Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Oh, I feel guilty...

I should point out that all my off-site links open in new browser windows. I do this because browsers can hang if you try to pull up unavailable pages. If a server is down, your browser becomes unresponsive for up to 1 minute. I hate that.

Anyway, I attended the monthly meeting of Houston NetSquared last night. The event is organized/hosted by Ed Schipul of Schipul Web Marketing (he's sort of a competitor, I suppose, but he's a really nice guy). The purpose of Net Squared is to "re-engineer the Web for social change".

What does that mean? Does it mean to make the Web a better place for all? Not really. It's about putting the influencing powers of Web mongers like me to work for the greater good -- online, offline, wherever.

Last month I wrote When The Soldiers Come Home here on this blog after attending my first Houston NetSequared dinner. I'm now using the Xenite.Org network to help increase awareness of and promote the Wounded Warriors Web site, a non-profit organization that helps to improve the lives of soldiers who have lost limbs or otherwise become disabled because of their service to our country.

That's an example of how a NetSquared meeting can produce some positive results. You can move people to take action.

This month's guest speaker was Sharron Rush, the Executive Director of Knowbility, a Houston-based Accessibility Consulting and Training firm. Sharron's mission is to help make the Web more accessible to the approximately 250 million people around the world who must rely upon screen readers and other accessibility tools to browse the Internet. Are all 250 million of those people online? I don't know. I doubt it. But Sharron made the point that even from a business point of view, that's a huge segment to be ignoring.

Ed played Devil's Advocate at the meeting to help underscore some of the issues that the accessibility movement struggles with. For example, the least expensive (but moderately reliable) program people have available costs about $1300. You and I can download a Web browser for free. If you cannot see, you have to pay $1300 for a decent Web browser, or visit your local library or community center and hope they have the software installed. Many schools and large corporations do make the software available to their students and employees, but Ed really touched home with his point. There is a severe economic barrier to making the Web accessible.

But let's say that good browsing software is made available to everyone who needs it for free. Does that mean that people who rely on specialized browsers have equal access to the Web as those of us who can see? Absolutely not. And that is where I feel guilty.

Most Web sites do not comply with accessibility standards. In designing many of my own Web sites, I have never given any thought to accessibility. I've had no training in accessibility design. The good news for me is that most Web pages that are optimized for search engine positioning tend to be accessible. On-page optimization -- when done properly -- means that if you were to strip out all of your HTML code and leave all your indexable text in place, you'd have a fairly readable block of text.

Many Web pages rely upon non-indexable text to convey their messages: they embed text in images, in Flash, in Javascript, in Java, and fail to include descriptive text in alt= attributes for images. Pages that use tables for positioning (Web page layout) often break up text and scatter it across multiple elements. When you linearize these tables, strip out the HTML code, they look pretty bad.

My tables linearize very well. I use as little table code as possible for my layout. I don't use DIVS and CSS because it takes too long to produce a layout that looks nice. I code by hand so that my HTML code is as lean as possible (well, as lean as I think it should be -- lately I have been stripping superfluous HTML code from older pages to make them even more lean).

The less HTML code you use on a page (and that includes all CSS code), the less time it takes to render the page. Page rendering is usually responsible for most of the delay you experience when you bring up a Web page. Heavy use of tables, images, and CSS really slows down rendering time. New browser software and faster computers compensate for rendering slowdown, but a lot of people still leave Web pages that don't show something within the first 5-10 seconds.

So my pages in general probably rate somewhere in the middle of the scale of accessibility. If you score pages from 1 to 100, with 100 being the best, I'd probably average between 40 and 60 for many pages. Some of my pages are completely accessible even though they use table layouts. But some of my pages would just annoyingly scream at you. They are experimental pages and let's just say that I have occasionally used more H1 tags than are really necessary. When you reverse engineer search engine algorithms, you have to make some bizarre pages just to see what happens.

But I also make liberal use of the bold HTML tag in my pages. I do that to make the text more readable. I hate having to squint at a screen when I read online text, and most Web sites use truly awful faint fonts (mostly light greys in this Web 2.0 world) that just make me want to strangle the 20-something Web designers who rely on them. Maybe my choice of font could be improved, but I don't have control over what fonts your computer supports.

So my pages probably force people to turn down the volume on their screen readers. I'm sorry about that. I wish I had the means to tell your reader to tone it down for you, but I don't know of any way to do that. Accessibility is not just an issue for people who cannot see. It's also an issue for people like me who need to be able to see the friggin' letters.

Web 2.0 is not very accessible, but it can be. Many Web 2.0 designers take no thought for accessibility issues at all. What's ironic is that there are indeed Web designers who cannot see. There are artists who cannot see. There are writers who cannot see. If there is a job that you can do from a desk, odds are pretty good there are blind people doing that job.

Well, I'm not going to be adding any special links or advertisements to the Xenite.Org network, but after last night I'll be thinking about accessibility more often. I'll also devote some time to studying the issues. As I continue to experiment with new page concepts, I'll strive to keep accessibility in mind. I do actually prefer simpler page layouts because they are generally easier to read and deinitely are easier to get ranked in search engines.

Ed mentioned a tool that I'll be trying out. It's called Fangs, and is a FireFox add-on. I don't like FireFox. I think it's an awful browser, but I use it on occasion. So, if you design Web pages and want to test how accessible they are (without spending any money), try Fangs for FireFox and see what your work looks like to a screen reader.

And that is why, if you have a NetSquared group in your city, you should join it and share in the experience of helping to use the Web for social change. We really can all work together to make some improvements in a lot of small places.


Anonymous Matt T. said...

Why don't you like Firefox? I like it alot, its much better than IE, don't you think?

8:44 AM  
Blogger Michael Martinez said...

It's slow to load and the user interface is about a poorly designed a UI as I have come across in a long, long time.

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Matt T. said...

What do you prefer then?

9:00 AM  
Blogger Michael Martinez said...

Netscape 4.01 with all of today's capabilities and none of today's fallibilities.

Better yet, I liked the way the original Mosaic browser looked and worked. Pity that isn't still around and being updated.

But any Java-based browser is just a pain to use, in my book.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Erica said...

Michael...I am going to sit down with you at the next meeting and show you FireFox through the eyes of a designer. I think you'll be amazed ;)


12:21 PM  

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