Goodbye 2009, hello 2010

Now that 2009 is over and done with and 2010 is here it seems a good time to take a look at what I got up to in the last 12 months and what I plan to do in the next 12.

1 year ago I wrote that I was hoping to average a post a week on this blog. How did I do? Well, terribly actually, making only 7 posts. This year I’m going to make a similar commitment, but instead of averaging a post a week (which let me off the hook somewhat because in theory I could always publish lots of posts late on to take the average to 52) I will try to post each week. Starting with this one. For a bit of extra motivation I’ve signed up to Project 52, which is a list to sign up to if you want to make the same commitment. I have to admit I’m not really a fan of forcing blog posts to a schedule like this as it can easily promote quantity over any measure of quality, but I really want to improve my writing ability in 2010 and I feel that writing lots is a good starting point. It will at least give me a body of work to review when looking for ways to improve. Even poor quality content is better than no content at this stage.

Professionally 2009 was an exciting year for me. Metro, the latest version of the Yahoo! homepage was launched. This is by far the biggest project I have ever worked on, and quite likely ever will. It has taken close to 2 years of my working life. While not perfect I’m quite proud of what we have made. As one of the people responsible for the accessibility of the page I am particularly pleased. With such a complex project (even if it is only one page) it is difficult to get everything right, particularly when there are other competing factors such as performance, but I think that overall it is in good shape, and will hopefully be improved over the coming months as we get more user feedback and peform further testing.

Working on Metro led to my first published article in an international web development magazine, a short piece about WAI-ARIA enhanced tabs in issue 195 of .net magazine. This was part of a wider article on the build process and implementation of Metro, and was followed up with a post on the YDN blog.

Also in 2009 was my first speaking gig at the fantastic Standards.next event on the subject of cognition and accessibility. While I was incredibly nervous to start with I think my presentation went well, and I really enjoyed it. Many thanks to Henny Swan and Bruce Lawson for giving me the opportunity. It is something I would like to do more of in 2010.

On the downside more good friends have left the London office of Yahoo!, either to work in the Sunnyvale head office or to other companies. All are doing well though, and I will be staying in touch.

Outside of web development not much has changed for me in the last 12 months. I’ve been looking to buy a flat in North London for most of the year, without much success. I had an offer accepted on one flat but that was then taken off the market the following day. The year was been rounded off with an epic 19 day holiday, which sadly ends on Sunday. I’ve spent most of this time with my family in Neston, Cheshire, with many lazy mornings and walks with my dog Milly. I was hoping to be rather more productive than I have been, but it has been nice to take a break. It’s going to be tough going in to work on Monday morning, but I’m looking forward to seeing work colleagues and friends again.

One highlight was being best man for my good friend Marco van Hylckama Vlieg when he married Pam. It was an honour to be involved. In September they welcomed their son Elijah Rhys van Hylckama Vlieg in to the world, so that gives me another excuse to visit them in Calafornia sometime in the next year or so.

For 30 minutes on a September morning I helped out with fundraising for the Royal National Institute of Blind People on Paddington Station. I would have liked to have spent longer there but I had work to go to. What surprised me most is how much fun it was and how generous the British public can be. I’m not usually the sort of person who would stand in a busy main line station trying to persuade commuters to part with their cash, but I soon got in to the swing of it. I heartily recommend it to anyone with a bit of spare time. Take a look at the RNIB collections page if you decide to give it a go. I have to admit to being slightly conflicted though – in general I don’t give to collections in pubs, supermarkets and stations, preferring to decide who I give my money to on a more selective basis than who waves a tin under my nose first. I have given to the RNIB in the past though, and no doubt will in the future, so I was happy to ask others to do the same.

So, what do I want to get out of 2010?

Education and sharing of knowledge is increasingly becoming important to me so I’d like to do more speaking, at Barcamps at least, and hopefully at some bigger events if people are interested in what I have to say.

I want to write more, and this blog is where I’m going to start with that.

