Posts Tagged ‘social media’

Stumbling Around .gov Websites: Good, Bad, and Goofy

November 22, 2009

Recently, attention returned to concern about
the role of accessibility in the U.S. government transparency movement. While gov website operators might well deserve a good grade for effort, most sites have obvious failings that experts and users repeatedly point out. In this post, I show some of my personal problems and suggest corrective actions. Visually impaired people can hear a realistic experience with a capable, free screen reader to better understand how websites respond to an intermediate level visually impaired, task oriented user. Sighted readers and accessibility specialists are urged to consider alternatives to reduce causes for stumbling around.

Hear me Stumble Recording

Download MP3 recording (38 minutes, 17 MB) trying tasks at whitehouse, disability, data, and recovery .gov. Starting with some typical tasks, I get into each website far enough to identify and stumble over some problem, then later come back and analyze the cause in both the website and my own practice, written up below. These little experiments are certainly not definitive because someone more experienced with the website might take a very different route or the proper screen reader action just might not occur to me at the moment. So, listen if you’re patient and interested to these 4 segments and follow along in your browser to perhaps grok what I’m missing in the recording.

For the record, I was using Windows XP, Firefox 3.5, NVDA RC 09, and PlexTalk Pocket as recorder.

The BLUF — great availability of useful information but fall short of
excellence in usability

BLUF=bottom line Up front

The Obama administration has unleashed an enormous flow of energy and
information for citizens to use for their personal lives, political causes, and
general improvement of society. I really appreciate the nuggets of
explanations dispensed in RSs feeds and twitter streams, amplified by social
media communicators interested in technology and organizations with a special
thread of accessibility. I offer these stumbles as the only feedback I can
provide, hoping my analyses eventually reach into the administration and d.c.
government apparatus. My stumbles are not flat on my face, fallen and cannot
get up, but rather trips over seed bumps, unnecessary traversals around hazy
obstacles, and stops to reconsider the surroundings to decide my next safe
steps. Just like real physical life, these stumbles absorb way too much energy,
often discouraging me from completing a task. Informed by my own experience
building interfaces, databases, and websites plus software engineering methods
of testing, use cases, complexity measures, and design exploration, I truly
believe each stumble indicates a serious design flaw. The good news is that
while my stumbles may partially track with vision loss and continuing learning the rules of accessibility and assistive technology,
of the ‘curb cut’ principle suggest corrections will smooth the
way for other, abled users who are also troubled with usability difficulties
they cannot understand without the accessibility and usability framework.

Summary of my stumbles on typical .gov tasks

  1. Website: whitehouse.gov

    Task: Find a recent blog post received by RSS

    : stumble: Post was not in recent list, didn’t know how to use archives, didn’t trust search

    Follow up: Navigated around November archive, eventually found links to previous articles

    Suggestions: Factor archives, Use landmark pattern for list sections

    Comments: Now has a text only version but similar navigation problems

    Grade: C. Text Only site isn’t much of an accessibility improvement, please work on organizing this mass of information. RSS feeds more useful than website. Also, use your clout to force social media services to become accessible, too.

  2. Website: Disability.gov

    Task: Discover information about public transportation in local community

    : stumble: Found ” Transportation” main topic but could not reach specific information

    Follow up: Read “how to use” and eventually figured out info organized by state

    Suggestions: “See sidebar” isn’t sufficient so data needs better organization

    Comments: Site content is effectively transmitted by RSS and Twitter. good survey can help improve site

    Grade B: Good process, but not yet organized properly or communicating website use

  3. Website: data.gov

    Task: Trial download of a data set using search form

    : stumble: Very hard to understand search form components distracting headings and social media,

    Follow up: Eventually got search results, but unsatisfactorily

    Suggestions: Start over

    Comments: Only for wonks on salary, not advised for citizens

    Grade: Incomplete, do over, or adapt expensive recovery.gov interface and data management

  4. Website: Recovery.gov

    Task: Find recovery funding projects in Arizona

    : stumble: Locating form for query and then results

    Follow up: Found the form under non descriptive heading, easily set query, drilled down past top of page to text version of results table

    Suggestions: Make the “Track the money” foremost part of page, submerging feature awards and website data

    Comments: $10M+ project needs more usability and accessibility input

Individual Website Analyses

whitehouse.gov — this National Landmark needs ARIA landmarks

I don’t visit this site often but I do read occasional blog and press briefings in my Levelstar Icon RSS client. One article caught my attention, about encouraging Middle Eastern girls, and seemed worth a tweet to my followers with similar interests. But I needed a good web address so set off to navigate myself through the site.

