Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Nielsen - 'Accessibility is not enough'

Jakob Nielsen has posted some good points on how accessibility compliance and testing needs to be more than good code. Usability also needs to be taken into consideration.

He also mentions a few things I have written about in the past couple of weeks including Alt tags (everyone knows they are needed but how do you write them?) and portal usability and accessibility problems.


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Friday, November 18, 2005

BBC accessibility standards

I have always liked the BBC websites.

They seem to be able to answer the age old question (as in internet age) of "How do I cram as much information and links into a page as possible but still make it accessible, look good and provide good quality information at the same time?"

One of the keys must be their extensive and detailed accessibility standards and guidelines.

To quote:

"Accessibility should not be seen as an "optional extra", but must be
considered as a fundamental consideration at every stage of site development
Absolutely. Accessibility should never be an option. If it is an option in your organisation then you simply aren't designing or developing at a modern professional standard.

It's nice to see things like colour blindness and contrast tests in their guidelines as I think this is a very basic but overlooked area of information/online design.

I'm a big stickler for accessible design, and content, guidelines and standards as huge value is lost or unrealised without them. This goes for both websites and intranets.

Guidelines should be both big picture conceptual and specific with examples and have links to supporting tools or references (such as code/colour validators).

All major organisations will have these types of guidelines but any business with a website or intranet can have even simple ones without too much effort

Even single pages of links to online references is better than nothing.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Alt tags and new accessibility research

A new article in netimperative has some interesting up to date research on accessibility from consultancy firm User Vision. (User vision has some great stuff on their site so have a look).

It lays out the well known fundamentals of accessibility/ia that any skilled practioner involved in online development has already been following for years, but the interesting thing for me was the figure about alt tags (considered vital by accessibility advocates) based on feedback from visually impaired users (25% didn't rate them important at all).

Why are alt tags not considered important by some visually impaired users?

Rather than rating alt tags as not important I wonder if the respondants had become so fed up with the poor use of alt tags that they no longer had any faith that they would add value to them and therefore they simply ignored them.

I myself have always thought that no matter how good an alt tag was it never really provides the type of information that would replace textual information for a visually impaired user using screen reading technology or other accessibility tools.

The lesson?
Always provide textual information in addition to information contained within an image (if you really need to have that information contained in an image in the first place).


Friday, November 11, 2005

Do intranet content standards and guidelines matter?

Of course they do

Coming from a writing and publishing background one of my primary focuses in both web and intranet development has been quality content so the answer from my perspective (and bias) is a resounding YES.

I am a firm believer that everyone in an organisation can be trained to write good accessible content for a website/intranet.

The focus needs to be less on actually ‘how to write for the web’ but more on how to edit and structure what you already have to work in a consistent manner in an online environment as content providers usually adapt content from other sources rather than start from scratch. This doesn’t however discount the importance of grammar, spelling and plain English.

Intranet guru says ‘I don’t care’!

One of the speakers and experts in the intranet field that I always have appreciated and taken a lot from, is James Robertson from Step two designs in Australia. A great advocate and evangelist for quality intranets.

I was a little taken aback by one of his recent posts commenting on several content focused presentations at the intranets ’05 event in Sydney. Mostly because one of them was mine!

James says that he ‘just doesn’t care’ and feels that the focus of intranets needs to be on other challenges that intranets face.

On bringing this up with James in a courteous email he clarified to say that it was more about ‘too much emphasis’ of the conference on content rather than intranet strategy and that content was important.

I can appreciate where he's coming from but I think content quality and training are far more important than he makes out.

Some comments in response to on James’ posting...

Developing guidelines need not be time wasting

Intranet content guidelines are not difficult to implement there are tonnes of material on the web around plain English, writing style guides and guidelines around writing for the web. It’s not difficult to adopt and develop guidelines from these.

As from intranet team time get some Communications/marketing people involved from the organisation. In fact I’d suggest it’s just plain silly to develop intranet content guidelines in isolation from the rest of the communication guidelines of the organisation.

If you don’t have these then start advocating for them as having a solid corporate style guide will save you bundles in writing and editing time not to mention presenting clear and consistent messages to your customers and/or users.

Training users

I certainly don’t advocate mass large training programmes to train authors. I feel it’s an evolving process. You set up some guidelines, communicate them out, give feedback on key content and the run training sessions for key providers.

