Happy New Year (2011)!

Another year has passed, and I’d like to look backward and forward in time, to the year gone and the year yet to come.

While 2010 was another great year for me it feels as if it has been a lead up to what I hope is an even better 2011. Some of the good stuff has been as a consequence of writing on this site, so let’s start there.

As with the previous year I started strong with the quantity (and hopefully improving quality) of my posts, with 3 posts in January receiving favourable reactions. Arguably more important in terms of my future however was a post titled Accessibility is a human right. This led to Sandi Wassmer getting in contact with me, asking if she could quote me in an upcoming presentation. Of course I agreed, and eventually we met and found that we have a common cause. Thanks to Sandi I have become involved in the Department for Business Innovation & Skills e-Accessibility Forum. You can read all about it on the site, and I will write further on this in the future, needless to say I am excited to be involved.

Even more exciting is that Sandi and I will be co-presenting at SXSWi on the subject of “Inclusive Design: Building the Web for All“! This is a topic that Sandi proposed, so it is an honour to be asked to work with her on it. Right now it’s hard to believe that this is happening, in time I expect that feeling to be replace with abject terror.

On the subject of conference speaking it was a great pleasure for me to talk at Think Visibility back in September. I think the small number of people who made the decision to miss one of the main attractions to hear me talk enjoyed and appreciated what I had to say about web accessibility, which is not bad going at a conference predominantly about SEO, so it was a very enjoyable and useful experience for me. Thanks Dom.

I also spoke at London Web on the subject of accessibility in large companies as warmup for a presentation from Remy Sharp. Remy is a seriously nice guy and I sincerely hope that 2011 treats him better than 2010.

During the year I started working on my first book, revising Beginning CSS: Cascading Style Sheets for Web Design for its 3rd edition. I must thank my former colleague Nicholas Zakas for suggesting me to Wrox for this work. It has not been easy at times, but it has been another great experience. There is still plenty more to be done on it, but it should be released sometime in May.

In August I said farewell to Yahoo!. Working for Yahoo! was a life changing experience. None of the great things I have already talked about would have been possible with out my time there, a list which I must add my evolvement in the W3C Education and Outreach Working Group. I’ll have more to say on my career after Yahoo! very soon.

Looking back on my goals for 2010:

  • I’ve not written a whole lot more (although having Opera publish an article on “Web accessibility for cognitive disabilities and learning difficulties” was quite satisfying);
  • I’ve still not found a flat;
  • I’ve not lost any weight, although I did briefly take up Judo before it became clear that my knees can’t take the strain, I need another way to lose weight first unfortunately;
  • I’ve met many people I’ve only previously known online;
  • If anything I’ve spend less time with offline friends, but more time with new and previously online friends;
  • I haven’t bought a new bass guitar yet, and my old one is beyond the point at which it is playable;

So although I’ve achieved rather a lot in the last 12 months it is not what I expected. I think most of these goals will remain in 2011, but with the added excitement of SXSWi, a book release, influencing government policy and who knows what else!

FInally let me wish you a very happy new year. Many thanks to everyone who has helped me or offered me opportunities this last year. If there is anything I can do for you in 2011, just ask!



Today is my last day working for Yahoo!

Rather than write a farewell email to my current colleagues I thought I’d write a blog post that former colleagues could also read and comment on, and also serve as a place to give some of my thoughts about working for Yahoo! in general.

I started working for Yahoo! on the 24th of September 2007. Before this I had worked for a small agency style company in the North of England for 7.5 years. It had taken me a long time, but I was excited to be working for a company like Yahoo! for my second ever full time job.

It was clear from day one that I was going to be working with very smart people and while everyone was very welcome it was also clear that I was going to have to prove myself. I think I was able to do that, and soon settled in the job.

I have worked both on Spirit, the previous version of the Yahoo! front page, and also Metro, the current page. On the Metro project I was able to experience working with a large international team on one of the most visited page on the web.

Over time I was able to get involved with YDN who do really fantastic work which is often not appreciated by developers, and the EU Accessibility Task Force which is a group of developers in the Yahoo! London office who have a strong interest in web accessibility. While I don’t think we changed the world we certainly made a nuisance of ourselves within the company, and this group inspired other task forces to be set up around the world, notably in Sunnyvale and Bangalore.