I will continue the flat hunting, and will hopefully have a bit more luck than last year

As usual I want to lose some weight – I’ve done it before and can do it again. I just need harness a bit of will power. And maybe stop eating so much and start getting some excersise. I think the key to this is to get back in to martial arts, I’m just not sure which one. I’d love to give Sambo a try, but there are no clubs near where I live. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is another possibility, or maybe I should go back to Judo or traditional Jiu-Jitsu. Aikido is yet another possibility, but I’m in two minds about it at the moment.

I’d like to meet up with some more of the people I follow on Twitter, in particular members of the web accessibility community who are doing such great work.

I also want to spend more time with offline friends as well. I have a bad habit of isolating myself in the evenings and at weekends. This is partly due to my terrible sleep patterns, but is also part lazyness and a dislike of having my schedule outside of work too tightly constrained.

I bought a guitar about 2.5 years ago now, it might be time to learn how to play it. Also I want to get back in to playing bass guitar, something I’ve been missing for a while. I’m a little fed up of soldering bits back on to my current (and first) bass so I should probably invest in a new one.

Hopefully I’ll be a little more successful in achieving these goals, which I refuse to upgrade to the status of resolutions, than last years single goal. Check back in another year (sooner would be nice as well) if you want to see if I have.

Happy New Year, I hope 2010 is a happy and prosperous one for you.

Accessibility 2.0 – A million flowers bloom

Last Tuesday, 2009-09-22, I attended AbilityNet’s Accessibility 2.0 conference at Microsoft’s London Victoria offices. Here is my writeup of the notes I took in a mostly unedited form. I hope you can make some sense of it!

You can get the speakers presentations as they become available from AbilityNet.

Greg Fields (RIM) – Designing Accessible Mobile User Interfaces

  • Use native UI components where possible.
  • Be mindful of colour and contrast; minimum 7:1 contrast.
  • Respect user preferences by inheriting global settings.
  • Error messages should help users recover from the error.
  • Context menus should have the most frequently used option as the initial focus.
  • Consistent navigation, controls, interactions throughout the application.
  • Progressive disclosure: make users aware of the number of step in a process.
  • Organise information by type, meaning, etc.
  • Limit ‘chunks’ of info to 3 to 5 items.

Christian Heilmann (Yahoo!) – Neither Technology Nor Accessibility Is Dark Magic

  • Accessibility movement does not have impact / momentum.
  • Social web can be user to spread the message.
  • WiiHab – technology making a difference.
  • Web 2.0 is for everyone, not just geeks.
  • Branding holds us back, acknowledge and work with the competition.
  • Make links understandable and predictable.
  • Knowledge + Passion = Accessibility.
  • Teaching means being open.

Access Beyond the Desktop

A panel consisting of:

  • Lucy Dodd (BBC)
  • Henny Swan (Opera)
  • Veronika Jermolina (AbilityNet)
  • Greg Fields (RIM)
  • Damon Rose (BBC Ouch)
  • Julian Harty (Google)

Greg Fields

  • Moblie surpasses landline in some markets.
  • Serverside speech recognition can work with fewer client side requirements.

Henny Swan

  • Concerned about making the same mistakes as on the desktop in 1998.
  • Crossover between mobile and desktop accessibility.
  • WAI-ARIA, CSS3, media queries, HTML5 and geolocation technologies need to be ported to mobile.
  • Progressive enhancement for mobile.

Damon Rose

  • Mobile is a ‘killer app’ for blind people.
  • Mobile sites must not destroy the web experience.

Q&A

  • Same site with mobile stylesheet.
  • Allow personalisation and port preferences or allow different preference profiles for desktop and mobile.
  • Mobile accessibility requires collaboration between hardware vendors, software vendors and site / application developers.

Lisa Herrod (Scenario Seven) – Understanding Deafness: History Language and the Web

  • 1 in 7 (about 9 million) are deaf ro hard of hearing in the UK.
  • Big ‘D’ Deaf: culturally deaf, may not speak English as a first language.
  • Little ‘d’ deaf: does not identify with the deaf community, English as first language.

