Posts Tagged ‘software engineering’

Beyond Universal Design – Through Multi-Sensory Representations

January 8, 2011

<The following recommendation was offered at the CyberLearning workshop addressed in the previous post on CyberLearning and Lifelong Learning and Accessibility. The post requires background in both accessibility and national funding policies and strategies.

This is NOT an official statement but rather a proposal for discussion. Please comment on the merits.

Motivation: CyberLearning must be Inclusive

To participate fully in CyberLearning, persons with disabilities must be able to apply their basic learning skills using assistive technology in the context of software, hardware, data, documentation,, and web resources. Trends toward increased use of visualizations both present difficulties and open new arenas for innovative applications of computational thinking.

Often, the software, hardware, and artifacts have not been engineered for these users, unforeseen uses, and integration with a changing world of assistive tools. Major losses result: persons with disabilities are excluded or must struggle; cyberlearning experiments do not include data from this population; and insights from the cognitive styles of diverse learners cannot contribute to the growth of understanding of cyberlearning.

Universal Design Goals

Universal design embodies a set of principles and engineering techniques for producing computational tools and real world environments for persons usually far different from the original designers. A broader design space is explored with different trade-offs using results from Science of Design (a previous CISE initiative). Computational thinking emphasizes abstraction to manage representations that lead to the core challenges for users with disabilities and different learning styles. For example, a person with vision loss may use an audio channel of information received by text to speech as opposed to a graphical interface for visual presentation of the same underlying information. The right underlying semantic representation will separate the basic information from its sensory-dependent representations, enabling a wider suite of tools and adaptations for different learners. This approach transcends universal design by tapping back into the learning styles and methods employed effectively by persons with many kinds of disabilities, which may then lead to improved representations for learners with various forms of computational and data literacy…

Beyond Universal Design as Research

beyond Universal Design” suggests that striving for universal design opens many research opportunities for understanding intermediate representations, abstraction mechanisms, and how people use these differently. This approach to CyberLearning interbreeds threads of NSF research: Science of design and computational thinking from CISE +human interaction (IRIS)+many programs of research on learning and assessment. +…

Essential Metadata Requirements

A practical first step is a system of meta-data that clearly indicates suitability of research software and associated artifacts for experimental and outreach uses. For example, a pedagogical software package designed to engage K-12 students in programming through informal learning might not be usable by people who cannot drag and drop objects on a screen. Annotations in this case may serve as warnings that could avoid exclusion of such students from group activities by offering other choices or advising advance preparation. Of course, the limitations may be superficial and easily addressed in some cases by better education of cyberlearning tool developers regarding standards and accessibility engineering.

Annotations also delimit the results of experiments using the pedagogical software, e.g. better describing the population of learners.

In the context of social fairness and practical legal remedies as laid out by the Department of Justice regarding the Amazon Kindle and other emerging technology, universities can take appropriate steps in their technology adoption planning and implementation.

Policies and Procedures to Ensure Suitable Software

For NSF, appropriate meta-data labeling then leads to planning and eventual changes in ways it manages its extensive base of software. Proposals may be asked to include meta-data for all software used in or produced by research. Operationally, this will require pro posers to become familiar with the standards and methods for engineering software for users employing adaptive tools. While in the short run, this remedial action may seem limiting, in the long run the advanced knowledge will produce better designed and more usable software. At the very least, unfortunate uses of unsuitable software may be avoided in outreach activities and experiments.
Clearly, NSF must devise a policy for managing unsuitable software, preferably within a 3 year time frame from inception of a meta-data labeling scheme.

Opportunities for Multi-Sensory Representation Research

Rather than viewing Suitable Software as a penalty system, NSF should find many new research programs and solicitation elements. For example, visual and on visual (e.g. using text-to–speech) or mouse version speech input representations can be compared for learning effectiveness. Since many persons with disabilities are high functioning in STEM, better understanding of how they operate may well lead to innovation representations.

Additionally, many representations taken for granted by scientists and engineers may not be as usable by a wider citizenry with varying degrees of technical literacy. For example, a pie chart instantly understandable by a sighted person may not hold much meaning for people who do not understand proportional representations and completely useless for a person without sight, yet be rendered informative by tactile manipulation or a chart explainer module.

