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Opticians – a metaphor

Filed in: consumerism, marketing, vent, Web, Sat, Sep 24 2011 23:45 PT

Today, I needed an optician, and none would help me.

I have a prescription, but it’s for contact lenses, so it’s missing one measurement I need so that the lenses’ focal point will be set properly in a new pair of glasses I’m buying.

I need an optician to measure my pupillary distance. You know that thing they do where they hold up a little plastic ruler to each eye for about 5 seconds, and write a couple numbers down? That. The people I talked to wouldn’t do that for me, even for money. I would have paid $20 for that one skill that they have, that takes them 5 seconds. But they wouldn’t do it.

The reason they do this is as plain as the nose on my face (especially in its current condition, that is, unencumbered by glasses). Opticians make their money selling eyewear. Specifically, they take your eye doctor’s prescription and turn it into the eyewear you need. An optician is to an eye doctor what a pharmacist is to a physician. Except, of course, your pharmacist hasn’t figured out how to sell you a high-index UV-coated Prada pill case.

In this day and age, however, there are many new places popping up that offer comparable products for much less money. All that is needed are the numbers on the prescription, plus a couple more that the optician is qualified to provide, and your glasses come in the mail. This destroys the potential for opticians to profit on your frames, lenses, coatings and other upsell opportunities they may have. So it appears they have chosen instead not to offer services to people who don’t want to buy their other products, even when they would happily pay for an optician’s skills à la carte.

And that’s fine, really, especially if you’re a libertarian. I’d have some respect left for the opticians today who gave me the cold shoulder if they had told me money was the reason, but each was at pains to state otherwise. I was told that it was policy, that they couldn’t guarantee the work, even that it was harmful to their integrity as opticians to spend 5 seconds measuring my pupils.

Recently, it seems even information about my own eyes, information which I had commissioned and paid for, is being treated as proprietary. I have asked for a copy of my prescription from my own eye doctor, and been refused. This was unthinkable even a couple years ago. Imagine your physician telling you that you can’t find out what he’s telling the pharmacist to dispense to you. Once you have left the exam room, the experience is no longer about helping you see well: it is about ensuring the greatest amount of money stays in the office. They will cling to your data and the skills you lack to keep you coming back to them, rather than finding a more efficient solution.

Today, I needed an optician, and none would help me. Not because they couldn’t, but because doing it their way makes them more money. And now I’m generally distrustful of opticians, if not actively looking forward to their obsolescence. From this point forward, I will only get my vision checked by an eye doctor who will hand me a printed copy of all my information at the end of the visit.

Web professionals, you might want to bookmark this. It may become relevant to you at some point in the future.

Twitter, ye markup be non-standarrrrrd.

Filed in: design, vent, Web, Fri, Sep 19 2008 11:10 PT

Twitter unveiled a new redesign today. Very little of it is really noticeably different, until you look at the underlying code. Which, last I recall, used to be pretty good–they even used the fancy-pants XHTML 1.0 Strict doctype (though still using tables for layout, which the spec says it shouldn’t do).

But one thing about the latest version makes me wonder just what the hell they’re doing these days.

<center>.

The <center> element. In September 2008. From the “it” Web 2.0 company. Seriously.

I know this will make me sound like the annoying standardista, but how could anyone who still uses <center> still be doing web design professionally in, of all places, San Francisco? This is an element which has been deprecated for eleven years. Do we really have people who haven’t changed their coding practices since before 1997?

Sadly, yes. And the worse news is, they’re writing books. I just saw a book whose first edition was published in July 2008, which teaches users to use <center>, to do layout tables, to use CSS primarily just for font selections, and loads of other outdated guidance. This is material from the bad old days of web design, and it simply gets regurgitated over and over again. To quote the late, great George Carlin, “it’s all bullshit, and it’s bad for ya.”

I don’t know what it is going to take to finally cull the proverbial herd of these kinds of authors and designers. But each time I see this, it makes me wonder when we can expect some kind of professionalism out of the average content producer. Many of us have been talking about this stuff for years. It’s de rigueur at many web conferences, to the point that people now roll their eyes at it. And yet, it continues. I also don’t know whether Twitter is doing this in-house or if they hired an external designer. But certainly, somebody there dropped the ball.

And I know that one <center> is not a big thing. It’s just a symptom of a larger disease: that of lazy, ignorant and/or incurious designers. When someone sticks to one way to do something without ever updating their own skill set, their designs get more and more inflexible. Which makes redesigns more and more difficult, and more expensive, all with less to show for it. Which brings us to the boxy gridlock we experienced in the 90s. Which is why standardistas get so angry about this stuff. We know that customers deserve better than this. We know that when customers find out how their designer painted them into a corner, it casts a shadow over all of us in those customers’ eyes.

