Usability and Accessibility Focus Groups

Roger at 456bereastreet illustrates how to usefully enact a small scale usability test. I commented there; the expansion follows.

I think it’s important to stress how much usability norms can differ across different audiences and regions, and how much adaptability and approachability after publication should be more of a factor in determining requirements. A company/organisation/community with no prior experience of its audience will have no conception of the capabilities permissible, and so would have to offer the bottom line. It may turn out that that’s insufficient, because your majority audience turns out to be extremely competent and technologically advanced – they may desire the complexity, because they can use it.

See the (admittedly badly formed) article at The Register on Google and scope for some brief comments on the different perceptions that east and western cultures have of what the internet itself means, let alone usability of it.

Any designer should aim to follow the simplest approach possible, adding on optional extras as the user goes through the process, without complexifying things too much. Usability in such a case might therefore be reducible to a set of criteria, or dare I say it, standards.

But it can’t, of course, and we know why. Usability, and accessibility, are individual characteristics particular to each and every user, and so depend on a combination of user knowledge and education, and designer prediction and “leeway” to allow a vaguely balanced experience. (let’s exclude perhaps one of the least usable sites on the web, Jakob’s, which fails not by structure but by design)

All of which brings me to: usability and accessibility studies which involve “real life” users are immensely important until the designer gets it. At that point, unless they pay no attention to web trends and societal change, they have a reasonable – while not expert – understanding of what to provide.

We can try to appoint a representative council of “disabled people” to test our websites, but have we considered the depth of experience that different blind people have with different screen readers? Have we considered the lack of knowledge of basic computer usage, that many disadvantaged people may have, or the misinterpreted functions of lacklustre browsers and operating systems (alt = tooltip being a relatively minor one)?

Each person is an individual. A person is impaired by the barriers placed on them; as a designer, it is therefore critical to ensure that a website contains as few barriers as possible, without even considering the type of user who may stumble across it. It isn’t about testing whether a blind person with an advanced knowledge of JAWS can use a site: of course they can, they’ve persevered for the past 8 years trying to make sense of it all, so they can work out your silly little code. It’s about the baseline, the average user who has a very slim understanding of the internet, of the way a browser works, of the way a computer works. We have a project which looks at the way people from different backgrounds may face challenges using a VLE, but it can apply equally to websites.

In fact, in a lot of cases, you may find that disabled users are more competent than their counterparts, purely because they’ve had to try harder. That’s not a problem, but worry less about the specifics of how a particular screen reader may respond to a certain type of list, and worry more about whether the harsh black on white text you have will cause people with specific learning difficulties, people with a tendency for migraines, and people with even marginally poor vision, to react badly to your site and may even force them away.

Furthermore, reasonable is perhaps the best stage to be at. Nielsen may have an excellent understanding of usability, but he has no idea how to implement it. Joe Clark has a fabulous understanding of captioning and many accessibility issues, yet he still frightens everyone off by being Joe Clark, hence prohibiting access. Experts are absolutely necessary, but not in proliferation; here the jack of all trades is more or less enough.

Comment Spam: Some Thoughts On Accessibility

Aggregated from posts at accessifyforum.com.

Tommy Ollsen has had some trouble with spam comments on his blog. I can’t sympathise, because nobody visits here. 🙂 But in patience for the day, some accessibility and usability concerns…

I’ve always been very confused by blogs which have allowed comments, but not when you come across them (months later). It’s not intuitive or usable, particularly where discussion boards are based around the whole idea of years-long threads. So if you do go ahead with, make it very explicit that there’s a reason for no-comment, otherwise you get users looking around the page for the comment form, or thinking they’ve been banned.

If you’re going to close comments, make it clear on the page – it would particularly ne usefulwhen located in the same area/style division as the comment box would usually be, so that if you’re already aware of the site design it’s clear that something’s different on this page.

There’s an argument for closing comments, but there’s also a flipside. I’ve come across various important discussions (Mezzo/Malarkey spring to mind) by searching for them, and where there are still “gaps” in the conversation. That’s why the “bumping” feature of forums is a very useful feature, in that it can reignite debates which haven’t properly concluded. However, as a blog/journal it’s clearly a different matter, but you could argue that a “Ten recent comments” list could include all comments from all entries, rather than just the open ones, so that any user would see that the old/archived ones were still in use, and thus reflect/comment further on the new entries.

Consider whether it is worth pairing the timeout (based on the original post date + x days) with some sort of activity figure (if comments made in past 28 days > 2) which flags the entry for human intervention, to work out whether the conversation really is going on for months and months (and so where it’d be a shame for the timeout to apply), or whether a sneaky comment spam has just held it open.