Toward a Better, Inclusive Workforce

Workforce implications are multi-fold. First, a population of STEM tool developers better attuned to needs of persons with disabilities can improve cyberlearning for as much as 10% of the general population. Job creation and retention should improve for many of the estimated 70% unemployed and under-employed persons with disabilities, offering both better qualities of life and reduced lifetime costs of social security and other sustenance. There already exists an active corps of technologically adept persons with disabilities with strong domain knowledge and cultural understanding regarding communities of disabilities. The “curb cuts” principle also suggests that A.D.A. adaptations for persons with disabilities offer many unforeseen, but tacitly appreciated, benefits for a much wider population and at reasonable cost. NSF can reach out to take advantage of active developers with disabilities to educate its own as well as the STEM education and development worlds.

Summary of recommendation

  1. NSF adopt a meta-data scheme that labels cyberlearning research products as suitable or different abilities, with emphasis on the current state of assistive technology and adaptive methods employed by persons with disabilities.

  2. NSF engage its communities in learning necessary science and engineering for learning by persons with disabilities, e.g. using web standards and perhaps New cyberlearning tools developed for this purpose.

  3. NSF develop a policy for managing suitability of software, hardware, and associated artifacts in accordance with civil rights directives to universities and general principles of fairness.

  4. NSF establish programs to encourage innovation in addressing problems of unsuitable software and opportunities to create multiple representations using insights derived from limitations as of software as well as studies of high performing learners with disabilities.

  5. NSF work with disability representing organizations to identify explicit job opportunities and scholarships for developers specializing in cyberlearning tools and education of the cyberlearning education and development workforce.

Note: this group may possibly be
National Center on Technology Innovation

What if Accessibility had a Capability Maturity Model?

April 29, 2010

The field of software engineering made notable strides in the 1990s when the Department of Defense promulgated via its contracting operations a Capability Maturity Model supported by a Software Engineering Center (*SEI) at Carnegie-Mellon University. Arguably, the model and resulting forces were more belief-based than experimentally validated, but “process improvement through measurement” became a motivating mantra. For more detail see the over-edited Wikipedia article on CMM.

This post is aimed at accessibility researchers and at managers and developers of products with an accessibility requirement, explicitly or not. Visually impaired readers of this post may find some ammunition for accessibility complaints and for advice to organizations they work with.

The 5 Levels of Maturity Model

Here are my interpretations of the 5 levels of capability maturity focused on web accessibility features:

Chaotic, Undefined. Level 1

Each web designer followed his or her own criteria for good web pages, with no specific institutional target for accessibility. Some designers may know W3C standards or equivalents but nothing requires the designers to use them.

Repeatable but still undefined Level 2

Individual web designers can. through personal and group experience, estimate page size, say in units of HTML elements and attributes. Estimation enables better pricing against requirements. Some quality control is in place, e.g. using validation tools, maybe user trials, but the final verdict on suitability of web sites for clients rests in judgements of individual designers. Should those designers leave the organization, their replacements have primarily prior products but not necessarily any documented experience to repeat the process or achieve comparable quality.

Defined Level 3

Here, the organization owns the process which is codified and used for measurement of both project management and product quality. For example, a wire frame or design tool might be not a designer option but rather a process requirement subject to peer review. Standards such as W3c might be applied but are not as significant for capability maturity as that SOME process is defined and followed.

Managed Level 4

At this level, each project can be measured for both errors in product and process with the goal of improvement. Bug reports and accessibility complaints should lead to identifiable process failures and then changes.

Optimizing Level 5

Beyond Managed Level 4, processes can be optimized for new tools and techniques using measurements and data rather than guesswork. For example, is “progressive enhancement” an improvement or not?” can be analytically framed in terms of bug reports, customer complaints, developer capabilities, product lines expansion, and many other qualities.

How well does CMM apply to accessibility?