I was surprised to find a link to an “accessible” version, not sure what that mean. It turns out to be “text only” which doesn’t mean much to me if the navigation is the same as a screen reader is abstracting from text decorations anyway. Hence, I was faced with a branching decision with no criteria for which branch to take, somewhat confusing.

As usual to refresh or familiarize myself, I take a “heading tour” to learn the main sections of the site and target the section for my task. Soon, I find the “blog” section but the article list is mainly on President Obama’s Asian trip, not reaching back as far as the article I wanted was a few days old. I declared a “Stumble” by not knowing how to use the archives, needing to train myself and wander a bit more off recording.


Following up later, I found myself confused about the organization of past material. I took the November link but ended up in more heaps of videos, blog posts, briefings, etc. Eventually, I got to blog article lists and found the web construct that linked to past articles, looks like “previous 1 2…. next”.


Answer: DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano blog post on ‘Meeting female students in Abu Dhabi’

To analyze a bit further, let’s separate accessibility from usability. This task seemed to take a little more effort than needed, because I stumbled around learning the archive information architecture and list results patterns. Nothing in the screen reader or the HTML seemed problematic. Headings helped, not hindered. Perhaps this is a stubble that can only be prevented by more practice, but it’s possible we have a jumble of website content that could be factored to make paths easier to follow.

Traversing a list divided into sections is a common pattern, often intermixed with links to articles and media. The list of blog posts was indeed an HTML list that could be followed by items, but got strange at the end the next-previous section is labeled with something like LSQUO, which makes no sense in a screen reader. This construct is also easy to miss using links rather than items. Could this pattern be


standardized (see below)?

Duh, why didn’t I just use the website Search? Unfortunately, I have a deeply ingrained mistrust of site searches, mainly from getting gobs of results that don’t help. Like, how would I know the rules for making a good search query? Is it “Napolitano Abu Dhabi” with quotes where, and default being conjunction? And these words are not the easiest names to type correctly, so is there spelling correction? Well, it turned out “Napolitano” (2nd try) turned up the article about 4 results down but with the same search result bar construct. OK, I’m convinced to bring Search back into my website explorer toolkit. and will work to overcome bad experiences from past generations of website searches.

Overall, I grade myself as a B with my improving mental map of the site, but definitely prefer using the content by RSS feed, i.e. getting blog and briefings spoken from mobile device. Sorry, but whitehouse.gov still gets a C in my ratings, mostly from the need to have a stellar, near perfect website to model for not only .gov but also community, state gov, professional associations, universities, etc. Only 10 months into the website, the amount of content, useful individually, may grow into a giant heap of links that drive citizens away. Regarding accessibility, I simply don’t see the rationale for the text only site and recommend looking ahead to using better overall structure with landmarks (see below).

Disability.gov is very useful but maybe convoluted?

Disability.gov is a regular in both my RSS feed list and Twitter tweetroll. The site has a general framework of disability needs and resources. New resources and classes of resources per day of the week are routinely broadcast. I have a warm feeling when I see these, like somebody is actually looking out for me in that great USG bureaucracy.

For some local surveys, I anticipate needing data and examples of regional transportation systems supported by public and disabled communities. Ok, I know I’m delusional that a conservative wealthy retirement oriented city will even consider such a thing as services for economic, environmental, or social reasons. But, hey, there’s a sliver of hope. Indeed, this is a typical way the USG can foster citizen innovation through better and more transparent data.


The website navigation sidebar is straightforward with tasks and information topics. In the recorded session, I picked Transportation and then got stuck. I had a page headed Transportation, nice, with topic overview, but no real information, just a use the sidebar. Ok, but how? why? After, in my follow up, I figured out that information was organized by state, which makes sense, but wasn’t explicit when I stumbled.

Choosing Arizona from the state list, I found a number of resources, none of which lead directly to the Tri-city Prescott area. Tucson was well represented, but I knew that, been there, seen the buses, and vision services. Overall, I found this site satisfactory, with an encouraging amount of information, but I’m still somewhat befuddled about the relationship between topics and sidebar and details.

At one point, I was presented with a survey. Sure, I’ll give you feedback, thanks for asking. As usual, I didn’t know how long the survey would take, like how many questions. First accessibility glitch was that required fields were designated by some symbol not read by a screen reader in normal mode, probably an asterisk *. That meant I had to switch into listening more punctuation in the screen reader or just answer all questions. Silly, why not say REQUIRED, rather than use a little symbol. Next, I couldn’t figure out the form of answers, which turned out to be radio buttons labeled 1 to 10 and NA. Ok, that’s a lot of tabbing but not overwhelming, as I whizzed through the questions. Then, came a switch to some combo boxes for answers. Annoying, suggesting the survey wasn’t vetted by many people using screen readers, but not really too bad. Do other gov sites have comparable surveys? They should.

