Accessibility as a platform to build upon

Two things triggered this post. First a brave participant at the last Geek Meet stood up and asked the question: “Why isn’t it ok to require users have javascript enabled?”. A few days afterwards I got a lot of good replies to my article about AJAX vs. Flash, claiming that users want multimedia, not plain HTML. To me, those are two different ways of asking one fundamental question: “Is it time we start requiring more from our users?”.

HTML: Our history

HTML has existed for (at least) 10 years now. The first browser, Mosaic, supported HTML and the same documents that where viewable then is still possible to look at in today’s browsers. You know those polls that are still made to figure out the percentage of users that support javascript or flash? You don’t need those for HTML, everyone supports it. Browsers, Mobile phones, Screen readers, Search engines… Everywhere you turn you have HTML support.

Now. HTML does not have everything you need to make a fully working website. So what you do is add another layer that figures out what the users what and generate HTML for them. It’s an easy process and the point is that it does not put any pressure on the user at all, even today you can browse most sites with Mosaic. To me, that’s fantastic! We truly have an global format for documents that works everywhere.

Semantic code and web standards did not change the basics, we still use the same header elements that where there from the beginning. What was added was a meaning to each element that had gotten lost in the table-era. Suddenly screen readers could just present a list of headers and know that they presented a balanced view of the site.

But we want more than that!

In parallell to semantic HTML, Flash and AJAX apps have evolved. They do a good job when it comes to interacting with the user, and interfaces instantly feel more alive. Some developers love them for that.

My thesis is that even though we do want more multimedia there’s good and bad ways of getting it. Throwing away 10 years of accessibility can’t be the best way? What I want is a way to have both a structured and readable site that is accessible from anywhere, and a site that can give users more interactivity if their browsers support it. Some say it isn’t possible, but as a programmer I know that’s not true. Based on previous comments I know it is possible to add a flash layer on top of a HTML site; you simply parse the HTML from flash.

You have probably figured this out already but this is what many AJAX apps are doing. They are adding a more interactive layer, on top of HTML. Done right that has incredible consequences for how applications can be accessed by all sorts of devices.

Don’t believe those who say accessibility rules out everything else. Use accessibility as a platform to build other apps on top of. Only require more for extras, not the basics.

5 responses to “Accessibility as a platform to build upon

  1. Whenever I think of getting into multimedia more, I think of SMIL. I wish browsers suppported it, because I really think it could be accepted by regular users and it wouldn’t require authors to know any javascript to accomplish a few simple things. Nice article/entry.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, some great points raised. This extra layer of non unobtrusive interaction is just what the doctor ordered.

  3. Who are “we” really: web designers, under 25, MTV viewers?

    Who are “those” in accessibility that advocate ruling out everything but plain HTML?

    And do “we” really want more interactivity?

    MTV users, who you would expect to want an all-singing all-dancing flash site, obviously don’t:

    Could it be that “we” want to Interact with your site, rather than have your site “interact” upon us?

    Personally, I’m not opposed to beautiful looking things, but I prefer to be able to submit a form, copy some content, or understand where to go next over partial page reloads and animation.

  4. @Terrence Wood: You’re missing the point, this article is about having both plain HTML and adding another layer on top of that with effects. When you build like that it’s easy to give people like you an option of turning off the top layer.

    And to answer your rhetoric questions, you know exactly what kind of people I talk about, don’t be silly.

  5. @Terrance Wood: What you say you’d prefer (or I, for that matter) is largely irrelevant. The presentation methods that get the most commercially relevant responses from us will inevitably become prevalent. Currently the flashier online experiences, like those requiring that extra layer, are achieving results. They overshadow the older, duller, understated methods. Like it or not, animation and multi-media are becoming the standard. perhaps you just haven’t seen them used well? Or perhaps used well, they are so easily overlooked?

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