In the end, I think at the moment – without resorting to some extreme filtering/AI techniques – in order to allow the blog to be sufficiently useful over a wide range of people and over a reasonable length of time, it’s going to have to be the compromise involving a machine making broad decisions and flagging up things it’s concerned about to a human, in the same way as simple email spam filters work. Sad but true.

Acronym vs. Abbr!

A long debacle has plagued the web standards community: that of ABBR vs. ACRONYM.

Let’s get one thing straight, to begin with: an acronym is still an abbreviation. Everything that is a contraction of a fuller version is an abbreviation. Acronyms, initialisms, 2nd-class-initialisms, communist-initialisms – they’re all still abbreviations.

HTML tags exist for the purpose of alerting the user agent to do something different. CSS exists to illustrate to the user how things are done differently.

This means that use of abbr at a base level is more than enough, because the user agent (including assistive technology) is aware that the content within the tags is not to be treated as standard text, and it can therefore work out from the tag you used what your intention was. A screen reader relies on an extensive dictionary to be able to pronounce any word, and it will/should rely on this dictionary to work out whether it feels a set of characters, marked up as an abbreviation, should be pronounced in a different way (either as letters, or as a word but with the option of also saying the expanded meaning).

Where there is ambiguity, there will be ambiguity for everyone, and so the content author should learn to write content better. (for example, logically, IE and i.e. could be equivalents, depending on the individual and/or the localisation norm. But it may seem clear to the content author which is which).

Assumptions will always have to be made about the user, and the user agent, analysing content. That’s why well written content will also include an expansion of an acronym/initialism in parentheses, unless it can be safely assumed that the anticipated audience will already have this knowledge. The benefit in expanding etc. into etcetera by use of any tag is slim, since it still makes the assumption that the user knows what etcetera means, that the user-agent/AT will be better at saying/reading etcetera than it will be by intelligently interpreting etc. and it makes the assumption that AT developers aren’t capable of making the technology intellegient and/or localised, with UK and US dictionaries usually being the first stage.

There is far too long a chain of possibilities to be able to reliably pick either ABBR or ACRONYM or another tag. You may use a colon to introduce a list, as you grammatically should, but another person may use a colon-hyper combo to do it. What are you able to do to ensure that the screen reader delivers the correct length of pause in order to indicate it’s a list? (and before you answer, do you really advocate marking up:

Western languages make extensive use of acronyms such as “GmbH”, “NATO”, and “F.B.I.”

into:

Western languages make extensive use of acronyms such as [ul class=”inline”][li]”GmbH”,[/li][li] “NATO”,[/li][li]and “F.B.I.”[/li][/ul]

and perhaps using CSS’ :before and :after to insert the commas and ‘and’s for a list item with the class ‘last’? Semantically, it’s a lot more meaningful and less ambiguous than what we had before.)

Anyway: there are too many nuances of too many languages, and dialects of languages, to be able to provide appropriate tags for them all. All that is required is for the content author to ensure that pieces of content which are not standard words – i.e. use formatting (capital initials) or punctuation (etc.) – are marked up to indicate to the user agent that something different needs to happen here. The user agent and the user themselves are then responsible for interpreting how this content should be broadcast. Use of localised assistive technology, with frequent dictionary updates to follow current language fashions and trends, would ensure that the user is receiving a reasonable interpretation of what the author is trying to say. It’s then up to the user to keep educated enough to understand what the user agent is offering to them.

Solutions? Gez Lemon suggests using this for print stylesheets, or for people with poor mobility in their alternative stylesheet:

abbr:after
{
content: ” (” attr(title) “) “;
}

Finally, on repetition of acronyms, users and UAs should handle this in their own way – if a user doesn’t understand an acronym because they’ve hit the 3rd usage of it, common convention (and the guidelines) will indicate to them that it might be somewhere else on the page, and so will be encouraged to look for it.

Either that, or they google it like I do when I don’t understand something. I then ignore the google results and click on the definition to go to dictionary.com, then click on the acronym link to go to acronymfinder.com. But that’s just for bandwidth abusers!

It’s entirely conceivable that a UA should provide a context menu for acronyms/abbreviations that give you a number of choices – one of these would be very simply to get the UA to look at the rest of the page for you, and identify the first (or better, previous to the current) instance of the acronym, and take the title from there. If it just shows you this in the menu, even better. Another option could be exactly the above – search for the acronym in the predefined website/dictionary of the user’s choice etc.