Overall, I rate myself and disability.gov with a B. I need more practice, and the website developers need more feedback. But really, I know they’re trying, and somebody will likely read this blog. Good job, and I truly appreciate the resources, framework, and the RSS and tweets.

data.gov for wonks, not citizens


Oh, my, this site is annoying. The headings are sparse and inappropriate. There’s a sideline off to social media sites that aren’t accessible and in the way. A link says “Click here” which indicates deprecated thinking and cluelessness about hyperlinking.

The main purpose of this site is a distribution point for datasets collected from various government agencies distributed in XML, CSV, and other formats usable in spreadsheets and statistical analyzers. Great, but the form is a mess.

I tried to query fo ex ampler datasets, any topic, from National Science Foundation. The agency list is long, painfully, with check boxes. That’s about 40 tab or next line key strokes to get to NSF. Then I found the Submit button. Not so good, which I learned by reading “No search results” at the bottom of the page! Most important effect of a search is to know if it succeeded, produces results, geez! What did I do wrong? Do I need to select format and make an explicit query? Ok, tried that with term “computers”, All Categories, All Agencies. Got 2 results this time, both on illegal exports, spooky and uninteresting.

Argh, I gave up. I’m sure this site will eventually be useful for policy wonks willing to train and practice, but I, an ordinary citizen with a research background, didn’t feel like I could get much out of here. Sadly, the form’s long list of check box agency names uncoordinated and un searchable was painful. But worse was not getting direct feedback about number of or absence of search results combined with uncertainty about the query actually executed. I had little confidence in either the site or myself as searcher, but, luckily, I don’t forecast any personal need for data.gov. Sayonara.

So, I rate this sucker a big Incomplete with good intents but pretty clueless about accessibility and usability. Hey, download NVDA and try this out yourselves, data.gov designers. There are lots of ways to design forms and search results. Back to the design stage, please Now that recovery.gov is launched at great expense, perhaps some of the interface and data management functionality can be used to refresh data.gov, but who am I to reorganize .gov :-)..

Recovery.gov Usable but Cluttered

Well, it wasn’t fun but I can use this website. The big problem is clutter. I go here to “Track the Money” and cannot find the form to do so. Uh, oh. Plenty of stuff about the site itself, some of the big featured expenditures, but where’s the form. Oh, there it is, under heading “Data, Data, and More Data”, cute but not obvious. This time, I decided to drill down on National Science Foundation awards in Arizona. Unlike data.gov, the agency selection was single choice reached by the convention of first letter, N, and a few key strokes to make the selection. All right, but now what?

So, the search seems successful yielding another page with lots of accessibility and agency clutter at the top I had to listen through. Back and forth a bit, I found the link to text presentation of the data, accompanied with a blue map.

Looking for text data, same boring junk at the top then up comes the table of rows of actual data. It’s hard to navigate by row and column, some columns have no real information, like I know I asked for ” National Science Foundation”, read in every row. But painfully working row by row I can find an interesting item like $80K created .17 job –wow! Indeed, the award details is there and readable and interesting.

The big problem with this iteration of Recovery.gov is that the website is in the way. I definitely do not plan to post anything on MySpace social media service but I have to listen to or bypass this silly text and thought too often to learn what’s on a page. It just seems goofy to send a Recovery dataset to a “friend” on a social network, although it could be relevant in a mature Twitter thread. If the gov goal is to incorporate social media into its normal workflow, then there are big questions of stability, accessibility, and much more of these profit-seeking, ad-driven enterprises.

I give myself an A for conquering this site, although I’m still stumbling around tables of data. Recovery.gov gets a B for assembling this information in readable form, although not in dataset forms as relative to missions like data.gov. In other words, it looks like a lot of page scraping to identify trends. My suggestion is simple: get the “Track the money” form front and center and press the website, social media, and features into the background. Overall, better than I expected, although the recording and further use leave a feeling of irritation, like having to sweep off a desk of junk to find a phone to get the information needed. Like, just give me control and let me track the money myself. I’ll be back.

General Suggestions for Improvement

It’s Time to Bring Landmarks to .gov

I’m getting spoiled by really accessible websites like AccessibleTwitter and BookShare that use the ARIA landmark feature to structure pages and search results. For example, the .gov sites could be separated into (1) agency logo and babble, (2) navigation, (3) main content, (4) reference to other gov sites and external services. Bookshare shows how to organize search results integrated with the next-previous results page bar.


Indeed, this brings up the issue of consistency among .gov websites, which could be kind of nice and helpful. Not meaning to squelch individuality of agencies or artistic license or experimentation with diversity, but a citizen wanting a simple answer to an information question isn’t as impressed with decorations as with ease of use, especially on return visits. And visually impaired users especially appreciate predictability, a trait shared with most human beings, when confronted with pure tasks. With all due respect,most visits to gov websites are not for tours through marble halls or to expand social networks to include anonymous civil servants, but rather to get a piece of info as fast and readable as possible.