Later I became a representative for Yahoo! on the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative Education & Outreach Working Group which I will continue working with as an Invited Expert for at least the next 6 months.

Working for Yahoo! has also led to opportunities outside of the office, conference speaking, book writing and government advising amongst them. More on all of this another time.

The point of all of this trumpet blowing is that it is only because I have worked for Yahoo! that any of this has been possible for me. Regardless of what anyone may say about the company it is a truly great place to work. I can honestly tell you that I don’t regret a single minute of my time here. It opens doors for developers, and would advise any web dev who wants to make a name for themselves to spend part of your career here.

At the time I started it was possible to make a strong case for the team of web developers in the London office being the best in the world. Sadly many of the people who made it such a joy to work here have moved on, either to other companies or to the Yahoo! mothership in Sunnyvale. Trust me, the quality is still here but we are losing the quantity, and currently there seems to be little desire to build up the team again. This is why I have decided to move on, and seek a new challenge somewhere else.

To everyone who I have worked with over the just-less-than 3 years I have been here, both in London and in the US, I thank you for everything you have done for me and the friendship you have shown me. I hope that many of you will be lifelong friends and that we will work together again in the future.

I am genuinely saddened to be leaving, but the time is right. Maybe one day I will be back.

Thanks again,



On Monday I start work at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. If it is only half as great as Yahoo! I will be in a good place.

2010 Q1 report

A quarter of the year has been and gone so now seemed a good time to see how my 2010 has panned out so far.

The biggest news I have is that back in February my employers, Yahoo!, nominated me as a participant in the W3C Education and Outreach Working Group. I’ve been interested in joining this group for some time so it is great to be accepted. As I said at the beginning of the year ‘Education and sharing of knowledge is increasingly becoming important to me’ so this is definitely a step in the direction I want to take.

March marked my tenth year as a professional web developer, a job that I love and can’t imagine not doing. I don’t remember the exact date I started that first job unfortunately, but I can remember how bad I was as it back in March 2000! Luckily for me what we consider bad code now seemed perfectly normal in those days (although there are still people coding like it’s 1999). Since then I’ve gone through several stages of improvement, to the point that I think I can consider myself pretty good at making more internets. There is always room for improvement though, always new things to learn – this is part of the reason that it remains interesting.

Goals update

I had talked about a few other goals back on January 1st:

Speaking more

So far I have been to one BarCamp from which I have had interest to speak at a conference later in the year. Not a bad start, I hope the conference works out.

Write more

I made a good start on this, for some time I managed to post every week. Unfortunately I only managed to keep this up until the 3rd week of February. What I did blog about received favourable responses which is very encouraging. I’m hoping this post will kick start another writing spree.

Flat hunting

Unless I want to live next to a train line (with trains at 3-5 minute intervals) this has not gone any better this year than last. Oh well, nothing to do but carry on looking.

Lose weight

Maybe. Trousers are certainly looser than they were, but I haven’t weighed myself so I could have just changed shape somehow. I haven’t started martial arts training yet, which is a bit disappointing, but I’ll try and find the time over the coming months.

Meet up with people I follow on Twitter

Last week I was able to meet up with David Sloan in Dundee. He is a nice chap, and I hope I’ll get to talk to him in person again sometime soon. Who’s next?

Spend more time with offline friends

If anything I’ve spent less time with people outside of work than usual. This should improve in April as I’ve got plans already.

Learn to play guitar.

I’ve listened to lots of guitar playing, does that count?

Q2 and beyond

I still have plenty to do to succeed with my 2010 goals, although overall I’m quite pleased with progress so far. Writing seems to be key to success for several, so it is where I should focus most of my efforts. There are several pieces of work that I need to complete for other people, so they need to be my priority, but this web log needs attention as well.

Other than that life is, as usual for me, taking care of itself.

Accessibility is a human right

I’d like to add my own thoughts to those expressed by Vlad Alexander’s excellent article Is Web accessibility a human right?.

This is a subject I feel strongly about. A sense of morality is all that I think should be required to find the motivation to make accessible websites, the legal argument means little to me.

I his article Vlad mentions specific parts of the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which I will expand upon, but let’s start with Articles 1, 2 and 6:

Article 1

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Article 6

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

From this we see that human rights respect the dignity of the individual and have no limits or distinctions, and apply to everyone regardless of their status.

