Standards.Next Cognition & Accessibility

Standards.Next is an informal meetup hosted by Opera, and attended by anyone with an interest in web standards and beyond. On Saturday 19th September focus turned to one of the most unchartered areas of user experience: Cognition and Accessibility.

Cognition covers an incredibly wide range of conditions and requirements. It’s one of the least well documented areas of web accessibility, and perhaps the least understood. The four presentations at Standards.Next provided a fantastic insight into some of the key issues.

Accessibility Beyond Code

Antonia Hyde kicked off with a powerful message: People are not defined by their disability. She went on to say that people with learning disabilities do use websites, and they often treasure the ability to use the web in their own homes, where there is shelter from the bustle and distraction of the outside world.

Antonia played two videos of a gentleman using the Ebay and Amazon websites. Some key ideas that were highlighted:

  • Icons and text work well together, both acting to re-enforce the message.
  • Clean layouts help minimise distractions.
  • Highlights, borders and other visual cues can be helpful.
  • Calls to action need to be clear and consistent.
  • Colour contrast is important for readability.

Antonia also explained that people don’t often know how to use their browser settings. Giving people the ability to choose text size and alternative colour schemes through the website itself can help overcome this. Providing a range of pre-defined options can also help protect the design.

Autism, the Internet & Antelopes

Jamie Knight from JK3 explained that Autism isn’t being stupid or being difficult. It’s a different way of processing information and it affects people in different ways. It’s just that some people are at a more noticeable end of the spectrum than others. Jamie spoke about some of the ideas he has about information on the web:

  • It’s easy to get distracted from reading information when sound is playing on the page.
  • It’s difficult to follow video content when it is fast paced and the scenes change quickly.
  • Transcripts and captioning can help make information processing easier.
  • Using a screen reader can also help, particularly when tired.
  • Converting text into sign can help give meaning to words.

Jamie also talked about the importance of literal meanings. With typical good humour, he told a story from his childhood, about the time he was told to go and wash his hands in the toilet. He did precisely that, washed his hands in the toilet bowl. Jamie really emphasised the importance of clear language and user friendly instructions.

Lessons Learned Doing Usability Testing

David Owens from Transmedia Gateway spoke about his experiences of testing with people with Autism. His message was simple. If people can’t use it, you’re building it the wrong way. David went on to talk about the lessons he’d learnt:

  • Keep testing scripts simple and easy to understand, to avoid frustrating people taking part.
  • If the tab order of a page doesn’t follow the visual flow, it can confuse sighted people with Autism who use screen readers.
  • People who find it difficult to remember tasks will benefit from style switcher widgets that let them choose text size and colour schemes.
  • Don’t stop one person taking advantage of a feature, because another person may not be able to.

David also talked about the importance of sharing insights from usability testing. This really echoed the knowledge sharing and mutual learning message of the day.

Content & Cognition

Ian Pouncey from Yahoo! wrapped up the day by taking it back to basics. He talked about many of the standard concepts of web accessibility, but with a focus on cognition. Some of Ian’s key points include:

  • Keep page layout consistent, particularly in terms of navigation.
  • Don’t use too many fonts in the design, they can become distracting.
  • Use headings and lists to structure content, as they can guide people through information and help focus attention.
  • Use whitespace to effectively break apart different areas of content, but don’t justify text and create “rivers of whitespace”.
  • Text should default to a readable size, and line height should be around half the height of the text.
  • Limit line length to around 80 characters to help with readability.

Ian also explained that spelling mistakes can cause problems for people as they read the page. He suggested that using a screen reader was an ideal way to catch spelling mistakes before a page is published. It’s certainly true that spelling mistakes are sometimes easier to pick up when listening, rather than reading.

Closing Thoughts

Some key points really stood out for me during the day. For the first time I came down off the fence about style switchers. I’d never quite decided whether it was better to give people the ability to use their browser settings, or provide a widget on the page.

Now I’ve come to understand that some people will aalways find it difficult to go through their browser to make those choices.

Many of the ideas presented during the day were familiar, colour contrast, consistent design, good structure, literal meaning and so forth. What really struck me though was their importance in relation to cognition. We’re accustomed to the blunt force benefits each of these concepts bring to people with other disabilities. For people with cognitive disabilities, the impact is more subtle, but no less dramatic.

Thanks to Henny Swan and Bruce Lawson for organising the day, and to Kath Moonan for finding a great pub to continue the discussions in!

3 Comments on “Standards.Next Cognition & Accessibility”

  1. […] Léonie Watson’s write up […]

  2. Kathy Keller Matejek said on September 22nd 2009 at 7:12 pm:

    Point well made. Cognitive issues have been the elephant in the room for long enough. It’s about time we focus efforts on this. Thank you for doing so and for sharing with the rest of us.

  3. […] Léonie Watson […]

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