Should gov sites link to inaccessible social web services? NO!

All gov 2.0 buzz seems to involve social media, as in Twitter, Facebook, and sometimes Flickr and MySpace. But the accessibility of most of these sites is way below that of the .gov sites. Can a website assert it is accessible if it links to patently inaccessible services? I think not. The good news is the movement toward alternatives like Accessible Twitter and accessible versions of YouTube. These should be mentioned in accessibility statements. Or, better yet, no links to unless these billion-dollar enterprises raise their accessibility levels to the acceptable status demonstrate by these alternatives. Perhaps there should be a warning label on sites known to be poorly designed or not for the newbie. The US government uses its clout for diversity, why not also for accessibility?


After spending several hours on these websites, knowing a lot myself about social media, the focus on social stuff seems rather silly considering the weight of the data involved. Am I, is anybody, going to post a link on MySpace or Facebook of a significant query and insight? I doubt it. Rather, these sites give an impression of trying to be oh, so cool, gotta get our stuff out to the fan pages on Facebook. Gimme a break. From a screen reader user, this is just pure clutter in the way of your main mission, stuff I have to listen to redundantly and irrelatively. Try it yourself and determine what value is really added from social media service references so prominently in users’ faces/ears. Even scarier, if gov agencies are adopting these inaccessible, unstable services for actual business, the traditional discrimination policies must come into play, as well as questions about judgement. For example, Twitter is a great news medium, but its rules can, and do, change at any moment.

How about a gov BEST and WORST practices competition?

I personally don’t get any value, but rather irritation, from the skip links and text size adjustments. First, the skip links are often just plain wrong, often enough to mistrust and not worth a false link and recovery. Text size adjustments are relevant to those who need large fonts not supplied by browser adjustments. Pages with good headings and landmarks don’t require skip links. Pages that aren’t crowded with text don’t need on-page text size adjustments.. To me, these are accessibility decorations that amount to screen reader noise. It’s rather jarring to find major inconsistencies among gov websites, e.g. text-only at whitehouse.gov but not others, different HTML form patterns, and greatly varying degrees of conventional accessibility.

As complained about in the whitehouse.gov blog lists, there’s a common pattern that might be nicely standardized. A list of, say 100, items is divided into sections with a bar of links: previous, 1, 2, … next. If you’re drilling down through several pages of results, getting easily into this bar is important. A landmark is a natural way of identifying results.

Does every search form have to be constructed differently? Above tasks required me to figure out the subdivisions of forms (usually not labeled) and then the form elements. There’s probably a special class of gov site users who can whack their way through a form down to a data set in no time. But the ordinary citizen has to struggle through understanding then mastering the form, finding results, and interpreting answers, which can take hours. How about an award for government service by providing a superior form that other sites can emulate? And give those web designers a bonus or promotion, too!

Sum up, getting better? Yes or No?

Overall, although using these sites made me rather grumpy, the trend is toward better accessibility, more usability, and genuine transformation of how citizens use USG data. My wishes are:

  1. Work on clutter and removal and helping users find direct paths to important data, i.e. work on the most significant use cases.
  2. Designers and maintainers of these website should listen to recorded TTS of their pages and contents for several hours to really appreciate the clutter effect of featuritis, accessibility decorations, and social media silliness.
  3. Cut down on the social media crap and rethink what really matters. Yes, these services are useful but really, do they deserve so much prominence? Will they still be here 3 years from now?
    It just seems incongruous to think of sharing recovery datasets with ad-hungry “friend” oriented services. Most serious is the hypocrisy of declaring accessibility on a gov website when these lucrative services so actively ignore accessibility and force visually impaired service users to volunteer developed accessible alternatives.

  4. The most important use of this data is not visible to most citizens. Namely, RSS feeds are the best way for someone to monitor these sites, scanning article titles, downloaded to a mobile device, with rare visits to actual websites. How can the USG foster better offline use of important government developments?
  5. Is there a “curb cut” effect from feedback like this? I hope so, that fixing stumbles precipitated by accessibility bumps and usability gaps will help everybody.
  6. Finally, a cautionary warning I just heard from my CNN news feed. Many recovery awards seem to have fallen into fallacious congressional districts, making the whole record keeping of job data questionable. Apparently citizens reporting award data don’t know what congressional district they belong to (I’m AZ ONE, I think, maybe). Now, data base developers and instructors know, there’s a TRIGGER for that. Zip codes usually map to unique districts but that might not be a requirement or implemented yet. Just saying.