Personally, I’m not at all convinced a CMM focus would matter in many environments, but still it’s a possible way to piggy back on a movement that has influenced many software industry thinkers and managers.

Do standards raise process quality?

It seems obvious to me that standards such as W3C raise awareness of product quality issues that force process definition and also provide education on meeting the standards. But is a well defined standard either necessary or sufficient for high quality processes?

An ALT tag standard requires some process point where ALT text is constructed and entered into HTML. A process with any measurement of product quality will involve flagging missing ALT texts which leads to process improvement because it’ is so patently silly to have required rework on such a simple task. Or are ALT tags really that simple? A higher level of awareness of how ALT tags integrate with remaining text and actually help visually impaired page users requires more sensitivity and care and review and user feedback. The advantage of standards is that accessibility and usability qualities can be measured in a research context with costs then amortized across organizations and transformed into education expenses. So, the process improvement doesn’t immediately or repeatably lead to true product quality, but does help as guidance.

Does CMM apply in really small organizations?

Many web development projects are contracted through small one-person or part-time groups. Any form of measurement represents significant overhead on getting the job done. For this, CMM spawned the Personal and Team Software Processes for educational and industrial improvements. Certainly professionals who produce highly accessible web sites have both acquired education and developed some form of personal discipline that involved monitoring quality and conscious improvement efforts.

Should CMM influence higher education?

On the other hand, embedded web development may inherit its parent organization quality and development processes, e.g. a library or IT division of a university. Since the abysmal level of accessibility across universities and professional organizations suggest lack of attention and enforcement of standards is a major problem. My recorded stumbling around Computer Science websites surfaced only one organization that applied standards I followed to navigate web pages effectively, namely, University of Texas, which has a history of accessibility efforts. Not surprisingly, an accessibility policy reinforced with education and advocacy and enforcement led small distributed departmental efforts to better results. Should by lawsuit or even education commitment to educational fairness for persons with disability suddenly change the law of the land, at least one institution stands out as a model of both product and process quality.

Organizations can define really awful processes

A great example of this observation is Unrepentant’s blog and letter to DoJ about PDF testimonies. Hours of high-minded social justice and business case talk was represented in PDF of plaint text on Congressional websites. Not only is PDF a pain for visually impaired people, no matter how much it applies accessibility techniques, the simple fact of requiring an application external to the browser, here Adobe Reader, is a detriment to using the website on many devices such as my Levelstar Icon or smart phones. My bet is that sure enough there’s a process on Congressional websites, gauged to minimize effort by exporting WORD docts into PDF and then a quick upload. The entire process is wrong-headed when actual user satisfaction is considered, e.g. how often are citizens with disabilities and deviant devices using or skipping reading valuable testimony and data? Indeed, WCAG standards hint, among many other items, that, surprise, web pages use HTML that readily renders strings of texts quite well for reading across a wide variety of devices, including assistive technology.

The message here is that a Level 3 process such as “export testimony docs as PDF” is detrimental to accessibility without feedback and measurement of actual end usage. The Unrepentant blogger claims only a few hours of work required for a new process producing HTML, which I gratefully read by listening on the device of my choice in a comfortable location and, best of all, without updating the damned Adobe reader.

Quality oriented organizations are often oblivious about accessibility

The CMM description in the URL at the start of this article is short and readable but misses the opportunity to include headings, an essential semantic markup technique. I had to arrow up and down this page to extract the various CMM levels rather than apply a heading navigation as in this blog post. Strictly speaking the article is accessible by screen reader but I wouldn’t hire the site’s web designer if accessibility were a requirement because there’s simply much more usability and universality well worth applying.

I have also bemoaned the poor accessibility of professional computing organization websites>. Until another generation of content management systems comes along, it’s unlikely to find improvement in these websites although a DoJ initiative could accelerate this effort.

CMM questions for managers, developers, educators, buyers, users

So, managers, are your web designers and organization at the capability level you desire?

How would you know?