Next, let’s look at the three points mentioned in Vlad’s article, the right to choose where we work, the right to access education, and the right to participate in culture.

Article 23.

  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Article 26.

  1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

Article 27.

  1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

I think that is safe to say that an accessible web is necessary to meet all of these goals in 21st century Britain, and much of the rest of the world. Article 27 elegantly does away with the argument that only commercial sites are required to be accessible.

Now, I suspect I’m starting sound rather militant about web accessibility which may seem at odds with some of the points I made in my post about Web accessibility myths, particularly Content that isn’t 100% accessible shouldn’t be published.I strongly believe that all content on the web should be accessible to all who want to access it, but I’m also a pragmatic sort of person who thinks that one of the strengths of the web, and reasons for its success, is that it is an easy platform to publish to.

I would not want to discourage a single person from publishing online, or requiring extensive knowledge of the arcane discipline of web accessibility before they do, but at the same time it is imperative that those of us who call ourselves web developers or web designers as well as the suppliers of content authoring tools do our utmost to educate others and develop responsibly.

It isn’t just the law, it is far more important than that. It is a moral obligation.

Speaking out – public speaking made easy

Last night I attended Speaking out – public speaking made easy organised by Laura North and Christian Heilmann with David Bell, Katie Streten and Christian speaking. Here are my notes.

David Bell (Merrill Lynch) – Focus on presentation styles and contexts

  • Contexts – style and delivery vary according to type of meeting (small, large, conference) and your role within it (pitching ideas, asking questions).
  • Preparation – the key to being relaxes is to be prepared, focussing on:
    • who your audience is
    • message you want to deliver
    • materials – appropriate slides
    • objective – what is the purpose of the meeting / presentation
  • Style – presentation style determined by:
    • presenters personality
    • audience
    • subject
  • Summary
    • connecting with audience is vital
    • preparation is the key to being relaxed
    • be selective with your material – think big picture
    • your style will develop over time and comes with practice
    • presentations are performances – sometimes they go better than others
    • everyone gets nervous – you aren’t the only one

Katie Streten (Imagination) – Reasons not to like public speaking, and some suggestions for dealing with them

  • Reason 1 – no one will be interested in what I have to say
    • they are there
    • you have been asked to speak
    • think what you can give them
  • Reason 2 – I will go blank
    • prepare – write script long hand
    • read it to people are yourself
    • write card notes
    • highlight key moments
    • don’t practice too much
  • Reason 3 – I’m afraid that everyone will find out that I’m a fraud
    • you’ve been asked to speak
    • everyone thinks this
  • Reason 4 – I will look out over the crowd and freeze
    • don’t look at the crown, pick 3 spots to look at
    • place a friend at the back to smile at you
    • they are more interested in the talk than in you
  • Reason 5 – I will lose my place and stall
    • use card notes
    • practice
    • audience are on your side
    • ‘fess up
  • Reason 6 – I will ask something that everyone else understands
    • most other people are thinking the same thing
    • that’s their problem
    • you are helping someone in the audience
  • Reason 7 – It feels artificial, it should feel like a conversation
    • audience hates it to
    • say ‘Hello’
    • move your arms at waist height
    • don’t have a rigid script
  • Powerpoint
    • bullet points
    • pictures
  • Conclusion
    • people genuinely want to hear what you have to say
    • think about your audience – what can you give them?
    • if all else fails.. try and remember the detail of 1 speech you have heard in your life – no-one can

Christian Heilmann (Yahoo!) – How to inspire as a speaker

Chris has written his own post on the event, which includes a link to his slide deck and video of his presentation.

  • Have a different point of view
  • Find the story that makes the difference
  • Audience and information are more important than the speaker
  • Knowing what the audience needs is the most important part of the presentation
  • Having the right mindset is important – you have nothing to lose
  • How do you get this mindset?
    • know your subject
    • own your talk
    • practice
  • Practice by:
    • loud reading in different character voices
    • listening to audio books
    • listen to yourself
    • Powerpoint Karaoke
    • lightning talks
  • Get inspired by good examples
  • Thinks to avoid
    • imitation
    • reading your slides
    • forgetting the story
    • blinging it up

APIs and accessibility

While there are many things that developers can do to make web applications accessible it remains true that it is near impossible to cater for the needs of all users all of the time. There are simply too many requirements to try and meet, and time pressures alone mean that your application will not be able to deal with them all.