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Social Media for Seniors — Lessons Learned

October 31, 2009

Here are a few things I’ve learned in the past 2 months while working on three projects related to this blog:

  1. “Learning and Sharing on the Social Web”, a lifelong learning course at Yavapai College

  2. “Using Things That Talk”, an assistive technology demonstration session at Yavapai College

  3. 2nd Tuesday AAUW Book Club

General Lessons Learned

  1. Blogs, blogging, and bloggers are still somewhat mystifying, although legitimized by the “Julie and Julia” movie. Some people will readily comment, while most need encouragement. It takes several trips around a blog to understand its structure, find the comment space, and adjust to the theme.

  2. Facebook has driven interest in social media, like “my family wants me to post and view pictures this way, now what?”. While I appreciate the attraction of everybody having a place on the web, similar to the spirit of the recently defunct GeoCities, personally I have several problems with Facebook:
    • I’m turned off by the use of “friend” for every opportunity to snag an email address. This demeans a very important relationship for the sake of advertising placements.
    • The privacy policy is a slipper slope, starting with request for birth date, then more and more info to link up wih “friends”. I do not want to personally segregate people and my personal information, especially when I don’t understand a complex policy.
    • All the interfaces I tried, m.Facebook, lite, and regular were cluttered and sometimes inaccessible with my screen reader

    • As a 30 year veteran of the Internet and early adopter of the Web, I don’t like to see the splitting off and duplication of fan or public sites even if this racks up more interaction.

    So, my Facebook page, says, I hope, that “Susan maintains a blog and an active Twitter stream. Please use these or email”. Uh, and, of course, my vision doesn’t support faces or pictures any more, so I’m outta there.

  3. Many people are perfectly happy with email, specially if they are primarily receivers or have limited interactions. However, anybody on mailing lists with members prone to “reply all” is looking for better solutions, especially if they are coordinators. That’s what drove the AAUW book club above for keeping track of future books, allied information, and questions. I have hopes for, but not yet tried out in a group, the Posterous email-based blogging service
  4. I personally favor using blogs as reference collectors. For example, in the AAUW book club blog are podcasts, articles, and other outlines easily linked in via comments whenever we encounter them. This leaves behind not only a great resource for new members but also for general web browsing. It’s just great to have a place to share a tidbit of information without the fuss of email lists or message replies.
  5. Presenting information in a classroom while visually impaired is easy enough with a helper to run the PC connected to the projector. Since I cannot see much of the projected web page beyond a white on white blur, I just talked away and kept my accompanists on track. However, this got harder when doing the assistive tech demos and the audience members couldn’t all see that well either.

More later when I think of additional or better explanations. By the way, all these activities are lots of fun, engaging me to work hard on my skills, and interact with neat people, whom I thank for the opportunities.

Crossing the RSS Divide – making it simpler and compelling

September 18, 2009


RSS is a web technology for distributing varieties of content to wide audiences with minimal fuss and delay, hence it’s name “Really Simple Syndication”. However, I’m finding this core capability is less well understood and perhaps shares barriers among visually impaired and older adult web users. This article attempts to untangle some issues and identify good explanatory materials as well as necessary web tools. If, indeed, there is an “RSS Divide” rather than just a poor sample of web users and my own difficulties, perhaps the issues are worth wider discussion.

So, what is RSS?

Several good references are linked below, or just search for “RSS explained”. Here’s my own framework:

Think of these inter-twined actions: Announce, Subscribe, Publish, Fetch, Read/Listen/View:

  1. Somebody (called the “Publisher”) has content you’re welcome to read. In addition to producing descriptive web pages, they also tell you an address where you can find the latest content., i.e. often called a “feed”. These are URLs that look like abc.rss or abc.xml and often have words or graphics saying “RSS”.
  2. When the Publisher has something new written or recorded, they or their software, add an address to this feed, i.e. they “publish”. For example, when I publish this article on WordPress, the text will show up on the web page but also my blog feed will have a new entry. You can keep re-checking this page for changes, but that’ wastes your time, right? And sooner or later, you forget about me and my blog, sniff. Here cometh the magic of RSS!
  3. You (the “Subscriber”) have a way, the RSS client of tracking my feed to get the new article. You “subscribe” to my feed by adding its address to this “RSS client”. You don’t need to tell me anything, like your email, just paste the address in the right place to add to the list of feeds the RSS client manages for you. However, s
  4. Now, dear subscriber, develop a routine in your reading life where you decide, “ok, time to see what’s new on all my blog subscriptions”. So you start your RSS client which then visits each of the subscribed addresses and identifies new content. This “Fetch” action is like sending the dog out for the newspapers, should you have such a talented pet. The client visits each subscribed feed and notes and shows how many articles are new or unread in your reading history.

