Thursday, March 17, 2011

Accessibility: Some honest talk

Sometimes I like to use my blog to wrestle outwardly with conflicts I am having so that others can weigh in with their perspectives. This one can get a little edgy, so let's all stay on our good behavior.

Is it just me or can accessibility be a big pain in the ass at times? As Andy Rooney once said about an entirely different subject "I am violently ambivalent" about this. By that I mean I can passionately argue two opposing perspectives, mainly because I have two opposing perspectives.

The side of me I like holds the position that accessibility is good and anything we do to make our products more accessible makes our products better.

The part of me I'm a little nervous about exposing wants to offer a lot of rich Internet interactions and resents the constraints that accessibility requirements put on that.

These opposing poles can be summarized by what I call the accessibility paradox:
I don't need to be accessible because my clients aren't physically challenged--but none of my client base is physically challenged because my product's lack of accessibility won't let physically challenged persons become my clients.

These debates make great barroom entertainment and inspiring conference presentations, but right now I have some very real design decisions to make. Anyone who has both design and accessibility responsibilities knows the frustration of using AJAX. Anything dynamic on a screen starts to cause problems for adaptive technology devices.

I'm not going to pick on Jaws because it is a good product, but I will use them as an example. Instead of making me constrain my design so that Jaws can handle it, why not beat Jaws up until it can handle these modern types of interactions? Instead of regulating me, regulate them!

OK, it felt good to whine, so let's get practical for a minute.

As a designer I have to strike that balance between rich interactions that enhance the user experience for my majority base, namely folks who can see the screen and manipulate a mouse. I also need to make the content and functionality available to those who can't. Companies, in general, get a little bipolar on this. Marketing wants to say the products are accessible; they also want rich interaction; and they want a lot of new features. How's the classic punch line go? "Pick any two."

I read an accessibility tip yesterday that said to summarize the key points of a graphic in its caption. I work with dashboards where the graphs are dynamically generated in real time with the latest available data. How am I going to do that? You caption a sparkline that contains 30 days of trend data or a tree map that is summarizing hundreds of data points--and generate that caption dynamically.

And yes, I know the classic solution to the problem is linking to the source data  from a longdesc attribute in the image tag. That's work, that's time, that's less features we will be able to build for the release. (BTW, I elaborate on this in the Comment section.)

I'm not saying we shouldn't do it; I just wish the conversation about accessibility would be more frank when it comes to the opportunity costs and real costs to implement it.

And I'm embarrassed by my own petty frustration in having to accommodate someone who has a real beef with the world and a legitimate cause for frustration.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Happy pi Day

I love pi! It's Greek; it's irrational; it's a number that eschews exactitude and demands rounding.

What exactly is it? Take a piece of string and tie a loop in both ends. Pin one end in the center of piece of paper and put a pencil in the other. Now, with the string stretched tight, move the pencil around the pin until it inscribes a circle. Now lay another string around the circumference of the circle you just drew. Cut off any extra. Fold it in half and cut it. Lay one of the halves next to the first string. The second string is pi times as long as the first.

Here's the cool part: Even though you have obviously created a physical ratio (second string to first) there are no numbers that can express that ratio. Really pissed off the Pythagoreans ;-)

Enjoy pi today.