Straight From the Horse’s Mouth with Derek Featherstone

Written by: Christina Wodtke

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banda_headphones_sm.gif Christina Wodtke traveled with microphone to the IA Summit in Las Vegas this year and sat down with some of the most interesting and accomplished information archictects and designers in all the land. Bill Wetherell recorded those five conversations, and now B&A is proud to bring them to you. Thanks to AOL for sponsoring these podcasts.

Christina talks with web accessibility and design expert Derek Featherstone about considering accessibility as a foundational part of the design process. By doing so, he argues, the software we build will have better structure and be inherently more useful for everyone who uses it.

This interview is a must listen if you want to learn about this emergent part of our practice that started as a grassroots movement in developer communities.

We discuss…

*What do IA and Accessbility have in common?*
Derek looks at the bigger picture when it comes to accessibility, believing that focusing on accessibility by itself will cause the web design to fall short in other important areas.

*Fashionably late?*
Derek goes on to outline the problems of brining accessibility issues to the table late in the design process, including impact on project scope. As Derek points out, better to measure not once, but three of four times before cutting…metaphorically speaking.

*Easy does it!*
Derek talks about specific examples of issues that have arisen when sites for the Canadian Federal Government have been found to be inaccessible and the consequences that follow.

*Heart and Soul*
Derek talks about the value in this work is knowing simply that he’s helping people with disabilities share in the same experiences as everyone else. “I don’t think I could even make an inaccessible web site, now!”

*Structure is at the Core*
He describes how structure (following HTML web standards) allows assistive devices to know what the page is communicating.

*Interaction Design and Accessibility*
Derek suggests trying to think about accessibility from an Interactive perspective. Using things like flow, and rhythm to convey meaning in something we read for those who can’t see.

*Flash in the pan?*
Derek thinks there are great Flash sites and use of the product. In fact Flash has a wealth of accessibility features at the developer’s disposal. The message is just not getting out there fast enough.

Straight From the Horses Mouth with Derek Featherstone.

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Send your resume to today.

[Theme music]

Female Voice: Boxes and Arrows is always looking for new thinking from the brightest minds and user experience design. At the IA Summit, we sat down with Derek Featherstone from Further Ahead.

Christina Wodtke: I’m Christina Wodtke of Boxes and Arrows and I’m sitting here talking with Derek Featherstone. I don’t even know the name of your company.

Derek Featherstone: My Company is called Further Ahead.

Christina: Further Ahead, I like that very much. So, Derek you are here talking to folks about accessibility and from what I hear, your workshop was fairly well-attended, pretty crowded in there. So tell me, what is it about IA and accessibility? I wouldn’t have guessed they have a lot to do with each other.

Derek: I think, for me, the way I see it is that they are both related because they’re both part of overall user experience.

A lot of people look at accessibility as this little thing that’s on its own but if you do accessibility on its own and treat it as its own component, it becomes like a second class citizen and so it’s not integrated into everything else that we’re doing.

And when you treat it as something that’s just kind of like the checklist training – that’s what everybody thinks of when they think accessibility is this checklist of things that we need to do.

It really becomes something that is removed from the overall design process and the build process, and understanding it as part of user experience on how people, actually, use the web.

Christina: What are some of the bad consequences of having it outside of the design process?

Derek: Well, I think the biggest problem that I’ve seen is that it just gets addressed too late in the process.

So I’ll have clients sometimes come to me two weeks before they are ready to launch a site and they know it needs to be accessible and then I’ll go through and I’ll do an assessment of it, will do user testing with it and will go back and say: “There’s a lot of things that need to be fixed, let’s make this happen.” It’s like they can’t go live or it goes live with a lot of accessibility issues in it.

So that’s, sort of, the most significant problem – is that it gets dealt with too late and then it cost money because you have to go back and retrofit.

Retrofitting a site is never fun and it can be a lengthy process especially depending on how far along you are and how complicated your framework is, what you’re doing on the back end in terms of code.

You might not be able to change things as easily as if you’d dealt with it up front and how accessibility is taken into account at the prototype stage.

So that’s the number one issue, I think – is that it just — it becomes an afterthought and then it’s seen as this button that you just end up with an inaccessible product because of it.

Christina: So it’s an old adage of measured twice and cut once?

Derek: Or measured three or four time and cut once.

Christina: OK. So what happens to those sites where accessibility problems go live? What happens when you aren’t as careful as you should be?

Derek: I mean, depending on who you are, you are kind of hope and pray that you don’t run into any issues where people — you know in Canada, for example, we have sites that may have accessibility problems that are federal government sites and people will launch actions.

They’ll bring that to, say, Canadian Human Rights Commission and they will say: “There’s this service that’s offered online that I can’t access because it’s fundamentally inaccessible. There is all these issues with it.”

