Standards.Next rocking cognition and accessibility

After an excellent couple of days at Techshare last week (where I presented on mobile accessibility – more of that later), myself and my glamorous partner in crime Bruce Lawson ran the second Standards.Next event this time covering cognition and accessibility.

Cognition is probably one of the most under researched areas of accessibility and the least understood. As a result design of usable and accessible websites is incredibly speculative and hard to get right. Unlike accommodating users with screen readers (which is more of a precise art) making colours, text, fonts, layouts, images and icons speak to everyone ranging from those of us with learning difficulties, problems with perception, memory, cognition and comprehension is a hard task to fill. As autistic web pro Jamie Knight said:

Autism is a big spectrum, and in a very real way everyone is autistic!

We were lucky to get four fantastic speakers as well as a over 50 people who had a lot to contribute themselves in questions, discussions and comments over Twitter. Thank you to everyone who gave their time to make it such a valuable and informative event especially the speakers Antonia Hyde, Jamie Knight, David Owens and Ian Pouncy.

Huge thanks also to Kath Moonan who helped us find a room and the Opera Developer Network who sponsored the event.

Antonia Hyde – Accessibility Beyond Code

With years of experience working with people with cognitive and learning disabilities Antonia had a truly captive audience with her talk accessibility beyond code which included commentary on videos she had taken of Martin using websites and what he found tricky when using them

What struck me was how much her testers hit upon issues that I myself find problematic. Antonia explained just how important it is to be literal on the web and not assume that people understand even the most common of icons such as “i” for information: using icons and text is always a good way to go.

The image she showed below is a good case in point when it comes to being literal. The sign “Use escalators safely” is unhelpfully illustrated with a man running down the escalator looking to all intents as if that’s just the right thing to do. Perhaps a red cross through him would have illustrated the point better.

Image of a man running down an escalator with the sign "Use the escalators safely". Courtesty of Antonia Hyde

Antonia finished up highlighting that it’s not just the designer’s responsibility to make content accessible but also the developer and the content editor’s responsibility. I would add to this that it’s also the browser’s responsibility to help render and provide access to content that really helps the user. Something that we are keenly aware of at Opera.

Huge thanks to Martin for contributing his time and being videod.

Jamie Knight and Lion – Autism, the Internet and Antelopes

Jamie and Lion wowed us with his unique take on Autism, the Internet  and Antelopes (blog post and slides from the man himself). Being a “generalist” as he describes himself he took us through some of the projects he has worked on and what he does as a web professional.

Jamie Knight and Lion present Autism, the Internet and Antelopes - Photo from Kath Moonan

He told us about his personal screen reader he’d built to help him read web pages when he was tired and illustrated how screen readers should not just be seen as access tech for the blind but for just about anyone who might find it useful listening to web pages. He made a good point as I occasionally (er, not enough) listen to my blog post content through VoiceOver on Mac in Opera to check my grammar which I really struggle with.

Jamie also talked in depth about how video, as great as it is, can be a problem when played automatically on download (especially when his screen reader is running) or the spoken word is too fast. He talks a little bit about this in his interview as well. He also explained that when he gets sensory overload he wished there was a way to convert text into sign to help give meaning to words. I couldn’t help thinking this would make sense for many of us who are more visual.

David Owens –  lessons learned doing usability testing

We got a first hand walk through from David on lessons learnt from user testing and I have to admit I was impressed to hear of an organisation out in the real world who were taking this group seriously. When his company initially set out to do user testing they didn’t specifically recruit people with cognitive impairments but along the way realised that they had some testers who were able to highlight key issues with their site.

David discussed style switchers on websites (A, AA and AAA for small, medium and large text etc) and how important these were for users who would never be comfortable changing their browser settings. Representing a browser maker I’m acutely aware of how important discoverability of features and preferences to help you browse are. It’s important to educate people and make them aware of how to access these however David’s point was that there are often people who will just never be comfortable changing things in the browser.

David also highlighted that you can’t assume a user remembers how to do something on your site if they’ve done it before. This was picked up by Patricia, my soon-to-be-mum-in-law, who has Fibromyalgia and often can’t remember how to do certain things. She summed it up perfectly:

Thank god other people find the same things difficult, I thought it was only me!