  5. At your leisure, you read the subscribed content not on the Publisher’s website but rather within the RSS client. Now, that content might be text of the web page, or audio (called podcasts), or video, etc. RSS is the underlying mechanism that brings subscribed content to your attention and action.

What’s the big deal about RSS?

The big deal here is that the distribution of content is syndicated automatically and nearly transparently. Publishers don’t do much extra work but rather concentrate on their writing, recording, and editing of content. Subscribers bear the light burden of integrating an RSS client into their reading routines, but this gets easier, albeit with perhaps too many choices. Basically, RSS is a productivity tool for flexible readers. RSS is especially helpful for those of us who read by synthetic speech so we don’t have to fumble around finding a web site then the latest post — it just shows up ready to be heard.


Commonly emphasized, RSS saves you lots of time if you read many blogs, listen to podcasts, or track news frequently. No more trips to the website to find out there’s nothing new, rather your RSS client steers you to the new stuff when and where you’re ready to update yourself. I have 150 currently active subscriptions, in several categories: news (usatoday, cnet, science daily, accesstech,…); blogs (technology, politics, accessibility, …), some in audio. It would take hours to visit all the websites, but the RSS client spans the list and tells me of new articles or podcasts in a few minutes while I’m doing something else, like waking up. With a wireless connection for my RSS client, I don’t even need to get out of bed!


This means I can read more broadly, not just from saving time, but also having structured my daily reading. I can read news when I feel like tackling the ugly topics of the day, or study accessibility by reading blogs, or accumulate podcasts for listening over lunch on the portico. Time saved is time more comfortably used.

Even more, I can structure and retain records of my reading using the RSS client. Mine arranges feeds in trees so I can skip directly to science if that’s what I feel like. I can also see which feeds are redundant and how they bias their selections.


So, RSS is really a fundamental way of using the Web. It’s not only an affordance of more comfort, but also becoming a necessity. When all .gov websites, local or national, plus all charities, etc. offer RSS feeds, it’s assumed citizens are able to keep up and really utilize that kind of content delivery. For example,>whitehouse.gov has feeds for news releases and articles by various officials that complement traditional news channels with more complete and honestly biased content, i.e. you know exactly the sources, in their own words.


The down side of RSS is overload, more content is harder to ignore. That’s why it’s important to stand back and structure reading sources and measure and evaluate reading value, which is enabled by RSS clients.

Now, about those RSS clients


After 2+ years of happily relying on the Levelstar Icon Mobile Manager RSS client, I’m rather abashed at the messy world of web-based RSS clients, unsure what to recommend to someone starting to adopt feeds.

  1. Modern browsers provide basic support for organizing bookmarks, with RSS feeds as a specific type. E.g. Firefox supports “live bookmarks”, recognizing feeds when you click the URL. A toolbar provides names of feeds to load into tabs. Bookmarks can be categorized, e.g. politics or technology. Various add-on components provide sidebar trees of feeds to show in the main reading window. Internet Explorer offers comparable combinations of features: subscribing, fetching, and reading.

  2. Special reader services expand these browser capabilities. E.g. Google Reader organizes trees of feeds, showing number of unread articles. Sadly, Google Reader isn’t at this moment very accessible for screen readers, with difficult to navigate trees and transfer to text windows. Note: I’m searching for better recommendations for visually impaired readers.
  3. I’ve not used but heard of email based RSS readers, e.g. for Outlook. Many feed subscriptions offer email to mail new articles with you managing the articles in folders or however you handle email.
  4. Smart phones have apps for managing feeds, but here again I’m a simple cell phone caller only, inexperienced with mobile RSS. I hear Amazon Kindle will let you buy otherwise free blogs.
  5. Since podcasts are delivered via feeds, services like Itunes qualify but do not support full-blown text article reading and management.

So, I’d suggest first see if your browser version handles feeds adequately and try out a few. Google Reader, if you are willing to open or already have a Google account, works well for many sighted users and can be used rather clumsily if you’re partially sighted like me. Personally, when my beloved Icon needs repair, I find any of the above services far less productive and generally put my feed reading fanaticism on hiatus.

Note: a solid RSS client will export and import feeds from other clients, using an OPML file. Here is Susan’s feeds on news, technology, science, Prescott, and accessibility with several feeds for podcasts. You’re welcome to save this file and edit out the feed addresses or import the whole lot into your RSS client.

Is there more to feeds in the future?

You betcha, I believe. First, feed addresses are data that are shared on many social media sites like Delicious feed manager. This enables sharing and recommending blogs and podcasts among fans.