  1. Just sample a few pages in WAVE validator from Errors flagged by WebAim are worth asking web developers? do these errors matter? how did they occur? what should be changed or added to your process, if any? But not all errors are equally important, e.g. unlabelled forms may cause abandoned transactions and lost sales while missing ALT tags just indicate designer ignorance. And what if WAVE comes up clean? Now you need to validate the tool against your process to know if you’re measuring the right stuff. At the very least, every manager or design client has a automated feedback in seconds from tools like WAVE and a way to hold web developers accountable for widespread and easily correctable flaws.
  2. Ask for the defined policy. would an objective like W3C standards suffice? Well, that depends on costs within the organization’s process, including both production and training replacements.
  3. Check user surveys and bug reports. Do these correspond to the outputs of validation tools such as WebAim’s WAVE?
  4. Most important, check for an accessibility statement and assure you can live with its requirements and that they meet social and legal standards befitting your organizational goals.

Developers, are you comfortable with your process?

Level 1 is often called “ad hoc” or “chaotic” for a reason, a wake up call. For many people, a defined process seems constraining of design flexibility and geek freedom. For others, a process gets out of the way many sources of mistakes and interpersonal issues about ways of working. Something as trivial as a missing or stupid ALT tag hardly seems worthy of contention yet a process that respects accessibility must at some point have steps to insert, and review ALT text, requiring only seconds in simple cases and minutes if a graphic lacks purpose or context, with many more minutes if the process mis-step shows up only in a validator or user test. Obviously processes can have high payoffs or receive the scolding from bloggers like Unrepentant and me if the process has the wrong goal.

Buyers of services or products for web development, is CMM a cost component?

Here’s where high leverage can be attained or lost. Consider procuring a more modern content management system. Likely these vary in the extent to which they export accessible content, e.g. making it easier or harder to provide semantic page outlines using headings. There are also issues of accessibility of the CMS product functions to support developers with disabilities.

In the context of CMM, a buyer can ask the same questions as a manager about a contractor organizations’ process maturity graded against an agreed upon accessibility statement and quality assessment.

Users and advocates, does CMM help make your case?

If we find pages with headings much, much easier to navigate but a site we need to use lacks headings, it’s constructive to point out this flaw. It seems obvious that a web page with only an H4 doesn’t have much process behind its production, but is this an issue of process failure, developer education, or missing requirements? If, by any chance, feedback and complaints are actually read and tracked, a good manager would certainly ask about the quality of the organization’s process as well as that of its products.

Educators,does CMM thinking improve accessibility and usability for everyone?

Back to software engineering, getting to Level 5 was a BFD for many organizations, e.g. related to NASA or international competition with India enterprises. Software engineering curricula formed around CMM and government agencies used it to force training and organizational change. The SEI became a major force and software engineering textbooks had a focus for several chapters on project management and quality improvement. Frankly, as a former software engineering educator, I tended to skim this content to get to testing which I considered more interesting and concrete and relevant.

By the way, being sighted at the time, I didn’t notice the omission of accessibility as a requirement or standards body of knowledge. I have challenged Computing Education blogger and readers to include accessibility somewhere in courses, but given the combination of accreditation strictures and lack of faculty awareness, nothing is likely to happen. Unless, well, hey, enforcement just might change these attitudes. My major concern is that computing products will continue to be either in the “assistive technology ghetto” or costly overhauls because developers were never exposed to accessibility.

Looking for exemplars, good or bad?

Are there any organizations that function at level 5 for accessibility and how does that matter for their internal costs and for customer satisfaction as well as legal requirements?

Please comment if your organization has ever considered issues like CMM and where you consider yourself in a comparable level.

Story: A Screen Reader Salvages a Legacy System

October 30, 2009

This post tells a story of how the NVDA Screen Reader helped a person with vision loss solve a former employment situation puzzle. Way to go, grandpa Dave, and thanks for permission to reprint from the NVDA discussion list on

Grandpa Dave’s Story

From: Dave Mack
To: nvda

Date: Oct 29

Subj: [nvda] Just sharing a feel good experience with NVDA
Hi, again, folks, Grandpa Dave in California, here –
I have hesitated sharing a recent experience I had using NVDA because I know this list is primarily for purposes of reporting bugs and fixes using NVDA. However, since this is the first community of blind and visually-impaired users I have joined since losing my ability to read the screen visually, I have decided to go ahead and share this feel-good experience where my vision loss has turned out to be an asset for a group of sighted folks. A while ago, a list member shared their experience helping a sighted friend whose monitor had gone blank by fixing the problem using NVDA on a pen drive so I decided to go ahead and share this experience as well – though not involving a pen drive but most definitely involving my NVDA screen reader.