The question that remains from all this is, how can the professionals in this field separate themselves from the amateurs? Really. I want suggestions. What concrete steps can we take to ensure that the good designers and developers, the ones who are always learning, who have a full and balanced skill set, don’t get lumped in (or worse, beaten out by) the ones who are locked in 1995? Who’s got an idea?

Introducing “Universal Design for Web Applications”

Filed in: accessibility, book, design, universal design, Web, Web 2.0 Expo, Mon, Sep 15 2008 14:46 PT

It’s funny how sometimes things get wrapped up in a little bow.

Last April, I was in San Francisco, giving my “Accessibility 2.0″ talk at the first O’Reilly Web 2.0 Expo. Out of that conference came the seed for the project that I’ve been working on, and now, I’m happy to unveil it. This Wednesday, I’m flying off to speak at Web 2.0 Expo New York, to give a talk called “Universal Design for Web Applications” with my longtime colleague Wendy Chisholm.

What’s gone on in the intervening 17 months has been our work on a book of the same name.

Universal Design for Web Applications just reached final manuscript status last Thursday. It’s scheduled to be published by O’Reilly in November.

We’re really excited about how the book turned out. We chose universal design as our standard to bear because we’re moving beyond accessibility, and applying the principles we’ve learned from accessible design to a whole new world of mobile devices like the iPhone, and lifestyle devices like the Asus Eee PC. The point here is that the days of knowing what your users’ screens look like are over. Even if accessibility weren’t a consideration, universal design is going to inform most of the big decisions web content producers are going to face in the near future. We in accessibility have been where those decision-makers will be, and we have a lot of advice to impart.

We have a lot of information on new topics like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 and the WAI-ARIA specification. We talk about video and script like they’re first-class citizens. And we do the same for Flash, Flex and Silverlight. The fact is that all of these technologies are going to be with us for a long time, and the faster we embrace them, and learn how to make them work for people, the better we will all be for it.

You can preorder UD4WA on Amazon. And come see us Wednesday at 9am in 1A21 & 22 at the Javits Center.

Here’s a shot of the cover:

Universal Design for Web Applications book cover, featuring a woodcut of an Italian greyhound

eBay, please don’t speak for me

Filed in: design, vent, Web, Mon, Jul 28 2008 09:06 PT

I just had a horrible experience with eBay, which I think is summed up in this message I just sent to them.

I have a serious complaint with the way eBay sends automated messages. I was forwarded a message sent from eBay to the seller, which reads:

“I would like to have the item shipped to the address below:”
…followed by the shipping address in my eBay account.

However, I had never asked eBay to give that address as the shipping address, and in fact, the payment info I sent on PayPal had the correct address. As a result, the seller shipped the package, then went out of her way to return to the post office to change the shipping address from the _right_ one to the _wrong_ one–all because eBay says I told her to. And now the package will be delayed by a full week, and arrive at my home, where no one will be present to pick it up.

I hold eBay and its email notification system responsible for this.

eBay should never, under any circumstances, misrepresent its users by making statements beginning with the word “I”. You do not speak authoritatively on behalf of your users. I’m a designer and I understand the urge to sound human, but in this case, and I’m sure many others, you are doing more harm than good. I am extremely displeased that my package will be late, but even more upset that eBay sees fit to substitute its words for mine.

The same goes for any other e-commerce outfit out there. I know it sounds all down-home folksy to say things like “I would like to have the item shipped…” instead of “The buyer’s address is…”, but you don’t know what I want. You only know what your user tells you. And you should never communicate more than that.

@alt and the Flickr Defense

Filed in: accessibility, Web, Thu, May 1 2008 18:09 PT

Alt text matters to users. When an image is not visible, due either to a user’s own visual or cognitive disability, or their use of a low-bandwidth or intermittent connection to the web, @alt is there to provide the necessary, missing semantics. This is a good thing. So good, in fact, that @alt is a required attribute in HTML 4.01 and all flavors of XHTML. If you omit alt text, your code is not valid HTML.

However, as of today, alt is not a required attribute for the img element in HTML5. Despite claims that this is neutral or even beneficial to accessibility, this is a bad idea, made worse by adversarial relations between participants in the HTML Working Group and accessibility advocates, including those in the W3C/WAI Protocols and Formats Working Group, of which I am a participant.

Much of the discussion around this rather tense standoff has centered around what I call the Flickr Defense. It goes like this:

Sites like Flickr depend on user-generated content in the form of uploaded images. (Of course Flickr now accepts video, something that has also been added to HTML5, and which may have even bigger problems than the issue at hand. But that’s for another time.) Flickr doesn’t know what to communicate as meaningful alt text. But if we want them to adopt HTML5, they wouldn’t be able to create valid documents without that @alt. So in this very limited case, Flickr should be able to have an img element without @alt.