For example, the majority of users of a site like YouTube will benefit from a clean and simple interface, with subtle use of colour which does not distract from the video being played. They may like to have other videos recommended for them to watch. Users with learning difficulties however may benefit from large buttons with strong colours so that they can easily differentiate between them; recommended videos may be an unwanted distraction.

Of course YouTube could provide two different interfaces, but would then also need to design a mechanism to switch between them and from the requirements we have already defined this may necessitate a large colourful button on a clean interface, which somewhat ruins the user experience. And this is just one extra version, it may also need to create a version for low vision users (perhaps a high contrast version), deaf users (more space dedicated to captions), motor control impaired users (larger buttons), and many more. This is not maintainable for most companies, no matter how large.

By offering an Application Programming Interface, usually referred to as an API, which allows access to content and interactions other developers can create their own interfaces catering to a specific need.

One of the best known examples of this in the accessibility world is the work that Antonia Hyde and Christian Heilmann did on Easy YouTube.

Easy YouTube is an interface to YouTube aimed at users with learning difficulties. It has large and colourful buttons, clearly explained controls and an intuitive interface which makes it easy for users to either watch a specific video or search for new videos.

YouTube and Easy YouTube player is a great video demonstrating the difference that an interface designed for a users specific needs can make.

This wouldn’t have been possible had YouTube not provided a method for accessing and interacting with their content, so the next time you are working on a new web app give some thought to providing an API.

Web accessibility myths

There is a lot of good advice for the discerning web developer to find on the web on how to make a website accessible, unfortunately there is also plenty of bad or outdated advice out there as well. Here are a few of the myths of accessibility that you may hear.

Validation equals accessibility

Good markup is the foundation of a usable, accessible and robust website. Testing that the HTML (and CSS) that you write passes a validation test can be very useful, and in general validity is something to strive for. As my colleague (and true accessibility genius) Benjamin Hawkes-Lewis puts it, valid code is a contract between you and the browser vendors – you write valid code, they will render it correctly (in theory!).

But this is not the same as accessibility, validators do not check that alt attributes are relevant, or that link text is useful. They do not test page interactions to ensure that they are usable by all. They do not ensure that text is readable. All of these issues are more important than validation, and given a choice between accessibility and validation, accessibility should win every time. Sometimes it is necessary to ignore the specification altogether, and write invalid code. Learning when and why is something that requires experience and knowledge, along with much testing when the time come, but don’t let the idea that invalid markup is always bad put you off.

If it works with a screen reader it is accessible

I think the majority of developers and their clients have got passed the idea that visual impaired people do not use the web, however there is so much focus on screen reader users that it is easy to forget that there are other groups of users that we need to make the web accessible for.

Fortunately over the last year I have seen much more information and new tools made available for opening up the web for many more people, from YouTube’s automated captioning of videos to the interest shown at events like Standards.next with a focus on cognitive disabilities. I hope this continues.

Sites are either accessible or inaccessible

Accessibility is very subjective, even by comparing against guidelines such as WCAG 2.0 it isn’t really possible to grade how accessible a website is. Content that is highly accessible to a visually impaired user with a screen reader may be inadequate for a user who lacks fine motor control.

The point is that there is almost always room for improvement, and that it is worthwhile making small changes that improve the user experience for only a small number of people – every little bit helps.

Content that isn’t 100% accessible shouldn’t be published

There is a growing trend of criticising any content that isn’t accessible to everyone, and this is counter-productive. The web has thrived and become what it is today because it is easy to publish to, by almost everyone. We might hope for more accessible content on the web but we must not discourage publishers, for example while there is no doubt that captioning of YouTube videos is a great boon to many people I would not like to see the pressure to caption put anyone off uploading a new video. Authoring tools and automation are the key for helping small publishers and non-developers make their content accessible, and we shouldn’t criticise the author if the available tools are inadequate.

The pressure seems particularly great on developers, who apparently should be held to higher standards. Christian Heilmann mentioned this in conversation recently, talking about how developers avoid putting slide decks of presentations they have online because they are not in an accessible format. This is a situation that benefits no one.