Well, I just had a great experience using NVDA to help some sighted folks where I used to work and where I retired from ten years ago. I got a phone call from the current president of the local Federal labor union I belonged to and she explained that the new union treasurer was having a problem updating their large membership database with changes in the union’s payroll deductions that they needed to forward to the agency’s central payroll for processing. She said they had been working off-and-on for almost three weeks and no one could resolve the problem even though they were following the payroll change instructions I had left on the computer back in the days I had written their database as an amateur programmer. I was shocked to hear they were still using my membership database program as I had written it almost three decades ago! I told her I didn’t remember much abouthe dBase programming language but I asked her to email me the original instructions I had left on the computer and a copy of the input commands they were keying into the computer. I told her I was now visually impaired, but was learning to use the NVDA screen reader and would do my best to help. She said even several of the Agency’s programmers were
stumped but they did not know the dBase program language.

A half hour later I received two email attachments, one containing my thirty-year-old instructions and another containing the commands they were manually keying into their old pre-Windows computer, still being used by the union’s treasurer once-a-month for payroll deduction purposes. Well, as soon as I brought up the two documents and listened to a comparison using NVDA, I heard a difference between what they were entering and what my instructions had been. They were leaving out some “dots, or periods, which should be included in their input strings into the computer. I called the Union’s current president back within minutes of receiving the email. Everyone was shocked and said they could not see the dots or periods. I told them to remember they were probably still using a thirty-year-old low resolution computer monitor and old dot-matrix printer which were making the dots or periods appear to be part of letters they were situated between.

Later in the day I got a called back from the Local President saying I had definitely identified the problem and thanking me profusely and said she was telling everyone I had found the cause of the problem by listening to errors non of the sighted folks had been able to see . And, yes, they were going to upgrade their computer system now after all these many years. (laughing) I told her to remember this experience the next time anyone makes a wisecrack about folks with so-called impairments. She said it was a good lesson for all. Then she admitted that the reason they had not contacted me sooner was that they had heard through the grapevine that I was now legally blind and everyone assumed I would not be able to be of assistance. What a mistake and waste of time that ignorant assumption was, she confessed.

Well, that’s my feel good story, but, then, it’s probably old hat for many of you. I just wanted to share it as it was my first experience teaching a little lesson to sighted people in my
own small way. with the help of NVDA. –

Grandpa Dave in California

Moral of the Story: Screen Readers Augment our Senses in Many Ways = Invitation to Comment

Do you have a story where a screen reader or similar audio technology solved problems where normal use of senses failed? Please post a comment.

And isn’t it great that us older folks have such a productive and usable way of overcoming our vision losses? Thanks, NVDA projectn developers, sponsors, and testers.

Web Inaccessibility — Are Missing, Muddle Use Cases the Culprit?

November 14, 2007

Web Inaccessibility — Are Missing, Muddle Use Cases the Culprit?

As I have been learning to traverse websites using the nvda screen reader (previous post) I try to formulate the principles of design and implementation that make this task more or less productive, as well as pleasurable. At the same time, I have been tutoring myself in the accessibility literature, mostly in the form of blogs and podcasts. This post recounts some of my frustrations, diagnoses possible remedies, and a sweeping conjecture about the root cause of much web inaccessibility and difficult usability.

