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the good life in a digital age

do IA and accessibility always agree?

Being the IA in an organisation that is fundamentally and very practically committed to accessibility is for the most part an IA dream.

Imagine it. A top-down drive towards machine readable content. An emphasis on the content rather than the style. A management team that understands that whizzy and award-winning is no b****y use if your users can’t use it (unless you count getting management their next job as a use).

But occasionally IA and accessibility, if not conflict, at least exchange a couple of slightly sniffy words.

Let’s take machine readable for a start. Which machine is doing the reading? And what language does it speak? Google and Jaws at the very least speak different dialects. I’ve been struggling for while to get to the bottom of the punctuation in URLs issue. SEO suggests a slight preferences for hyphens in URLs, screenreaders (well JAWs) seem to work better with CamelCase than with either hyphens or underscores (if the screenreader is set to read out the punctuation then imagine listening to all those underscores). It isn’t clear cut with either technology.

(as an aside, I was impressed to discover that JAWs seems to get Latin and had no trouble trotting through the Lorum Ipsum in lots of my documents)

In an effort to get a local navigation that shows the user where they are on the site, regardless of whether they are using a screenreader, we’ve ended up with a rather unfamiliar pattern of navigation on our new site. And as a general rule I don’t like novel patterns for common stuff like navigation. No-one wants to think about navigating.

But mostly my IA instincts and the needs of screenreader users are happily in tune, or at the very least don’t interfer with each other (courtesy of the magic of CSS).

Where it really gets interesting is when you consider screen magnification users. Screen magnification users are using the same interface as everyone else, just a whole lot bigger. I actually find screen mag much harder to use than a screenreader. I can mostly touch type and I tend to use the keyboard rather than the mouse so I don’t find a screenreader too much of a leap (when the site is accessible, of course!). But a significantly magnified screen is just baffling. It is the world as you knew it but nothing quite works the same. And moving around the screen just makes me feel a bit sick.

So some design constraints are: You can only see a very small amount of the screen at any one time. You don’t know where the next bit of information is, unless part of it is already on screen. And you don’t want to have to go back and forth on the page.

In many ways this helps the IA. It reinforces the need to follow accepted patterns. If the mag user is expecting the search box to be top left then don’t stick it in the middle of the left column or they’ll never find it.

Magnification creates a slight preference for linear, left aligned layout. You have to be careful with white space, otherwise the mag users is left with nowhere to go. I’m noticing a tendancy for my layouts to end up with empty space towards the right and bottom of the page.

A similar issue that isn’t really about magnification but about designing for low vision comes up when you design for significant font resizing. You can find that you are not making full use of the screen when the font is smaller.

Now none of this can’t be sorted out with some clever information design and a CSS whizz. Except maybe the URL punctuation but I should probably just get over that and worry about something a little more important.

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Written by Karen

August 24th, 2009 at 6:52 am