Steve Faulkner (Paciello Group) – Accessibility with HTML5 and WAI-ARIA

  • HTML5 semantic elements and WAI-ARIA landmark roles do not serve the same purpose.
  • Some HTML5 enhancements can be implemented with ARIA now e.g. HTML5 ‘required’ attribute is equivalent to aria-required=”true” attribute.
  • Canvas accessibility has fail! Bolt on not built in.
  • Audio, video and canvas fallback content should be outside the element – ignore the specification advice.

Mark Boulton (Mark Boulton Design) – Inclusive Design

  • Accessibility ‘experts’ need to educate designers better.
  • Accessibility is put off as ‘someone else’s problem‘.

Saqib Shaikh (Microsoft) – Silverlight Accessibility

  • Same accessibility challenges and requirements as any other development – colour contrast, semantics, etc.
  • Detects high contrast and operating system colours.
  • Works with browser zoom.
  • Controls are ‘lookless’ – their function is separate to their appearance.

To Comply Or Not To Comply

A panel consisting of:

  • Kath Moonan (AbilityNet)
  • Bim Egan (RNIB)
  • Léonie Watson (Nomensa)
  • Mark Boulton
  • Lisa Herrod (Scenario Seven)
  • Christain Heilmann (Yahoo!)

Discussion

  • Accessible products can still have beautiful design.
  • Guidelines are a starting point not the end, and shouldn’t stop innovation.
  • Responsibility for accessibility should not just lie with developers.
  • Test early, test often, with as diverse a group of users as possible, with and without disabilities.

Summary

This was yet another great day for accessibility learning in the UK, following on from Techshare the previous week and Standards.Next at the weekend. Every presentation had something to say, and as usual it was good to get a chance to talk with like minded individuals throughout the day.

The day brought up a lot of discussion over how best to create mobile sites: same markup with a mobile stylesheet or a separate implementation based on the same content source. This is not my area of expertise, but I find it an interesting question nonetheless. I’m looking forward to hearing more on this.

There is one point I would like to comment on. Mark Boulton said that the current crop of accessibility experts, who in the main are developers, need to do more to educate designers. Kath Moonan said that developers were heroes for being the ones to learn the skills needed, and it was also said that developers should not be the only ones with whom responsibility for accessibility lies.

At the moment developers are expected to know about accessibility not just when it comes to the code they produce, but also in terms of design and content, which they are not necessarily involved in producing. While I agree that developers can help designers catch up this can’t last. Developers cannot continue to be the single point through which accessibility is researched and knowledge distributed.

It seems to me that designers need to not only take responsibility for the accessibility of their work but also for their own education. Those of us who have been thinking about such things for longer can start the ball rolling, but beyond that we should be working towards developers and designers having a basic but broad knowledge of accessibility on top of which each group builds its own specialist knowledge.

Standards.Next – Cognition and accessibility

On Saturday, 2009-09-19, the second Standards.Next event took place at City University in London, organised by Henny Swan and Bruce Lawson. This time the subject was ‘Cognition and accessibility’, a much overlooked topic.

I had the distinct pleasure of speaking along side some remarkable and talented people: Antonia Hyde, Jamie Knight and David Owens.

There have been several good write ups of the event already, but I’ll add my thoughts as well. The ‘key points’ are what I took from each speaker, not necessarily what they intended to be the most important.

Antonia Hyde – Accessibility beyond code

Antonia has rare access to testing time with users with learning difficulties, people who benefit tremendously from the internet. The work she does is invaluable in teaching us how we, as developers, can help. As you may be able to tell I’m a big fan!

Key points:

  • Describe content and controls literally – ambiguity is a barrier to comprehension
  • Combine icons with text to re-enforce messages
  • Colour coded blocks of content or sections of a site can enhance structure

Jamie Knight and Lion – Autism, the Internet and Antelopes

Before Standards.Next Jamie was interviewed by Henny about his experience of being a web developer / designer with autism. This was eyeopening and truly astonishing – the idea that stress could affect a person’s ability to talk for the next seven months came as a shock to me.