So that works its way up the food chain through a process to get resolved. So that’s certainly one of the dangers in Canada.

You know, here in the states, it’s a little bit different although very similar as the Human Rights Commission, but ultimately Section 508 here in the states is there to guarantee or at least provide for a minimum of accessibility.

I’m not sure if people launch complaints with the governments or if it’s more dealt within a civil manner as we see all kinds of suits these days against companies in Texas and the National Federation of Blind launching their suit against Target.

I think the one in Texas was Oracle – all this legislation exists and if you’re not accessible then you’re, kind of, get caught with your past though.

Christina: So lawsuits and government action is at stake. Is there a carrot as well to encourage people to think about accessibility?

I’ve heard some people talk about, like, good code and good accessibility, meaning good search engine results; can you give us some advantages?

Derek: Yeah, I mean, that certainly is one of the advantages. There is a danger though in that being the motivation for it.

I think that biggest carrot is that we are doing this to help people with disabilities use the web. I see the web as, and I think a lot of people see the web, as great tool to level the playing field.

Having the ability to be somebody that’s, say, blind or is, say, confined to a wheelchair, they have the ability to shop online just like anybody else can.

It is an attempt or hopefully a mechanism to get that level of playing field and unfortunately that’s not reality. So the biggest carrot for me is knowing that people with disabilities can actually use the web the way it was intended to be used.

And I know that one of the things that I’ve always done that’s worked really well is for people that don’t necessarily know about accessibility or don’t know some of the advantages of it, just doing user testing with them or having them observe user testing some of the frustrations of using even their own websites.

Getting business owners and people that are driving groups – the owners of the websites to see it for themselves and to hear it for themselves really makes a big difference.

So that’s the carrot that I like to use although there are definitely benefits from a search engine optimization perspective. The foundation of accessibility, really, is that structured semantic underlying data and that’s the same for search engine optimization, so the two of those fit really nicely together.

You know, there are other things too like lightweight pages make it easier to download, things like that. So those are all these extra side benefits that may help people that want to browse on a mobile device. But I don’t see those as being, certainly — those might be like 10 karat and people with disabilities are like a 24 karat.

Christina: 24-karat carrot.

Derek: Yeah, exactly.

Christina: I like that. So well, luckily, you have all those carrots because I have noticed the business are not always altruistic as we might want them to be.

Derek: Yeah, it’s true. I mean, it is something where — I’m fortunate in that all the clients that I have and that I worked with, I never really had anybody that I’ve had to sell it to them and used those other carrots and especially when I’m developing sites and building sites.

This is just the way we do it now. I don’t think I could even make an inaccessible website. I mean, this is the way that we build sites now and that’s just how it is. There’s nothing to, really, sell in a lot of ways.

Christina: So you mentioned that you have more work than you can, actually, possibly do right now and that you’ve been doing this for awhile, do you think that there’s an increased awareness of the value of accessibility? Do you think more people are worried about it or caring about it in the past?

Derek: Yeah, I think some of the visibility or some of these lawsuits is having an impact. I think there is more awareness of it in general and I think a lot of people – there’s, kind of, a web standards’ movement among developers that just keeps growing.

So there’s a group of people that are just out there, that are just doing this because it’s the right way to do things.

So I think that it’s kind of a — is this grassroots movement that is helping to spread that vision of accessibility into organizations all over the place. So I think people are definitely more aware of it these days.

Christina: Earlier you mentioned the lightweight pages, are there some other core precepts of accessibility that you could share?

Derek: I think, well, I mean, the absolute based one is structure – having that structure that enables assistive devices to understand a little bit more about what the page actually is.

Christina: What do you mean by structure?

Derek: Just structuring your page so that you have —

Christina: The HTML? The —

Derek: Yeah. Yes, so using the right HTML for the job. So having headings, lists, block quotes – using the age-old sins of HTML was we to indent our texts so we’re going to wrap it all in a block quote or maybe two or three block quotes to bring both the margins. We just don’t do that anymore because block quote actually has meaning and there is a certain semantic to it.

A screen reader will announce that a block quote is a quote.

So if we have three-nested block quotes together to indent something on a page, it just doesn’t make any sense and that’s extra noise for a screen reader.

So, I mean, that’s just one example, we want to make sure that we’re using the tools that even though HTML is an overly semantic latent rich language, we want to use what we do have to its best.

So using lists properly on other lists and ordered lists, using tables properly, using headings, block quotes, all these different elements that we have for the right reasons.

Christina: So are there other ways to make pages a little more accessible?

Derek: Yeah, I think one of the things that I’ve been pushing a lot of people to do or to at least consider is to think of it from an interaction perspective.

