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.


Michael Hughes said...

I'd like to elaborate on something, namely the misconception that tabular data is an alternative for graphical data. Let's say I have a trend graph that shows a spike in CPU activity from 3 to 4. The table that graph is generated from does not say that! I is very likely that someone just reading the table might not notice the spike in the data. The real equivalent to the graph is a statement that says "wow, you're spiking your CPUs between 3 and 4." To do that would take a pretty piece of AI to know what kind of trend data would be significant in the context of the data.
So my point is that in many cases the graphic IS the communication, and non-graphical equivalents are NOT equivalent.

Milan Davidović said...

"none of my client base is physically challenged because my product's lack of accessibility won't let physically challenged persons become my clients"

And how do physically challenged people feel about this? Do they even want to be your clients?

Sarah O'Keefe said...

Hey Mike,

For a different and more immediate perspective, read this:

There's shiny, and then there's usable. If the two conflict, I recommend usable.

Michael Hughes said...

Milan, I think you are misinterpreting the intent of that statement. It is summarizing a dynamic that exists, not making a statement of belief or preference.

Michael Hughes said...

Sarah, I agree with your conventional wisdom: usable over shiny. Address my problem around a tree map that shows attack vectors over a network with 1200 devices that relies on mouse-overs to drill down to device-level detail. This isn't just shiny, it's way usable for many and inaccessible to some. And as I said in my earlier comment, I don't think there is a working non-graphical alternative. It's stuff like this that I wrestle with. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating abandoning accessibility, just voicing the side of it that is often viewed as politically incorrect or which leaves itself vulnerable to demagogy.

Milan Davidović said...

Sure the dynamic is there -- but why is this a case of "letting" them become your clients? Could we just as easily say "I don't need to make my products accessible because my product doesn't appeal to the market that needs accessibility, and my product doesn't appeal to them because it's not accessible"? Or do you think that means something different from what you intend?

Michael Hughes said...

Milan, it would be like a restaurant saying "We don't need to invest in wheelchair ramps because people in wheelchairs don't come here." For example, my product is for network security analysts. Someone could say, "We don't need to invest in accessibility because there just aren't a lot of blind network security analysts." And as long as we stay inaccessible, there won't be. I was just trying to illustrate the closed loop logic we often fall into--not advocating it.

Milan Davidović said...

Of course you're not advocating it. Coming back to the opposing poles you expressed in the original post, which direction better reflects the business that your company wants to be in, and how it wants to position itself vs its competitors? Does it want access to those markets and/or talent pools?

For me, the closed loop problem seems to be a bit of a red herring, but it's by no means my final conclusion.

Sarah O'Keefe said...

Weeellll...I think this is an opportunity for you to think creatively. (hahaha)

Can you provide an audio alternative to the graphic? How about expressing the graphic spike using musical pitch?

Not sure about the attack vectors because I' trouble visualizing them.

Michael Hughes said...

"Which position..." ah there's the rub. I have found with all companies: They want to be fully accessible with drop dead sexy interactions that make the competition look like Windows 3.2 and with a robust feature set.

Let's be honest and say if you go after the fully accessible, you have to pull back on at least one of the other two.

I'd like franker discussions about that conundrum. Because unless the physically challenged are a significant market segment for you, you risk losing ground to the competitor that opts for sexy and robust.

My personal dilemma is that if I pursue that logic, then it keeps the physically challenged from moving into the industy my products serve and perpetuates their isolation.

Michael Hughes said...

Previous comment was for Milan. Sarah, sometimes complex analysis requires visual analysis tools whose effects cannot be equaled in non-visual ways. Or if they can, look at the overhead your development efforts have to take on. See my response to Milan above for the economic risk that overhead incurs.

Michael Hughes said...

I don't mean to make it sound like this is only for advanced visuals. I'm struggling with a form right now that has a lot of interactivity, where the user can keep adding filter rules to a policy. The problem with adaptive technologies is that they take snapshots of a screen and work off of that. So if the screen changes--as in keeping a running summary of the rules you have added and clearing the rule composing fields if you want to define another--it's a real hassle to keep that accessible.

And as far as I can find, no one has cracked the nut yet on making AJAX 508 compliant. Once again, my kvetch is to put pressure on the ATs to handle AJAX.

Milan Davidović said...

"The problem with adaptive technologies is that they take snapshots of a screen and work off of that."

Part of what makes accessibility less "sexy and robust", I take it. Who would be working on alternatives to the snapshot approach?

Michael Hughes said...

Hopefully the AT vendors.

Melinda Baker said...

There is always a balance between making products accessible and the cost of making products accessible. Often, you can truly make a decision based on the business case (not enough users to make the investment). However, having a goal of accessibility, an overall statement of intent, and working toward it is *much* better than the many companies who ignore it altogether.

With that said, the disabled get some pretty cool tools from the AT vendors, and perhaps JAWS is slipping. I've learned that JAWS is for people who were born blind, and other technologies are for those who become blind. We opt to not specify support for any specific technology, but use the accessibility guidelines, instead. (No, we don't certify on JAWS 10, but we do meet checkpoints 1 and 2.)

I've also got some great developers who are applying ARIA attributes to some of the more interesting interactions, which is great.

On a form, I'm confident you can make it both cool and accessible by using ARIA.

I actually think it's okay to say that there are some things that are just too expensive to make accessible. For example, making cars that can accommodate blind limo drivers. Yes, I saw a piece on tv about this, but the cost has got to be outrageous. If it's only accessible to the top 1%, I'd say that's the opposite of the spirit of accessibility.

Rant on...

Miranda said...

You know, I think you're right that the technology has to catch up to that type of application. In your particular field, and in this instance especially, I don't think it's enough to make it accessible - it needs to be fast and trustworthy. Your users need to react quickly to changing events and I don't think an audio solution would be sufficient in that regard. Even if you went to all the trouble of creating some incredible AI that just told them what was going on, I doubt an analyst would ever trust it.

My initial thoughts are that the information needs to be tactile, not audio, because that can be equivalent, can't it? However, I don't think braille printers or displays are up to the task. I suspect that's where technology needs to advance.

Praveen Kumar said...

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