These key providers should then be in a position to advocate the guidelines to others in their business groups/areas. It’s about centralising quality but decentralising provision. Not a hugely difficult goal and one , despite James’s comments, that is very practical.

Content value and quality is tangible

The value, and supporting evidence, of well written content is huge. Most of the value comes from time savings for users which in an organisation translates in cost savings.

In fact I’d say that poor written and structured communication is probably one of the easiest things to improve within an organisation to get good ROI not to mention the kudos from clients, customers and staff that get clear, consistent messages and can scan content quickly and effectively.

Having good navigation or search to find content is not enough, the content itself also has to be accessible, usable and useful.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Portals - can we solve our intranet issues out of a box?

My main concern about 'Portal' software is the lack of accessibility and usability standard compliance with the software as well as taking the ability away from organisations to ensure that the code of their intranet is clean and of a validated standard. (This will be of even more importance to organisations in the public sector that may need to comply with standards set by government.)

At a recent conference in Sydney (Intranets '05), where I presented on content standards, I heard from a major Energy company about 'nightmarish' problems with usability and accessibility issues over replacing their standard web based intranet with one driven by a major software company's portal.

These are similar issues echoed by a major organisation in New Zealand who had bought the software but were finding it overally complicated to integrate the system into their exsting structures because of the lack of basic standards followed by the vendor. Thus creating more problems than they solve.

Some of these issues are similar to the ones outlined here.

To summarise they include things like links not changing while in the system (meaning no bookmarking of pages for users takling them away from the standard web interface of the browser), crappy system generated code, lack of customisation ability (eventhough the systems are sold as highly customisable) and massive scrolling pages (some with horizontal scrolling!).

Interestingly it's difficult to find a lot of information on the problems re: usability/accessibility of portal software. Indeed many comentators seem resigned to the fact that they are here and therefore we should be working on ways to make them usable or seem to think that the question of portals have gone away and that they are just a buzzword. Jakob Nielsen says progress has been made in portal usability and describes intranet portals as 'virtually dead' (wishful thinking perhaps and a big call made in 2003).

With the latest versions from the vendors renewed slaes pitches are coming our way, still without really resloving a lot of the key usability and accessibility issues that the software has. So I think pronuncement of their demise was probably a little premature.

As I have mentioned previously portals offer key functionality that can increase business productivity and help in information management but until vendors take content, usability and accessibility issues seriously I think organisations will continue to have implemenation and integration problems and will fail to realise the full potential the software offers.

I suggest more critical evaluation of what your business problems are and whether portal sofware will make your business stronger or simply create more issues for you to deal with.

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Monday, November 07, 2005

Definition of portals

Many organisations are now starting to look at using enterprise 'portals' to replace their existing intranet or to provide an overriding architecture to their internal information systems including their intranet.

The reason I use the quotes around portals is that the word has been hijacked in recent years by the big software vendors.

In terms on the online space all websites or intranets that provide access to various types of information are portals. Yahoo, MSN etc are all basic examples of web portals. Your intranet is an example of an organisational portal.

Software companies are now selling 'portals' to organisations saying we have this great piece of software to sell you that links various information in your organisation.. strangely this is the same as what our exisitng intranets are actually doing (to various degrees of success).

In fact by using 'intranets' as a search term in the search all blogs at the top of the page you'll notice that the results return very little information on intranets but a whole heap of information on buying very expensive portal software (mostly blogverts it seems - 'The use of blogs to disseminate advertising maskerading as discussion or personal opinion"). And when I sign up for adwords I will assume this posting will actually have little links to portal vendors down the side :)

In my experience there is no such thing as a single out of box solution for online problems... especially when the problem is one that being promoted by a software company.

I feel that organisations are in danger of spending (is wasting too harsh?) vast amounts of money on sofware they don't actually need to solve problems they haven't actually worked out they have yet. It is also interesting in my experience where it is usually IT departments praising the use of portals going against the content and usability folk who are trying to highlight the dangers. The winner in these battles are usually the people who hold the budget (and it usually isn't us content people!).

Now there are pros (single management points, personalisation, search improvements) to using 'portal' software but there are also a lot of cons (proprietary solution problems, lack of standards comopliance, usability nightmares) which I will outline in upocoming posts.

Be great to hear what anyone else has to say on the issue.


Friday, November 04, 2005


I have set up this blog to promote the value of accessible, usable and useful online content in both external web environments and internal intranets.

I will also be discussing important related areas such as web accessibility, usability and information architecture,