On the day he added to this with an entertaining talk and further Q&A.

Key points:

  • Fast paced action and speech in video can be hard to follow
  • Screen readers can help process content
  • Instructions must be in a literal form

David Owens – Lessons Learned Doing Usability Testing

David has recently been involved in user testing, something that few developers are able to do enough of. It is great that he works for a company that sees the value in this, because it is something that even big organisations often skip.

Key points:

  • Users can’t always remember how to do things that they have done before
  • Font re-size widgets still have a place, even though they duplicate browser functionality
  • Put flash controls before the flash so that users are made aware of them before they give up

Me! – Content and Cognition

It has been very interesting to read what other people took from my talk. In a way I felt that I was giving a summary of many of the points the other speakers had made. It reinforced my opinion that so many of the things we need to do to make our sites usable applies to most of the groups that we, rightly or wrongly, put users in.

The points I was trying to make were:

  • Avoid distractions
  • Mix content types to reach a wider audience
  • Provide feeds or APIs to allow others to transform your content in to new forms

It also kicked off a number of interesting discussions.

  1. I advised that popup windows should be avoided. Kath Moonan added that lightboxes, which are like in-page popups, also test badly with users. It appears that Alastair Campbell may be planning some research on this matter.
  2. I advised to not create elastic layouts, because this makes font-resize work like page-zoom rather than these being separate things. This removes choice from users. Some may disagree with me but I think it is a valid argument. Mike Davies has asked me to write more about this for one of his sites, so there will opportunity to flame me at a later time.

My slides are available online.

Other posts

Being a Web Developer

Before I start blogging about some more technical matters I want to write a little about being a Web Developer.

I love it.

For me it is just about the perfect job, exactly the right mix of science and art to keep me interested and focused. Over time I have come to appreciate it in other ways as well, and this is what I really want to write about.

As a bit of a lefty socialist type I like to think that I can make the world a little bit better. When I started Web Development as a professional back in the year 2000 I felt that I had in some ways just become part of a machine. I was working at an agency (although they didn’t call themselves one) and more often than not my work was just a way for people with money to make more money. Such is capitalism.

Over time my skills improved, my knowledge of usability and accessibility increased, and I realised something. My work could dramatically improve people’s lives. And that is pretty damn cool.

I’m having problems with blogging

This blogging malarkey is not going well.

On the first day of this year I wrote that I hoped I could average a post for each week of the year. So far I have managed 3 posts. Including that first one. I did at least say it would be an average, but with 18 weeks already passed I need to up my game.

I have a few subjects I want to blog about, ranging from the last London BarCamp, and the experience I have had with speaking at BarCamps, to how to markup and style an accessible basic form (a seemingly simple topic, but something I still see people doing wrong).

However I’m not happy about the format. It feels a bit messy for me to write about a range of topics in one place. I think this might be part of why I haven’t posted much. Including this one, 3 of my 9 posts have been about politics in one form or another, 3 about BarCamps, and 3 about the blog itself. While I am fairly sure that most, if not all, of the people subscribed to my feed are also people I work with or have worked, with in general I don’t think that a combination of politics and BarCamps is going to appeal to many.

I’d like to write much more about politics, particularly human rights, but this is preventing me from wanting to post technical subjects, such as web development, in the same place.

I have a decision to make then. Either I leave everything as it is, and get over this idea of separation; or I create multiple sections to this blog each with their own feed; or, as I have alluded to before, I follow a Neil Crosby approach and have several separate places to blog and use this site as a portal to my presence on the web, which could host a combined feed for anyone who, for some reason, just wants to read what I have to type.

The latter feels more right, but involves thinking of names for the other domains or just subdomains (tech.ianpouncey.com for example), and I’m not certain that apathy won’t set in and I’ll just end up with multiple blogs with no activity.

This is the same over-thinking that stopped be from starting a blog years ago. I have to put up with it though, my mind just doesn’t seem to work any other way.

If any of the < 20 people likely to read this have any advice please comment. You’ll be part of an exclusive group if you do – so far I’ve had five comments. Two of them were made by me.