This argument is bogus on numerous counts.

First, let’s dispense with the very limited case for making @alt optional. Once an attribute like @alt is optional anywhere, it’s optional everywhere. One could make the argument that the specification limits the scope of acceptable use of missing @alt to only where it’s not possible for it to be meaningful. But that’s just one image out of 65 on the average Flickr photo page. And if it’s an optional attribute, we could strip the alt text from all of those other images, and an HTML5 validator could do nothing but assert that it remains valid. That’s a huge step backward for users as well as accessibility evaluation tools, which interpret missing alt as an error. But more on that later.

Second, Flickr could, in fact, require that meaningful alt text accompany images that are uploaded. Other sites, such as Smugmug, actually do offer the ability to do that, either as they’re uploaded, or as a batch job after the fact. The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, which apply explicitly to sites like Flickr, require that such sites prompt users for that content. If they prompted for and stored that content from the user, they’d be able to insert meaningful alt text where it is required. There’s no need to give them a pass.

(Although that’s exactly what the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 does. Flickr could make a partial conformance claim stating exactly why they can’t produce alt text. They could still insert generic alt text like “user-uploaded image” and satisfy the requirements of users with disabilities to some extent.)

Third, Flickr image pages have over 80 validity errors, and that’s just HTML 4.01 Transitional. Why should the HTML specification make supposedly narrow exceptions to the spec to be more lax about validation when the sites themselves aren’t even trying today?

How it works today

There are three conditions for alt text that are currently determinable:

  • This image has meaningful alt text. (alt=”foo”)
  • This image is decorative, and needs no text equivalent. (alt=””)

The third is determinable now, but would not be in HTML5 as proposed:

  • The author has not entered alt text for this image. (missing @alt)

This is critical because assistive technology looks for repair data (including filename, etc.) when @alt is missing. We need to know whether @alt is null due to conscious effort, or that it has been ignored, in order to know what to do next.

The Flickr Defense is a fourth state:

  • The author asserts that s/he cannot provide alt text.

It is the wrong solution to take away the semantics from the third state to indicate the fourth. There would be far more missing @alt attribs due to inattentiveness on the part of the author than conscientious statements that @alt is not possible.

The clearest indicator that this is an awful idea is that same Flickr image page. All of the images with missing alt attributes on the Flickr image page could have meaningful data. In fact, most of them do. It’s just sitting in the title attribute instead.

So what do we do, smart guy?

I don’t want to propose a solution to the problem when I think the status quo in HTML 4.01 doesn’t need to be mucked with. But, okay, you read a big long accessibility article, so here’s a thought experiment.

Add an attribute. Call it @usergenerated. When a UA encounters this attrib, it indicates that the author has stated alt cannot be provided programmatically.

It would be even better if other users could detect that attrib and annotate the attached image. If you could get around the spam potential, this could be a real winner. Crowd-sourced @alt. That’s actual accessibility progress, measurable today.

If you can’t do that much, leave @alt alone.

Gez Lemon’s analysis of the subject got me wound up enough to write about it. If you don’t like what I had to say, blame him.

(Note: This isn’t meant as a critique of Flickr per se. It just happens to be a site that’s being held up by third parties as the reason to backtrack on @alt as a required attribute.)

Aging and accessibility

Filed in: accessibility, design, Web, Mon, Mar 31 2008 17:07 PT

You know what I think should cause everyone to give at least some thought to accessibility?

Your thirties.

I remember one day, when I was 30. I threw the sheets off the bed, and shot my legs out to launch myself from the bed. I took two steps forward, saw a blinding light… and found myself lying on the floor, unable to move for several minutes. It was my first back spasm, and knocked me out of commission for a couple weeks.

Suddenly, things I took for granted, like getting up and looking in the fridge, were things I had to consider. I didn’t want to go anywhere, because it hurt to breathe, much less move. But in that time, I had to fly cross-country to tend to my grandmother in her final days, and that meant managing my pain while my back was screaming in an airplane seat, and then being wrenched as I carried all my luggage. It was the first time that my mobility was reduced, the first time I preferred elevators to taking the stairs two at a time, and the first time I had to depend on other people to help me do what I considered to be basic tasks.

It seems that since then, every six months I get a reminder that my body is not necessarily my friend. Most recently, I strained a ligament in my foot while exercising. Let me tell you, foot injuries suck. When your foot hurts, you keep hoping it doesn’t get worse. And when it doesn’t, you’re scared to do anything that might aggravate it again. So I had a very strange weekend that involved walking with a cane to keep weight off my foot.