And we could end up with limitless resource and pamper everyone…. 🙂

Final word: use of the ABBR tag is the most generic possible in the current W3C specifications, and is the only one which should be used unless there is certainty that it’s an acronym as well. In this case, the abbreviation should perhaps be wrapped in both – a nightmare of tag soup, but the standards (and Microsoft’s absurd understanding of them) do not serve us well. Semantically neutral tags don’t really help us, because this is semantic. Ideally, duplicate the effort by providing the expansion of the abbreviation in an alternate form, so you’ve got all bases covered. Any comments from any users as to whether this has ever actually mattered to them, would be most enlightening to, and may help put the matter to rest….

Remix: Arovane – Good Bye Osaka

From: Arovane’s Good Bye Forever, Arovane’s Cry Osaka Cry, and Martin Luther King’s speeches, I Have A Dream and I Have Seen The Promised Land.

Download Arovana – Good Bye Osaka (God Bless MLK Mix) as Mp3

This remix is unofficial and may not have permission of the copyright owner. It is included here to complement the original work and is not theft; however, should you wish it to be removed, please contact me.

Single: Newspeak

A new year, and a new mood. Installed Fruity Studio in demo mode, prohibiting any savings, and hence latter adjusting, of the sound. Is this jazz? It is output only once and then the workstation is closed, never to return again. One copy, one moment. It may not be any good; it’s flawed and could be bettered. But that is for music to decide; we aren’t looking for perfection, we’re looking for meaning, for inspiration, for fragments of life captured in the peripheral vision of the world. When you catch a butterfly, show everyone…

Tracklist:

  1. Unite Me
  2. This Is Not Our Fight
  3. Praise Me

Thanks to the The George W. Bush Public Domain Audio Archive for the vocal samples and the inspiration for what for me is a disconcertingly “nice” portrayal of our new dictator, and our new Nurembergs.

Download Newspeak

Final Thoughts: Is education necessary?

This may have little relevance to this course and even less to do with the goals I’m supposed to pursue, but this is an experimental course, so…

What is the purpose of e-learning? Most of the materials in an online course – and any course – can be found either on the web or in journals. A traditional course is attractive for a couple of reasons:

  • Social interaction – people go to the “University of Life” etc. and enjoy 3 years of fun
  • Qualifications
  • “something to do”
  • To learn.

… with the dawn of the web and the continuing influx of information and usage by academics, the last two points seem less significant – anyone who has a machine connected to the web, or at least access to one, now has plenty to do and learn.

Social interactions? For an undergraduate these are perhaps the most important factor of any university experience – but they aren’t anything that can be controlled by the academic environment.

So is it all about qualifications? Perhaps not, because I’m being unfair with my choice of traditional course rationale. But it’s easy to see a future without e-learning, because everything is already there on the web to begin with. Why pay ?1,500 tution fees per year when you can just Google it? Why be forced into sticking to a rigid course structure when you can develop in your own time, at your own pace, with your own skills, without feeling you’ve been left behind?

Of course, we know why – people don’t motivate themselves past the initial application form. The majority of people like the web for its other uses and can’t focus down on the wealth of information out there – indeed, the fact that there is so much is a good reason for e-courses to exists, in that they can provide order from the chaos, but that doesn’t mean that e-learning is any better than self-learning.

However, I have fallen into the same trap as many of the writers hence. e-learning for me, is this course. It has been delivered well and encouraged much thought and enjoyment; but it is today, and not tomorrow. It is a pioneering force in an institution which is too much of a juggernaut to really latch on. God forbid I try to look at MVM’s LTS without Flash, or choose the wrong option when I visit Architecture’s website. And I’m only trying to choose the course I go on – not actually enrol on it.

Tools must be used wisely, and no job can be done with only one tool, unless it’s an Ikea job. We can produce Ikea learning experiences, but we must remember that while the end result is simple and easy to complete, that the production of simplicity comes at great cost, and requires more than one tool. Whether this warrants the end-gains for the student depends on whether the student expects, or even realises them.

Education is the communication of knowledge. If two people find it easier to stand in a room together than post on forums, or prefer it the other way round, then they should have that choice. The institution cannot dictate the learning style of the student.

Access: Ensuring and Assuring #2

E-learning might be both a solution and a problem. Widening participation is a great idea that will fail in its implementation. There are pre-requisites to any university education – notably, linguistic skills of some type, some experience in lower education, and the ability to attend the classes. Some of these are difficult for some gifted students, and have been overcome with appropriate support. E-learning requires yet another skill, or at least significant support – computing/technical ability. In this it may be far easier for experienced users to appear to excel far more easily, and to give the illusion that they are better learners because they can effectively ‘talk the talk’.