As I improve my proficiency with the nvda screen reader and learn to navigate web sites by voice and keyboard, I am constantly amazed at how hard it can be to get where you want to go and avoid heading down the many, well, blind alleys. I am an Internet veteran: first email around 1976, worked with protocol pioneer Jon Postel, saw Mosaic in late 1992, had my first web page in 1993, set up my first domain name and website in 1995, and several websites since, plus writing search analysis software, Java applets used around the world for security training, and a podcatcher for partially sighted people like me. However, all too often, I find myself fumbling, stumbling, and cursing my way around websites, wondering why using a browser with a screen reader is so difficult, error prone, and exhausting. Is it the tools I am using? or my admitted status as self-trained beginner in the low vision world? ignorant of accessibility tricks and techniques? or maybe I expect the task to be easier than possible, for me or others?

To document my environment: Windows XP on tablet PCs, Mozilla Firefox browser used for over 3 years, TextAloud toolbar for reading and zooming on pages, nvda screen reader used for 2 months as discussed in previous post, responsive natural synthetic voices, pretty good bandwidth on home wireless and cable. My main browser interactions: h for heading to page sections; k to links; control F for quick find page search; tab among page items; up and down arrows through lines; page up up, down, home, and end to page boundaries; INS + down to read consecutively down a page; INS + BLANK to pass through typing into form fields; control K to start a search; control L to open a new site.

Here are a few situations, complaints, diagnoses, and remedies.

Booking a flight on USAir, fondly known in Arizona as America West. I cannot find the boxes to query for flight schedules then make a choice and book the flight. So I reluctantly call the 800 number, beg my way out of the $10 booking penalty, and hope for a good fare. The problem in software design terms is that USAIR has scrambled its use cases together on the first page, providing last minute specials, detours to frequent flier data, wonderful offers of cruises and vacations, and practically everything the airline does. On a good sight day, I can locate the depart/arrive boxes to start, but screenless. Like many commercial booking websites, I give a rating of “hopeless jumble of links” although the sites may still conform to the letter of accessibility rules.

Amazon has also seemed like another jumble of links: recommendations, my account, searches for all kinds of items, invitations to become a seller. But, thankfully, there is a link to a more accessible streamlined page I can actually use most of the time. It is ironic that the needs for mobile users to see small screens coincides with the needs of visually impaired users to traverse streamlined web pages. This allows me to get most of a pre-defined purchase completed, going into exploration and recommendation mode when I choose rather than as obstacles on the route to a purchase. I still need sighted help to get the coupon numbers copied onto the purchase page, but transaction appear less daunting now on Amazon. Actually, on return recently, the website appears to be undergoing a makeover from accessibility experts – kudos to them!

Hurrah!! it is so exhilarating to see a simple page show up, just like the early days of the web, before images, adsense, navigation bars, dynamic content, etc. So, here is a remedy when doing battle with a complex commercial site: Look for a “basic HTML”, “mobile friendly”, “mobile optimized” link and throw back to the early days of the web. Thanks to Allison Sheridan for urging me in this direction on her vision-friendly NoscillaCast podcast.

How about search sites? Well, google is pretty good at separating its search results with headings with intervening links to google alternatives, including the extremely valuable “view as HTML” that avoids a cycle of save, import, export as text, and listen rather than open the usually unneeded Microsoft Word and Adobe PDF. On the other hand, the tagged and search-based gmail is a tangled overlay of use cases. For example, archiving messages by a filter requiring several steps down to a filter label, over to a select all link click, combo pull down to Archive list item, and return to Inbox. In single step mode,, one can check the box for conversations the find the archive button. Or there are keyboard shortcuts that my mind simply boggles at learning. At least reading gmail is enabled by a pop3 account on my Icon or, soon to be, fully voiced Mozilla Thunderbird. Google offers a separate search that weights accessibility into its search results, but I have not used it sufficiently to comment.

Blog readability varies a lot, but at least there is a common structure: entries with associated reply and comment fields; archives; blogrolls of links; and assorted meta data and added pages. The clincher is choice of template to place navigation bars relative to blog entries — right and below being best for screen readers and spoken RSS clients. While not easy, the wordpress dashboard is usable through a combination of good structure and parsimonious informative link labels.