ASA response to ‘There definitely is a God’ complaint

Like I’m sure many others did I filed a complaint with the ASA about the advert on London buses from The Christian Party.

Yesterday I received a letter:

Dear Mr Pouncey

Your complaint about The Christian Party

Thank you for your recent complaint.

It turns out that The Christian Party is a political party so I’m sorry to tell you that we’re unable to deal with the specific issues you raise: we’re unable to investigate complaints about advertising which aims to influence voters in elections or referendums. To do so would be to interfere with the democratic process. (The relevant clauses in our Code are 12.1 and 12.2 and you can find the Code at www.cap.org.uk).

The ASA Council has seen the ad and confirmed that because its primary purpose is to promote The Christian Party, it is electioneering material and therefore exempt from our Code.

You may be aware that there were similar bus ads appearing for the Trinitarian Bible Society (which stated “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Psalms 53.1″) and the Russian Orthodox Church (which stated “There IS a God, BELIEVE. Don’t worry and enjoy your life”). The ASA Council assessed these ads but concluded that both were likely to be seen as simply reflecting the opinions of the advertisers and were unlikely to mislead readers.

Although we will not be pursuing your complaint, thank you for taking the time to contact us.

I’m quite pleased about this response. I’d rather the balance be towards freedom of speech than not. I am curious about how far the exemption of political parties from scrutiny goes, and I plan to ask for more information on this.

Ensuring Lawful Interrogations

Proof positive that President Obama is making changes for the good: Executive Order– Ensuring Lawful Interrogations.

This is a massively important step. Although Guantánamo is going to close this year we don’t yet know what will happen to the prisoners. Detention without trial on mainland USA is not very different to detention in Cuba.

I’m not so hopeful that this will mean the end of mistreatment of prisoners overnight, but while it may not be of much comfort to those suffering there I think there is a big difference between authorised and unauthorised abuse. When the ‘leader of the free world’ believes that torture is acceptable the moral high ground over what are considered terrorist groups is lost.

Happy New Year!(?)

To anyone who may actually read this blog, may I wish you a very happy 2009, and I hope you had a great Christmas.

After 5 posts in the space of a week or so I seem to have lost the initial impetus I had when this blog was shiny and new. On a more positive note I have more of an idea of where I would like to go with it, probably more along the lines of a central point for anything else I do online. As with much of what I have done online recently I’m stealing this idea from Neil Crosby. Thanks Neil.

Anyway, what better way to get some momentum back than a post of the first day of the year. I don’t think I’ll be able to keep this going in the same way that The Hodge has planned, but hopefully I’ll be able to average a post for each week.

BarCamp Liverpool – Day Two

Day two of BarCamp Liverpool started with ‘Let’s talk about sex’, an open discussion where, amongst other things Ian Forrester asked if geeks can talk about sex in an mature and adult way. The answer is ‘no’! This was probably the most entertaining part of the BarCamp, but possibly not for the right reasons.

In ‘How to pimp yourself’ Richard Quick talked about how to promote yourself as a freelancer, or as a company. He gave his 7 tips for success, and we then moved on to a discussion which expanded on his ideas. The information doesn’t directly apply to me these days, but there was plenty about how best to behave at conferences to make this a good session for me.

Cristiano Betta then talked about ‘Using wordpress for OpenID’. The WP-OpenID plugin allows you to use your WordPress blog to login to OpenID consumers. We followed this up with a general discussion on OpenID, particularly how to spread its use to the masses.

The last session I attended was ‘Don’t Just Change the World… Improve It!’ from Adrian McEwen. Adrian had returned to Liverpool late in the Capital of Culture year, and he talked about the changes he had seen, and his ideas on how we can make a difference in our communities.

With all that serious business out of the way all that remained was the obligatory game of Werewolf. I’d only played once before, and with a much smaller group, so this was great fun. I was killed while I peacefully slept, but it was almost as much fun to watch.

And with that, my first BarCamp was over. I will be back for more.