A farsighted project exploiting RSS feeds is Jon Udell’s Elm City community calendar project. The goal is to encourage local groups to produce calendar data in a standard format with categorization so that community calendars can be merged and managed for the benefit of everybody. Here’s the Prescott Arizona Community Calendar.


The brains behind RS are now working on more distributed real-time distribution of feeds, Dave Winer’s Scripting News Cloud RSS project.


In summary, those who master RSS will be the “speed readers” of the web compared to others waiting for content to show up in their email boxes or wading through ads and boilerplate on websites. Indeed, many of my favorite writers and teachers have websites I’ve never personally visited but still read within a day of new content. This means a trip to these websites is often for the purpose of commenting or spending more time reviewing their content in detail, perhaps over years of archives.

References on RSS

  1. What is RSS? RSS Explained in simple terms

  2. Video on RSS in Plain English
    emphasizing speedy blog reading in web-based RSS readers


  3. Geeky explanations of RSS from Wikipedia

  4. Whitehouse.gov RSS links and explanation (semi-geeky)

  5. Examples of feeds
  6. Diane Rehm podcast show feed

Great!! Twitter has Less to See, More to Say and Hear.

April 22, 2009

This post relates my experiences using the micro-blogging system “twitter”. For once, accessibility issues drift into the background and the educational, emotional, and entertainment aspects of the technology engage me in the social media movement. In summary, an undisciplined person can fritter away mountains of time on molehills of information that pop up in the Twitter landscape created by following choices. However, a person with self-directed interests can find bubbling brooks of content pointers and insights with occasional gold nuggets never otherwise revealed. An alternative title might be “Does Twitter make me fitter? or flitter?”

Please, please, explain twitter

First, what’s the “twitter model” of information flow? Blogs have gained popularity because individuals believe their special interests and expertise attract like-minded readers who can contribute feedback and merge to reach higher goals. Let’s admit that it takes courage to make that first blogging step whether for business survival or personal growth. Twitter concentrates the writing and reading into 140 characters per message, roughly a headline, topic sentence, or link reference. The underlying technology builds on the Publish-Subscribe model that you put your information someplace, others find its location, assess its quality and relevance, then add the location to automated systems, dubbed “clients”, to fetch the latest messages. The Twitter lingo is that you “follow” somebody, others “follow” you, and Twitter central facilitates the broadcast of messages by allowing clients to send and receive messages, including its own website twitter.com. The power of twitter also comes from distributing following-follower lists, enabling, in computational thinking terms, symmetric and “transitive relationships”, where “I follow X ho follows Y who follows Z” and “oh, look, A is following me, looks interesting, so I’ll follow A who also follows B, etc.”.

How does a person, sighted or not, use twitter?

Accessibility issues are minimized to only getting past the account sign-up anti-spam CAPTCHA image or audio at twitter.com. since the main functions of using twitter are inputting 140 or fewer characters and links or buttons to handle following activation, user interfaces are simple, non-visual, and enabled by an API (Application Programming Interface) at Twitter Central.


I use two twitter clients. The Levelstar Icon Mobile Manager Version 2 software provides basic capabilities for sending messages, updating the so-called “tweet roll” of messages from people I follow, as well as checking out my followers and followees by profiles and thei follow contexts. A web interface Accessible Twittter.com applies many principles for making web pages easily usable with a screen reader. Another useful interface, Mobile Twitter offers a spreadsheet look, good for fooling bosses and quick to read.

So, how does one get started in twitter?

After getting my account, Twitter Central showed me some highly followed people, one of whom I knew by name, Slate journalist John Dickerson. Then I thought up people I respected from blogs, podcasts, and books, adding Jon Udell, John Batelle, W. David Stevenson, Danah Boyd, Francine Hardaway, and Denise Howell. That gave me a well-rounded expansion of people whom I respected and could trust to follow worthy thinkers and doers. At some point, I believe centered on Accessible Twitter creator Dennis Lembrée of WebAxe podcast brought me into transitive and cyclic lineages of accessibility gurus. Fortuitously, these folks were organizing a “tweetup at CSUN accessibility conference and I was quickly following a few dozen people I didn’t know who were building a community for sharing their blog writings, insights, complaints, and traveling.


On the other side, now with my own account, I had to figure out what to say, personal and professional, more later on this dilemma.

Why twitter makes me fitter

My take on “social media” is that individuals in society need to both maintain their past affiliated relationships, like co-workers, while expanding their options and facilitating personal growth. This gets very interesting when generations, genders, and interests cross traditional social boundaries. My selection of people to follow has one common criterion: independent thinkers, solo proprietors, those who “own their minds” with any company affiliation in the background. I care not a wit for any organizational tricks or complaints. Messages from such people are often like “well, here’s this great insight, but nobody here to tell, except the cat/dog, a good mid-afternoon tweet treat for myself”. More often I see the straightforward “worth reading to learn X, here’s the link”. For me, as receiver, this adds up to a dozen or so tabs and web pages lined up in my browser, kind of a morning clipping service. Since I’m learning about accessibility and assistive technology, I’m getting a daily reading list and lessons from experts whom I trust to know what’s important.