This can be subtle – it can be the difference between a student who gives an established and cohesive blog commentary throughout the whole course, as compared to someone who gives a burbled “getting to grips with it all” mumbling and proffes a profound final essay within the blog, despite the fact that the tool “shouldn’t” be used that way. But who is to determine how to use a tool – evolution is about adaptation and reutilisation. It’s about outcomes as opposed to process, education as opposed to enthusiasm. The student will eventually be the one who assesses their own performance and evolution in every course, and it has taken centuries for their tutors to be guided into a place where they are comfortable with constructive criticism and setting milestones where they are allowed to intrude.

The relationships in an educational setting are now more complex than ever, with different adjustments and “compensations” required for all sorts of reasons, emotional and disability-related, and it becomes easily to become sceptical that the tutor can no longer act as a mentor or as a companion, as in the long-lost days of Socrates and Plato, in that they become a computational device, aware they are offering some sort of constructive input into a system which eventually dilutes it such that both tutor and student can be equally confounded to realise the eventual outcome.

So there is a question…

Is it conceivable to offer e-learning as an “alternative format” for disabled learners?

When we talk of traditional course materials and disabled students, we come across the need to translate paper materials into other formats – electronic, braille, audio tape, and so on. This is time consuming but necessary, for otherwise the learner cannot engage with the course.

There are other adjustments required for different disabilities; sign language interpreters for lectures, putting handouts on the web, and so on. Eventually though, you will end up with a student for whom reasonable adjustments aren’t enough to make the course come to life, perhaps due to mobility difficulties and the hassle involved in attending classes/lectures.

So is e-learning the answer? For some people, certainly. A wheelchair user may well be more comfortable in their own home, able to use different hours of the day and apply themselves to the course as and when they feel possible. For an autistic/aspergers student, and for disorganised dyslexic students, it may be a perfect solution to the complex discussions and extremely fast responses that go on in lectures, allowing consumption of material at leisure.

But for many disabled students it will be a separation too far; another barrier, perhaps technical, perhaps social, to be placed in front of them by an institution too eager to keep up with the world. Hate to say it (!) but maybe Hamish is right; this isn’t a revolution, and maybe not even an evolution – it’s just a different way of teaching, to be presented alongside the others. What’s important, is that the student gets to choose.

Continuous assessment as a hindrance to certain student groups

…even though it should be easy.

See post of October 4th. I and perhaps others now frantically aware that the blog deadline is approaching, fire off all the thoughts that have been swimming around for the past 10 weeks that never got the chance to be formulated properly.

This shouldn’t be the case – it’s exactly how students operate when faced with essays, typically written with coffee or beer at 3am on the day of submission. But this blog is equivalent to weekly short submissions or multiple choice tests, so it shouldn’t have been so much of a problem.

This is perhaps symptomatic of the type of student and the way they process and organise; even though the blog is continually updatable and available at all times, it is still seen as a block – one of the two marks in the course, and something which develops to, at the end of the day, become a singular entity.

With that in mind, it is difficult for less confident thinkers, perfectionists, or disorganised people (students with specific learning difficulties are indeed one group, but many people may fall into this trap) to be self-critical of earlier thoughts, because they’re aware that it is inevitable.

When any education starts with beginner lectures and beginner essays in 1st year, the student is forced to respond in order to progress – they will undoubtedly feel out of their depth and ill-equipped. As they progress until reaching 4th year (“expert” level), they will become more confident with the subject matter and begin to overreach in terms of thinking and independent research. They can then look back on their first year essays with scorn and ridicule. That’s how it is supposed to be.

However, a 4 year undergraduate degree programme is 10 times longer than this course. With the linear mode of learning and with so much compressed into a short space of time, it is more tempting for the student to want to wait until they have some familiarity with each aspect of the course – even if the in depth knowledge comes with a ‘second pass’: skimming/scanning the course for the first time, with in depth reading following an overview understanding.
If that’s seen as a problem it can be easily remedied by the student, as they can dip in and out of all the materials readily. But they won’t be doing it at the same time as the class – it would seem discomforting for some students who’re posting in the week 1 forum to find that another student is already spamming weeks 8 and 9, looking for small progressions to facilitate their understanding of the whole.

