Sunday, March 27, 2005

An old dog learns a new trick

I've been tinkering with Web design since about 1996. True, I haven't designed very many sites, but I think my experience reflects, in microcosm, some aspects of the evolution of Web design itself.

The first Web pages were exclusively textual; then came graphics. Pretty soon, it became clear that constructing Web sites could be as much a matter of graphic design as information design. Dave Siegel was the great evangelist of this school of pixel-perfect Web design.

I like good graphical design. I can spend hours choosing just the right font and colours, kerning, anti-aliasing and cropping. But somewhere along the line I, like many others, lost sight of what the Web was for. Now, I'm aware that that's a can of worms: different people have different ideas, and to say that others are wrong is to run the risk of being labelled a zealot. Well, maybe I'm a zealot.

Presentation is all very well, but if the content is inaccessible to the target audience, it's useless. In the UK, where I am, commercial organisations are legally obliged, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, to address accessibility. I believe the US has similar legislation called the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508. But how can we assure Web sites are accessible?

As is so often the case when you're looking for information on the Internet, the best place to look is not the Web, it's Usenet, and particularly the Google Groups (formerly DejaNews) archive. The groups in comp.infosystems.www.authoring, and in particular the HTML, site design and stylesheets groups are a good source of advice. But be careful - there's a lot of zeal there.

But the Web would be a very dull place if there was no graphic design. Jakob Nielsen is widely respected; indeed, it's unusual to see his name without the phrase "usability guru" nearby. But few companies would be content with a Web site as minimalist as his.

The key to accessible Web design in 2005 is the separation of content and presentation by the use of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Two leading advocates of this approach are Eric Meyer and Dave Shea. It's hard to imagine how that separation could be better demonstrated than by Dave's CSS Zen Garden.

Which, finally, brings me to the new trick mentioned in the title of this piece. Using graphics for titles while respecting accessibility isn't just a matter of choosing good alt text. Image substitution is the way to go. Let me at it!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Start at the now

I've often wondered where to begin this blog. It seems there's never a natural starting point, so I'll just jump in with what's on my mind today.

Surfing the Web is not really much of a hobby with me. I'm much more likely to while away the time lurking in newsgroups. But a few sites have recently caught my eye. AskTog is full of quite obviously sound advice on user interface design. Not a subject of immediate interest to a lot of people, you might think, but when it's a matter of life or death or the election of the most powerful politician on Earth, it's surely of interest to everybody.

While on the subject of politicians, I'd like to mention what our (UK) politicians are up to as I type this. Politics is another subject that usually isn't of much interest to me, but what's going on in Westminster today is really quite scary, and is probably the best argument in 300 years for the continued existence of the House of Lords. I think Richard Miller in succinctly expresses the concern of any rational person.

And here's the original seven, plus or minus two paper.