One of them is — one of the ways to do that is looking at the visual languages that we create with our designs. We use color and we use actinography and we use things like rhythm and flow and similarity and size, similarity and color.

We use all that visual display to convey meaning to people that can see.

So how can we take that and translate that into something that is useful for our screen readers? So if we’re talking about things being the same size and having the same, sort of, weight then we should do that same thing in the underlying HTML.

So just taking that extra step to think about what you are trying to visually communicate and thinking about ways to communicate that in other ways to people that may not be able to see.

Another example is, you know, we might have sections of a page where we’ll have primary navigation across the top and secondary navigation down the side. We can visually see that based on the position on the page, these lengths are different from those links.

So there are other ways to try and convey that.

You might include, say, before your secondary navigation, you might include a hidden heading that says: “In the section” so that you can distinguish from the primary navigation links from the secondary just so that it makes it a little bit more clear as to what all these different components are.

So that taking that visual to translating into something that’s meaningful in some other way to somebody that’s consuming a page through auditory means.

Christina: So with the penetration of broadband to a much wider audience, we are seeing a lot more use of Flash and Ajax and streaming video, what, sort of, opportunities or challenges are you seeing these days?

Derek: It’s interesting because there’s a lot of belief that, well, because we now have this broadband penetration we can do whatever we want.

One of the main issues that I’ve seen with that is the use of Flash – I think that Flash is great, I think it’s got some really — some great uses on the web, but one of the things that happens is Flash developers don’t necessarily know all the accessibility features that are built in the Flash.

It’s not really well know, but Flash has, in some ways, better accessibility support than technologies like using things like Ajax.

Christina: Wow.

Derek: And that’s been there for some time.

I mean, Macromedia and now Adobe with Flash. They have been putting a lot of time and effort into making that accessible and that’s — they’ve got — right now, at this point, they’ve got better programmatic control over talking to, say, screen readers and through that accessibility architecture that’s built into your operating systems.

There is better support there for things that — for reaching that applications than there are in Ajax right now.

So that’s one of the big things – is with the proliferation of Flash, people don’t even necessarily know that it can be made accessible. The old story was, well, it’s Flash, so it can’t be accessible, but that’s not true. There’s a lot of things in Flash that can be made accessible and the principles are pretty similar to what we have in HTML.

You need to enable keyboard access, so all your buttons that you have in a Flash will lead to, say, save it with your online video, like things that YouTube or Google video or wherever.

All your buttons that you used to control, they need to have the ability to take the keyboard focused, so that you can tab through them.

So you need to label them so that they just don’t get announced as “button” by a screen reader because button, if you have five things that are all announced as “button”, it’s not clear what it is.

Christina: “Button, button, who’s got the button?”

Derek: Exactly. Exactly. So that’s a big challenge right – is encouraging other people. There are some really brilliant people working on Flash accessibility but it’s just not proliferating. We need to continue to get that word out that you can make Flash accessible.

Christina: Well, you know, Ajax is the flavor of the week and flick or flip completely out from Flash to Ajax and we’re seeing a lot of other new Web 2.0 items in Ajax.

What should people be thinking about is as you sit down to knock out the next most amazing project ever?

Derek: That’s a good question. I mean, in terms of accessibility – I know I have said this a lot now, but the underlying structure is almost everything. That gives you your framework.

So having good, solid HTML which most people that are building new applications are these days, really, what they need to do to take it to that next level is think of the interaction and think of that Ajax component as that final enhancement rather than the first enhancement.

A lot of people think about it – they start creating a new application and the very first thing they do is say: “OK, this is going to be Ajax-driven.” If we can avoid people thinking that way, let’s think of the core structure first, what are we actually trying to do in terms of our interaction?

Then how do we enhance what we’ve already got with Ajax?

Christina: Now, that does sound like information architecture and interaction design to me very much.

Derek: Exactly and the biggest thing that people don’t ask is should we even be using Ajax for this in the first place? And that question just doesn’t get asked enough. There are lots of examples out there where there’s really —

Christina: You mean [indecipherable] names?

Derek: No, I’m not even thinking of any applications in particular but there are situations where the assumption has been we need Ajax to do this but all these things that are happening in this Web 2.0-sphere that are all around tagging at social interaction and social networking, we don’t need Ajax for any of that.

Those ideas are really just concepts; it’s nothing to do with the technology.

We can use Ajax to make those concepts come to fruition in a much more usable manner and in some ways it’s almost more accessible to use some Ajax-type techniques because the fact that the page doesn’t refresh means we don’t lose all that context and have to wait for that page to reload.

So it’s quite possible that using Ajax to expand the nodes of a tree in a file view, for example, might actually be more accessible because it’s easier to maintain contexts; people don’t have to go through that refresh.

