Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Illinois Web Accessibility Conference and Expo: Session 1 – Keynote Speaker Trasan, Senior Yahoo Accessibility Manager

Why does a conversation about making content accessible to all always end up talking about people with disabilities? For most people, technology use is a choice (grab a book, hop in the car, etc). For people with disabilities, technologies is not a choice, but essential for everything, even up to cooking (microwave oven with tactile labels, audio alerts to know something is charging/finished charging). But accessibility makes life easier for everyone but for some people it doesn't just make life easier, it makes it possible.

He speaks at every new hire presentation. Firs they see the Benefits people (work hard, get shares, there excited about getting rich). They show lots of videos, and then give them a few tests. One it to give them a test to write a bunch of numbers (huge random numbers in the millions) then they describe what each of those are (number of people who are blind, how much disabled users spend each year, etc.) and this gets their attention. They just do this to make sure the concept of accessibility is in their mind from the first day.

They always ask right away how many disabled people use yahoo. Then he has to explain to them why this is a bad question- if you don't design accessible products to begin with, you won't attract any of those users anyway. And besides, we don't ask how many customers are Chinese, but we make a Chinese language site. And you'll never be able to collect this information because browsers don't indicate if users are employing screen readers or other assistive technologies.

They complain that making accessible stuff is hard! And he admits it can be, but finds that most of the time the majority of accessibility issues are very easy to fix. He wishes there were more advanced problems to deal with, because it would be more challenging. They spend lots of time with simple things ("where is the alt text for your images")- questions and problems that we should be beyond by now.

Myth 1: Accessible design means you can't have a very visual based layout/presentation. No- If you design correctly from the start- lay out content first and then put visual design on top, and then you do almost anything you want with the visual part.

Myth 2: I have to meet every accessibility guidelines out there (a testing tool that spits out 300 possible errors/problems per page). Guidelines are just there to help keep you on the right track. What we are aiming for is making web sites usable for everyone. If you only comply with 1 guideline, and your site is functionally accessible, then you're good.

Myth 3:I have no idea how assistive technologies like screen readers work- so I can't tell what is a good, useful accessible design, even when I try to use a screen reader. If something doesn't feel native to you (screen reader) then it is hard to test what you've built. They actually don't test correctly- they still indicate things on screen that must be seen, that they use the mouse (so maybe for that development you remove the mouse and turn off the screen). You must involve the actual users of the technologies you've been building for, like a screen reader. [This is the same as non-assistive technology users to test a site, and Neilson's rules of usability testing on the cheap would apply here too).

Finally, just a quick note- if dealing with accessibility becomes to mundane, you're not going to enjoy whatever it is your doing. So find the part of accessibility (designing pictures, html markup, dynamic content, testing users etc). Find the accessibility versions of that that interest you, and work on those. That might mean using testing tools on you products, interacting with real accessible technology users, etc.

[Jon interrupted to ask HIM to move along to demo, because we were running out of time]

With Web 2.0, we are pushing the boundaries of the users online experience, and that has made a lot of screen reader users very unhappy (because these new tools haven't been designed to be accessible).

He is using (and yahoo looses a lot) called MVDA, an open source screen reader for windows. The reason he isn't using JAWS is because MVDA is free and open source * you can download and play with it) and it tends to be the most precise of all screen readers- it's not forgiving. MVDA won't guess anything, unlike JAWS and other commercial products that will guess. That leads developers to believe that they've made a universally accessible site, when really they've just made a site that works with JAWS.

Demo of the current yahoo home page. Shows the new "My Favorites" module too, that allows [iGoogle like] portal experience. First how do we make this accessible for keyboard only users, then screen reader users. First notify users that when they type, something has come up on the screen. For instance- search suggestions are available for the auto-suggest drop down box that a sighted users could just see. [Although I think after the first X number of characters it should stop telling the user]. They did this with ARIA compliant markup for the live region (the input box). And an audible alert to return to the search box first (press escape key to return to search, up down to go through suggestions, right arrow to move to related materials). Every time the move between panels, there is an audible alert telling them which region they are in, and instruction on how to move back to their previous areas. Also a ton of audible alerts to explain how to move to different regions (first results, etc) after a search has returned results.

And there "intelligent searches" extends to after the search (search for this term in Wikipedia) and those links also give audible results). Those search refinement have keyboard shortcuts assigned, so users can quickly re-execute searches in specific highly used domains.

Talk about the hover feature on the yahoo mail option. That hover option doesn't work with screen readers, so they introduced additional links so you could expand those preview panels from the keyboard. He demoed a link to all things digital. He hits enter and the content area (search results area) with content from all things digital (well, in this case the demo failed, but still had content- sorry this isn't working right now). But when they click that link, focus is also moved to the beginning of that content area. When the user moves out of that preview area, they are returned to the full list of preview options. Their yahoo preview actually makes a more accessible version of the Facebook content than Facebook itself (because they scare that content and then present it in their own data wrappers/templates). They give the users a message about the content loading, or not being loaded, using ARIA live regions. They do this with a "close link" option, attached to the red X close window button/link. [I wonder why they didn't announce a keyboard shortcut for going back to the list as you enter the dynamic content region, rather than having to use so many tabs to click- like click ctrl and up or down arrow to move through the my favorites links, or just click ctrl+shift+alt+enter toe return to your previous position in the my favorites list].

Q: Are their preference for screen reader users to control how much audible feedback they get though Yahoo? A. No - They don't have anything built in to their site for preferences on what is being read or not, they leave that up to the screen reader preferences.

Q What toolkits are you using to develop this- or are you developing your own. A. This design is using YUI 3. yuiblog.com for more information on this. Check developer.yahoo.com as well for yahoo specific development. This new home page only went live a week ago, so they haven't blogged much about it yet (it was in development).

Q. How do you convey the shortcut keys to regular users? A. All via the help documentation, not anywhere on the page (status bar, etc)/ Yahoo feels every pixel counts- since they're an add driven company. So space for that type of on-screen prompting isn't available).

Q. Do you foresee a time that something very graphical, like yahoo PIPES, can be made to be accessible? A. Yes, eventually, absolutely. PIPES is only in maintenance mode now, which is why it isn't. But if you apply ARIA and good usable design, it's possible. For instance, the latest firebug, which is very complex and visually oriented, is 100% accessible now.

Q: Regarding advertisements- since they are revenue based, do they have to do something to make the ads accessible? A. That's an ongoing effort of hi, getting them in that mindset. Now it depends on the site. For the yahoo font page, more so but not 100%. He currently is trying to get at least alt content for ads, describing the content beyond "flash ad here." Right now the problem is the third party developers aren't providing enough meta-data for yahoo to intercept and remediate. Right now they markup up iframes as ads, allow screen reader users to skip them. But they really can't turn away a one million dollar ad from a company because it's not accessible.

Q: When adding instructions for navigation, in going through this process, did the navigation get improved over-all (for non-screen reader users). Yes, they found that users really appreciated they were guiding them. [I think Nick was asking about non-assistive technology user, and the speaker answer about testing with screen reader users).

Q: Suggestions for how sighted user can experiment with screen reading software? Start by browsing the web for some excellent screen reader videos. For sighted people- nothing is as powerful as watching a video of an actual user trying to user their product with a screen reader. He's made one video for that online as well (shameless plug, so search for his)/ Download MVDA and play with it. Finally, get together with an actual screen reader user and take some notes. You'd be surprised how much you can learn in a short period of time.