Government Web Sites often, while conform ant with the so-called 508 mandate, follow a recognizable organizational or legislative hierarchy, sometimes with a touch of hilarity. I’m familiar with the NSF Fastlane proposal management system, which has changed little in the past 5 years except for an accretion of bureaucratic guano. It took me 17 tabs to get to the login box on one page, covering links about travel, registration, policies here, manuals there when the sole purpose most users would be on this page was to enter username then password. Later I found myself scrolling over a large block of text to the worksheet, a rendition of workload requirements that nobody in their right mind would read except for a hapless blind person who got stuck there. My complaints to a government representative were duly noted and agreed with but it will take a very fresh perspective to turn a bureaucratic haystack into a really usable website, well beyond the purview of accessibility standards that may simply divert attention to the wrong details.

I was highly impressed recently on the website when a link came up for screen readers. Following that path, I soon ran into the hilariously dumb “Click here” link text that should be a red flag for any accessibility analysis clickhere for what? And there was a sequence of “click here” on a page expressly designed for screen readers! Geez, where are the accessibility police?

Well, that’s enough complains, what does the literature of accessibility tell us? First, there are the common sense guidelines, see links below, that mention the sensible ordering, link text, graphic ALT tags, use of headings to reveal page structure. Any trip into the standards literature shows how complex the language and tradeoffs are, when compiled by a group of experts trying to reach a consensus — not an easy read for anybody, and a good excuse for routine web designers to avoid thinking about accessibility. The standout book for me is “Constructing Accessible Websites” which tours the landscape of HTML and CSS as well as the legal issues, e.g. can that routine web designer be held accountable for violating ADA laws?

Blogs such as “A List Apart”, WebAxe, WebAim, etc. often delve into highly technical issues of web accessibility at a feature and technology level. The tradeoffs of writing a web page one way or another are often poorly understood and tricky to articulate so the expense of apaplying a particular rule can be hard to justify. Indeed, my technical background combined with my accessibility needs leads me to commiserate with people who must deal with accessibility, especially late in website design or even later in mintenance, violating the software process rule that cost escalates with delay in addressing a solid requirement.

I have been confusing two terms here, “accessibility” and “usability”, with the latter my main concern. Accessibility is more technical in stipulating that the system stack of hardware, operating system, applications, and screen display provide sufficient and correct information about the screen data state and events to screen readers to interpret and pass onto uers. This architecture is historical and, I believe, wrong to its core now that we have a “speech channel” that could throw the responsibility for interpretation and amplification of data provided to bypass or supplement the screen reader ,, but that’s a future posting. Usability refers to the bottom line of whether users can complete the tasks at hand. Inaccessible features here and there may be barriers to usability but issues of separation of content and presentation, well-planned navigation, and display of the right stuff at the right time most determine usability.

For this Vision Loser, there is an internal batter reading of energy consumed by tasks, enabling me t to predict impossible tasks and schedule smaller chunks of work that can be completed. We have noted in our post on “Extreme Voting” that voting tasks fall in the range of Olympic events which must be completed under severe time constraints with no prior training or practice, complicated further by long ballots. To sighted people open to a comparable challenge: use a talking ATM to withdraw $100 in less than 1 minute.

A few conclusions are:

  • The book “Constructing Web Accessibility” validates my navigation complaints as common and often cured by “link to content”, “jump to sidebar”, modest sized navigation bars, supers mart screen readers able to recognize chunks of HTML as non-content to bypass, and and avoiding the pernicious dumb “click here” or “learn more” link. These are sign posts of attention of web site designers toward accessibility and techniques to improve my browsing practice.
  • Indeed, I am not fully empowered by my chosen screen reader to jump comfortably to all parts of a pages I will wait for the next version, partially developed under a Mozilla grant, to determine whether this youthful product is remiss and watch carefully for the productivity improvements noted above. Meantime, I can live with excess links as long as I know where I am situated on a page, e.g. by a “heading tour”.
  • I just can’t help but reverse engineer each transactional website into its use cases and mentally Write an introduction I wish were available as a spoken site overview.
  • The trend toward mobile pages offers a practical remedy for working on many websites, with hope for momentum to alter web design.

So, what is the big deal with “use cases”? The sweeping conclusion.