So there’s a lot of interesting things to think about that. We’ve only really just started exploring.

Christina: OK. So let’s say, you know, I am that little company and I will say I’ve built it, I didn’t think about accessibility, what should I be looking for just to see if I’m going to be in deep trouble with the law? Is there any quick way I can go through and see if I’ve got big trouble or little trouble?

Derek: I mean there are online checkers that can do a quick and dirty analysis for you.

The biggest problem with it right now is that a lot of accessibility even though there is a checklist to reliably and mechanically checks for those things in automated way, you can maybe hit 25% to 30% of the issues. So you do need to do a bit of a manual review.

One of the things that you can do though, and I do this all the time, is go out to the local college or university and get people from the center for students with disabilities and just get them to — you know, they’ll be more than happy, usually to volunteer to test things out for you.

Christina: After users?

Derek: Yeah, I know it’s crazy, isn’t it? Unbelievable. I mean, who would have thought?

Christina: You’re a radical thinker.

Derek: I know. I know it’s crazy. It’s crazy.

Christina: Well, this is fantastic. Thank you so much, Derek, any last words to the folks thinking about accessibility out there?

Derek: You know, the main thing is just keep thinking about it because that’s what we need – is we need more people thinking about it all the time.

Christina: Make good code and think about your users out there.

Derek: Exactly.

Christina: Sounds good no matter what you’re working in.

Derek: Absolutely.

Christina: Thanks, Derek.

Derek: Thank you.

[Theme music]

Christina Wodtke

Christina Wodtke

Christina Wodtke is an itinerant instigator and maker of things to happen. She is currently on sabbatical, advising start-ups and gardening. Most recently she led new product development and reinvention as a general manager of at Zynga, was general manager of Social at Myspace, principal product manager at Linkedin, and senior director of design at Yahoo! back when Yahoo! was pretty neat. As well, she likes founding things: She founded a startup where she developed the collaborative blogging tool PublicSquare; founded Boxes and Arrows, an on-line magazine of design; and co-founded the Information Architecture Institute. She may found again.
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3 thoughts on “Straight From the Horse’s Mouth with Derek Featherstone”

  1. Dear Christina Wodtke and Bill Wetherell,

    Can you also ask AOL to sponsor transcripts for these podcasts?

    “This interview is a must listen if you want to learn about this emergent part of our practice that started as a grassroots movement in developer communities.”

    What about 37 million of Americans (and millions more abroad) with hearing loss who have no access to audio files? Especially when that interview is concerned about web “accessibility”. This is a serious issue to think about when there are numerous websites with an increasing number of videos, podcasts, webcasts without text alternatives.

    Transcripts would benefit more people, too – foreigners, those learning to read, those in restrictive environments and having limited software/hardware. Practically everyone. Transcripts are easier to follow and give more flexibility than audio files. Unlike podcasts that Google cannot hear either and therefore cannot index, transcripts improve search engine optimization.

    I wish I could listen to your podcats, but with profound hearing loss I have no access to any of them at all.

  2. — Derek talks about the value in this work is knowing simply that he’s helping people with disabilities share in the same experiences as everyone else. “I don’t think I could even make an inaccessible web site, now!”

    If that’s so, has he said anything in the interview about audio components that they should be transcribed?

  3. I am pleased that this and some other podcasts on this site are finally transcribed and more are in process of being transcribed. Thank you, Christina. I finally have an access to the interview on par with hearing readers.

    The interview is great. However, as usual, there’s still a big emphasis there on users with visual or mobile barriers, and not even a word said about those users who have barriers to audio. It is important not only to have a clean code, but also have all audio components transcribed. It is actually part of accessibility checklist that many web specialists are not following.

    Also, there’s a part of Derek Featherstone’s answers that got me disturbed:

    “Having the ability to be somebody that’s, say, blind or is, say, confined to a wheelchair, they have the ability to shop online just like anybody else can.”

    I am not a blind or a wheelchair user, but the definition of someone “confined to a wheelchair” is not appropriate as well as other definition of people with disabilities such as “suffering from hearing loss” or “handicapped” or such. It may sound like a little thing to able-bodied people, but we are pretty sensitive to those wordings because they create negative stereotypes about us. We do not “suffer” from disabilities – we suffer from the society who puts barriers on our abilities and from many able-bodied people who would not do anything to remove those barriers.

    The descriptions are to be used based on “people-first language” and “social model of disability”. More of this can be explained on the following blog:

    Also, there’s info on “people-first language”:

    We will appreciate that able-bodied people – especially web accessibility specialists – think about the language they use to describe us. I would suggest to ask professional organizations (such as AAPD, NAD, etc – that are not focusing on medicine) and individuals with disabilities themselves about how to use words properly before doing interviews or writing an article.

    Thank you.

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