things coming up that will take some time over the next week or two and then I’ll be properly back. I started this blog in Xmas 2001 so it will be 3 years old in a couple of weeks – and I’ll have been working in government nearly 5 years. More on that soon.