If we achieved nothing else on Saturday I’m happy that David helped Patricia realise that she wasn’t the one who is broken!

Ian Pouncy – content and cognition

Rounding off the day Ian gave excellent bitesize pieces of advice on content and cognition learned from his time working at Yahoo!. What I loved about is talk was that he wrapped in cross-overs with internationalsation such as clear, well worded text. He also did a walk through of a mock-up site showing us how he’d improve it.

His talk triggered some debate over lightboxes (those pesky ‘popups’, often of images that overlay a page) and how confusing they are to users who don’t understand where they have come from or how to get rid of them. I’d add to this quirks of keyboard access where they seem to be keyboard focusable but as part of the rest of the content of the underlying page making it a huge effort to tab to ‘close’ buttons (if they exist).

An image overlayed a webpage using a lightbox from Wikipedia

I was happy to see a Tweet from Alastair Campbell however suggesting he might look into the problem:

After #standardsnext (and considering an upcoming project), I think accessible lightboxes will have to be on the to-do list.

Go Alastair!

Final thoughts for me

Since joining Opera I’ve increasingly used our accessibility features within the browser while looking more closely at how people discover features within the browser that help access content in a way that is meaningful to them. As with any browser this is a huge challenge and there is an important balance in exposing access to preferences without further confusing the user.

It was great to gather feedback on what people wanted from the browser, or indeed expected, and will tie in nicely with user testing that David Sloan of the Digital Media Access Group at Dundee university and I will be doing this autumn with older users to see what they can teach us about improving our browser. So watch this space – we hope to have something to share with you early next year.

Links and things

Blog posts and Twitter coverage

Tools and resources

Here’s a list of bits and pieces mentioned on the day plus a few more that may help:

13 thoughts on “Standards.Next rocking cognition and accessibility

  1. Pingback: Laura Carlson (lauracarlson) 's status on Monday, 21-Sep-09 17:21:35 UTC -

  2. I just don’t think it’s unreasonable for all Web users (i.e., those who can see well enough to actually care) to learn two commands, namely “bigger text” and “smaller text.” Even the most confused and baffled users know at least two commands. Doubling their repertoire of commands just does not seem onerous tome.

    Here, “learn two commands” could just entail “clicking buttons always present on toolbar.” Then, yes, that becomes the responsibility of the browser.

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  4. Wow, what an awesome review of the un-conference; it seems it was great! 🙂 I’m really amazed at how advanced are UK people in what regards to web accessibility, at least that’s what it looks like! Lots of great resources from .uk domains!

    I wish you could record a video or audio for those of us who can’t attend (I’m from Argentina so I have no chance of going to UK or US conferences). Best of luck on the next ones!

  5. Thanks for a great write-up, Henny 😉
    was another brilliant event – so thank you… loved the talks.
    I was quite surprised to hear how the lightbox display can cause issues for keyboard access… wasn’t aware of that (and personally really like them) – so very curious to hear more about this aspect in future.

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  9. Hi Joe, thanks for stopping by. If I’m reading your comment correctly I’d say the big thing that came out from SN was that you can’t assume a user understands “bigger text” and “smaller text”. This is in part because there is no standards way of conveying this information that users can get familiar with. From comments from people of the day this is because culturally the meaning of icons / text to convey standards commands is so difficult to pin down.
    I think you’re right in that the browser has a responsibility to support people finding these options and this is something Opera both does and is looking to improve.

    Hi Gonzalo, I think we may have exchanged comments over at Jamie Knight’s blog and yes, I wish we could have podcasted it too. This is something we’ll be looking at for future meetups if possible but I hope for now some of the write ups have given you some idea of how the day went.

    Prisca – the lightbox discussion was a good one. A few of the attendees – Jim O’Donnel, Mike Davis, Alastair Campbell, Ian Pouncy – have continued the conversation over twitter and at Accessibility 2.0 yesterday so maybe we’ll see some nifty fixes on the horizon.

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  11. Hi Heni,

    Great to hear from you at Accessibility 2.0. Was just reading up on Standards Next (missed the cognition and accessibility session) and noticed that your linkback to is missing a “d” , thought you’d want to know.



  12. Pingback: Mindful designs: Practical tips for designing for cognitive & learning difficulties « UX Australia 2012

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