So as I’ve already mentioned it may be helpful to suggest multiple approaches to virtual courses, depending on the learning style of the student. This is particularly useful when the course has a fairly common theme – an introduction to Political theory course, for example, needs to be linear: you can’t learn Machiavelli, Marx, and FDR simultaneously.
However, perhaps this is only a problem if the student perceives there to be a conflict in assessing the work done; if they can be assured that 30 posts in the final week is no different than 3 posts each week…

Access: Ensuring and Assuring #1

It is now quite clear that producing a distance/e-learning course can only be possible if traditional support mechanisms are also in place. Particularly with reference to the electronic side of things, technology issues and assistive technology vs. inaccessible websites creates a definite need for telephone/real life interaction. For a screen reader user who is having difficulties getting through to WebCT to begin with, let alone reach the course, there must be an assured point of contact who is readily available. Presently in University structures this is only possible during business-hours. If we are to view e-learning as expanding beyond old-style norms then this no longer becomes satisfactory. Most students who pursue part-time study will do so out of hours, and so the support structures are required to adapt to provide this service. The alternative is students with particular needs ending up being at the end of a delayed and asychronous support process, which impacts on studies and is perhaps discriminatory (regardless of whether disability is involved).

Renegade Blogging

I’ve had some difficulty with the separation between weblog and discussion board, and the new desire that Collette talked about at the first e-learning lecture, for students to want to self-publish, self-criticise, and receive feedback from the whole world. While the discussion board isn’t assessed, it still seems a very valuable mechanism to explore ideas, as in a tutorial, to then take back and formalise in a blog entry. This is a duplication of data and can make the blog feel a little introverted; is there a sense that students are ‘saving the best stuff’ for the blog, which fellow learners never get to see?

What would have been the reaction, both from assessors and tutors, if a student had shunned the WebCT weblog entirely, set up their own blog on an external website (from the many available packages) which allowed full open access, and full commenting from students on the course and the world at large? In effect, the student’s only official blog entry then being a URL pointer to the real one?

Does this create a conflict in its rebellion, or is it an acceptable enhancement in the use of technology to support their learning experience?

Is it beneficial for the student themselves to be able to define the audience parameters, so that depending on their attitude toward VLEs, they could choose (per the whole blog, or perhaps even per post) whether only they and tutors see; only students on the same course see; only UofE students/staff see; or the entire world sees?
It seems to me that the writing style and depth of meaning would change dramatically depending on how far the horizon extends. A closed blog might confidently consist of very short entries, with no real structure but a fluid and frequent posting style; a global blog might likely turn posts into essays, and adopt a formal approach of inviting comments to reuse in future posts.

Feasibly the student could start their own discussion boards too! One powerful feature of currently blogging tools is the concept of multiple users: extending this into a course context, with group blogs of 3/4 people, could be another viable form of assessment, and might provide a more restrained posting style in order to prevent division between the group…?

Once the course content has been downloaded, it is effectively possible, from a technical stance, to do without WebCT entirely, creating your own environment elsewhere on the web, stylised and flavoured to your tastes. Conceivably other students could be ‘poached’ from WebCT and you end up with a very real and difficult division; as though one group of students refuses to be taught with the others. What would the strategy of the tutors need to be? Trying to close down the offending website could be a serious PR disaster and cause lasting damage to the course and institution. It’s likely that this situation would only arise if the student(s) felt that the VL environment was lacking significantly in some way, and so would it then be time to accede the decline in effectiveness of that VLE and evolve into something new?
How do you provide quality assurance for something which changes every year, ostensibly for the better? Does it matter, so long as the students are happy?

Still have a conflict…

Perpetually shift back and forth between Course Talk and Weblog depending on the value I apply to my own discourse. There’s a moral impact in taking ‘away’ something from the community and using it to ‘further’ your own marks because you know the weblog is part of the assessment. Do I stand defiant and post nothing in the blog, and rely on the tutors to assess my group discussion contributions instead? What if I were to delete it all now…?

More seriously, this was part of my motivation for annexing the course sofa: fair enough, it hasn’t been used at all, but when the tutors are omnipresent, as already discussed, everything becomes plastic and superficial.

Is there justification in copy/pasting everything I say about topics in the forums, into the blog? Is there an expectation to come up with something different, or a different phrasing every time? Am I then plagiarising myself? (not to mention diluting my thoughts, which is counterproductive to academia and pummels us further into the ‘process’ which Charles spoke of last week)

I acknowledge that the university requires a formal assessment; however, I find myself asking, what is it? The entire course is structured around interaction, yet the two components which are assessed consist of a solitary diary and a two-person essay. Why bother with the rest?