It’s simple to look at people with a visible disability and say, I’m glad that’s not me. But you know what? Sooner or later, it will be.

Your vision will likely be the first thing to go. You may strain to read small type, at first. Then, maybe you’ll try bifocals. After that, as the effects of presbyopia set in, you’ll come to rely on your glasses to read. Your vision may start to yellow a bit, as well.

But wait! There’s more!

Hearing loss is a common side effect of the aging process. You may also encounter problems with arthritis (by the way: you’re not resting your wrists on the wrist rest while you’re typing, are you? Are you?), or any of a host of other fine or gross motor dysfunctions that will advance over time. And you may find that your cognitive abilities aren’t as sharp as they once were. (Hopefully before those around you start talking about it.)

I started doing web development when I was 20. At the time, it was barely conceivable to us that people of a certain age would be using the web. We didn’t even know if the web itself was going to last. But here it is, still chugging after a dozen and a half years, and not looking a day over 10.

And nowadays, I look around at the people I’ve worked with, and some of them are really old. Like, in their fifties! Some have even retired — the kind of retired where they’re collecting Social Security and posting pictures of their grandkids to Flickr. Get it? They’re using Flickr. And YouTube. And Gmail, and Twitter, and especially eBay. They also tend to have money to spend, and companies tend to like people like that.

And yet, I still hear people dismissing accessibility for older people on the web. That’s not going to fly any longer. Younger people are coming up on the web, that’s true. But those of us already there are only getting older, and we’re not going to stop liking the web anytime soon.

Keep this in mind when you’re about to downplay whether older users will want to use your site. The right thing to ask is:

Will you want to use this site when you’re older?

Or maybe, do you want some 20-year-old smartass deciding you won’t?

IE 8: web standards win

Filed in: accessibility, Web, Wed, Mar 5 2008 22:38 PT

It must have been some kind of event for me to break my blogging silence.

I read about the IE 8 beta (and I’ll test it for myself as soon as I prep a fresh virtual machine…). Key features include support for the WAI-ARIA spec, and Acid2 compliance. Chris Wilson apparently also said during his talk today at Mix that they’re aiming for full support for CSS 2.1.

Okay, guys. You win. I’m impressed. There, I said it. I said something nice about Microsoft. I even did it on my Tablet PC, running Vista, just for good measure.

I was one of many who groaned at IE 7 when it caused a new round of conditional comment breakage, and when its own issues started to pinch authors into making more tweaks just to keep standards-based development working. Back then, I saw it as a small step forward for a team that had just been reassembled. I hoped for big things to come after – big, positive things – but so far, if the bits resemble the hype, let me be the first to welcome Microsoft back to the standards-based web.

There have been almost too many battles to name in the web standards arena over the last several years, and there are still some that make me itch. The <canvas> element springs to mind. But the thought of every major vendor finally supporting HTML 4.01 and CSS 2.1 has left me almost giddy, and ARIA support in all the major browsing platforms just puts me over the top. I think it can now be said that the standardistas have finally got what they wanted: a stable contract with browsers that what they code is what the user will get.

What next? Oh, I don’t know. How about we gather up everybody still designing web sites in 2008 using layout tables, font tags, and the like, and run them out of town on a rail? Who’s with me?

Fix Firefox’s password scheme

Filed in: design, vent, Web, Thu, Nov 30 2006 11:58 PT

I’ve had a problem with how my browser memorizes passwords for a while now, and I’m certainly not alone. Since the holy grail of identity management appears to be a long ways away, I think it’s time to address it.
When I enter a username and password, Firefox helpfully offers to remember it. This is good, and helpful, if you know your username and password. My problem is that I have hundreds of accounts scattered all over the place, and I can never be sure that the username and/or password I am entering is correct. If it’s not, and I tell Firefox to remember it, then I am guaranteed to be starting with the wrong credentials on subsequent visits. Only I won’t know it until I try signing in. That’s a less than stellar user experience.

The problem compounds itself on sites where the form sends you to another page in the site’s hierarchy. Then, you may store the correct username and password combination on that other page, and Firefox will remember them both. And as a result, you’ll go to log in on a site’s front page, then fail, but then be sent to that second page, which will let you in. I had to do that for years with Vonage, having forgotten that the original username and password I provided were useless.

It seems a better way to store new usernames and passwords would be to ask whether to store them after the transaction has been completed. So once you submit the form, and you know whether your credentials have been accepted, you can inform the browser to continue. If not, you can go back and try again. But in any case, you will not be saving bad credentials that will continue to come back and bite you each time you forget whether you used this password or that, or whether you’re bob or bobsmith or bobs or bobsmith@gmail.com or b0b_l0l_360 at any given site you have visited.

Am I alone in this, or does this seem like a useful feature request?

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