The concept is quite simple: a system’s design starts, in part, from a suite of named paths through the system’s eventual operations interleaved with those of users and other systems. Each use case has a precondition for its proper execution, a post condition stating the changes and outputs, and considerations of errors and options. In practice, a use case analysis can take several weeks and result in multiple pages of structured text and graphics, sometimes produced by CASE computer-assisted software engineering tools. This kind of stuff is taught presently in software engineering and object-oriented design analysis courses.

My complaint is that these use cases, whether explicit or not, are then mapped into a few web pages with forms, combo boxes, and text labels. The situation is close to what we called in the 1970s “spaghetti code” where control flow was woven through small sections of code because the state of programming languages did not sufficiently support modularity or the world view of object orientation. HTML is the assembly language that is unfortunately available to thousands of web designers not educated in the more advanced methodology and tool base that systematized programming to some extent.

The sighted person has an intuitive grasp of what each form needs and the physical agility to complete it and to detect and correct mistakes. The visually impaired person must somehow parse how the use cases, find the appropriate forms, meet the unidentified preconditions, find error message and fault locations, avoid cancel buttons, and complete the task before a time-out, wireless failure, or automatic PC update invalidates minutes, or hours, of tedious work.

Note again how nicely the “mobile revolution” can cooperate with accessibility. A site developer must identify the most important use cases to place on a mobile-friendly page, strip off ads and special offers, put the function forms prominent, and not clutter the page with navigation. That busy traveler needing to order a gadget without recommendation use cases, frequent purchaser signups, and the latest added options’ — and so does the visually impaired user. Separate and save the recommendations, special offer shopping, and account management until the transaction is completed or for idle browsing moments.

Looking back at our examples: a flight schedule lookup should not be cluttered by cruise offers; a log-on to enter a review system should not be over-run with travel instructions; a workload policy is worth no more than a link off a worksheet page, at worst at the bottom; navigation bars aren’t relevant to most use cases; and a mail archive is a lot different than an email lookup. Accessibility writings warn of the difficulties presented by mixing presentation with structured content, e.g. omitting headings. An insidious practice seems to be the desire to make all use cases available on a single page. This is a weird form of optimization I wish someone could explain to me. Is this optimization a root cause of broken rules of accessibility, poor structure, an insurmountable challenge to screen readers, and a constant pain to visually impaired users?

Not surprisingly, a search on terms “use cases and assistive technology” or “use cases web page accessibility” shows some interest in this topic in the w3c and usability communities. My epiphany for my own learning and continued improvement in web skills is that it helps to construct a mental map of the use cases and how they are implemented in the navigation and interaction items of a website, whether on a single page or across a site. My wish is that web page designers would present an overview of their web site in use case terms. In the longer term, it would be great to have multiple presentations, such as the trend toward mobile-friendly pages, where the use cases are sufficiently separated into separate pages that the mental load of intuiting and remembering the use cases becomes less critical to successful use of their sites.

Recently, I ran across JumpChart, a web page design tool that supports what usability people call a wire frame. This tool is exactly the place to interject both accessibility concerns and mechanisms for supporting accessibility.

Wow, is there a lot of substance to this topic. I hope soon to find counter-example websites to the troubles I attribute to missing and muddled use cases, as well as highly accessible pages in the technical and usability sense. Finally, my own mea culpa for all the stupid stuff I have dropped onto websites and made usability harder — I am working to correct my bad style. I haven’t addressed the Target lawsuit or capcha or other biases and so much more is known about hacks and techniques for accessibility. See our podcast library for hours of informative listening.


  1. Guidelines for 508 government website mandate
  2. Recommendations for accessibility from MIT
  3. Amazon entry and reviews of “Constructing Accessible Website” book and “Constructing accessible websites also available from Bookshare
  4. accessibility consulting and resources from Jim Thatcher
  5. Webaxe accessibility tips and podcast
  6. <a href=”;?Wikipedia article on “use cases”
  7. ` WebAIM blog roundup of blogs on accessibility

  8. JumpChart web design service
  9. nvda, nonVisual Desktop Access free, open source screen reader
  10. podcast library on “web accessibility”, collected by @Podder podcatcher