The cross-generational aspects of twitter are fascinating. In physical life, I attend lifelong learning courses and book clubs where, at age 66, I’m often one of the younger members, so story telling extends back before WW II and parents in the Depression (the previous one). Not surprisingly, one sometimes hears grumbling about “those kids and their toys”, which I also co-exist with at home. On twitter, I’m an elder lurker, used to being the invisible older woman, trying to inject my own decades of experience, expecting little interest — “who cares about email in the 1970s?”.


Also intriguing is the cross-over of geographical and technical interests, e.g. learning about Jon Udell’s “Calendar Curation” project, including nitty-gritty technical things I can still understand, if not perform. I also keep up on electronic publishing, government data,Arizona entrepreneurs, and general technology, almost anything except boring past professional organizations and hard to find local connections.


To cite one of those nuggets of gold, my tweet role is currently filled with reports of the Trends at a European conference on accessibility for the Aging. Just hearing the stream of topics provides the collage of technical and social concerns, while I register mentally those slides I want to peruse for my recurring theme posting on vision loss, including advice for care-givers.

How does twitter make me flitter?

One thing I do get better at with age is managing my energy level. The rules are simple. “Add a follower, measure whether you’re at a limit of time or interest, demote something”. Also recognize “context switching takes energy, so confine contexts to current interest”. In other words, you cannot keep up with everything, so must, always, be trimming back. This gets harder when you must delete yourself as a follower of a person you like but don’t need. Sadly, hey, if I have to keep skipping or reading tweets I dislike or don’t care about, I’m soon going to disregard that person, so better drop this relationship sooner. Snip, see you later.


I’m luckily immune to most pop culture, but occasionally do need a dash of heart tugging or mockery or irritation. Ok, I confess, I couldn’t tell you one thing about American Idol but I’m compelled to keep up with Britain talent Susan Boyle phenomenon. Those judges smirking at her age and looks, telling her they’d laughed at her, gets my feminism and ageism ire going. But seeing somebody have a lifetime high moment, and do a fantastic performance, well, that makes me feel ever so human. Don’t tell me the show is rigged.

Twitter for the Vision Loser

I hope you’ve now seen that Twitter is a great match with needs of this Vision Loser, maybe others.

  1. With a text-based technology, there are no complex interfaces to master. Indeed Accessible Twitter is designed with the best practices to streamline reading and writing in Twitter.

  2. The twitter user world, millions of people with varied interests, offer a mixed blend of personal, professional, and avocational content. Find the people you like, the people they like, and you can be on the fringes of ongoing conversations to deepen and broaden your interests. Yes, this is like over-hearing art experts discussing a portrait in a gallery, but what’s wrong with that?

  3. Most charitable organizations are now on twitter, e.g. Red Cross, Lions Club, NFB, etc. Vision-related advocacy cropped in the
    Amazon Kindle publisher guild petitions and protest. VisionAware and Fred’s Head from APH offer a steady diet of news about vision related topics and assistive technology. And this VisionLoser formed her own self-study of the accessibility field from trickle down tweets.

  4. Step out yourself by replying to tweets when you know something relevant. That’s one way to gain followers and enter the community. And start your own follower-ship by invitation and productive posting.

  5. Pay no attention to the million-follower celebrity races unless you dig playing their games. You can find your own playground and make your own acquaintances. And, ugly words like “friend
    “, as in somebody’s name added to a list, is cultural inanity. However, real relationships do build over time by reading blog or twitter thoughts.
    But oh, that very first tweet, like any “first”, can be scary. The prompt is “What are you doing?” which can be translated into now, right this moment? today’s big challenges? for the rest of my life? You can start out personal or think for 2 days, but probably nobody cares either way. In a month or so, you develop your own rhythm and style of posting. That’s where personal growth comes in, as you discover what matters enough to post or withhold, how to condense a though into 140 characters, and integrate twitter information flows into your reading and learning. Twitter is seductive, like writing a journal, and evaluating your goals and progress.

  6. Suppose you succumb to “twitter fritter” and waste scads of time with little return? We all have that problem and need to find our own self-control mechanisms. For me, this is an internalalization of battery drain with intellectual and emotional energy signaling the value of certain communications. Another problem is privacy concern, since you’re giving away your whereabouts and daily routine, but that’s part of what we have given up for a technological society, or formerly living in a small village.

  7. Here are a few general readings:

Follow me on Twitter at slger123