I believe that open content that is inaccessible to 50% of people is better than content that is never published. Ideally it is published with a license that allows others to take it and convert it to different forms which may be accessible, but this isn’t possible if it only exists in a file on someone’s desktop.

In conclusion…

I guess the theme of this post is that accessibility isn’t a target to aim for, it is a goal to aspire to. There is always something that can be more accessible, always another scenario that you have yet to consider, so release that application, publish that article, do your best the first time around and learn from mistakes when things don’t go well.

Alt attributes

Alt attributes are used to provide alternate text for non-textural HTML elements, most commonly on img elements. Generally their use is quite straight forward, but it is important that the attribute value you use is appropriate to the situation. In this post I’m going to talk about a few different use cases.

Let’s start the W3C description from the HTML 4.01 specification:

Several non-textual elements (IMG, AREA, APPLET, and INPUT) let authors specify alternate text to serve as content when the element cannot be rendered normally. Specifying alternate text assists users without graphic display terminals, users whose browsers don’t support forms, visually impaired users, those who use speech synthesizers, those who have configured their graphical user agents not to display images, etc.

The alt attribute must be specified for the IMG and AREA elements. It is optional for the INPUT and APPLET elements.

While alternate text may be very helpful, it must be handled with care. Authors should observe the following guidelines:

  • Do not specify irrelevant alternate text when including images intended to format a page, for instance, alt=”red ball” would be inappropriate for an image that adds a red ball for decorating a heading or paragraph. In such cases, the alternate text should be the empty string (“”). Authors are in any case advised to avoid using images to format pages; style sheets should be used instead.
  • Do not specify meaningless alternate text (e.g., “dummy text”). Not only will this frustrate users, it will slow down user agents that must convert text to speech or braille output.
    play terminals, users whose browsers don’t support forms, visually impaired users, those who use speech synthesizers, those who have configured their graphical user agents not to display images, etc.

So in HTML 4.01 an image always requires an alt attribute, but sometimes the appropriate value may be nothing at all if the image is purely decorative, a delimiter between links which are already in a list for example. Ideally these should be moved to our presentation layer, CSS, but in the real world it is not always possible to avoid having some decorative images in markup.

Some images repeat content which is available in another form. Let me give you an example:

My dog is called Milly. She is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, black and brown in colour,
with a white stripe on her chin.
<img src="http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3200/2730900277_54aa8dbeda_m.jpg" width="240" height="180"
alt="Milly has a white stripe on her chin">

In this example I have described Milly and provided an image to draw attention to one of her features, a small white stripe on her chin. Both the text and the image alt attribute make reference to the stripe, but remember that alt attributes are a replacement for images, so all we are doing is repeating what has already been said. There are no circumstances that I can think of where you would deliberately write ‘..with a white stripe on her chin. Milly has a white stripe on her chin.’

Let’s try this again:

My dog is called Milly. She is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, black and brown in colour,
with a white stripe on her chin.
<img src="http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3200/2730900277_54aa8dbeda_m.jpg" width="240" height="180"

There is no need to have anything other than an empty alt attribute value as the meaning of the image is conveyed in the associated text. Without the text the image doesn’t make it clear what point I am trying to make – it is only a small white stripe after all. With the image sighted users will get additional information that is difficult to convey in words alone. It is advisable to write text which describes important images in this way rather than including the content in alt attributes so that all users benefit from the description and can easily read what you point you are making even if it is not immediately obvious to them from the image.

There is a different rule for images which are the only content of a link. Links must contain textual content, so an image on its own inside a link must have an alt attribute value. In these cases both the image and the alt attribute text should describe the target of the link.

Let’s try this one more time:

My dog is called Milly. She is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, black and brown in colour,
with a white stripe on her chin.
<a hef="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ipouncey/2730900277/sizes/l/">
<img src="http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3200/2730900277_54aa8dbeda_m.jpg" width="240" height="180"
alt="Larger image of Milly"></a>

Here the img links to a larger version of the same image and so we write alt attribute text to explain this. The main text still describes the image so all users will understand the purpose of displaying the image, and the content of the image (a picture of Milly) suggests what the link points to. If for some reason the image is not displayed, or the user uses screen reader software, the link will still make sense.

As for the other elements which allow alt attributes you can follow the same rules – treat area elements and input elements of type=image as you would an image which is the only content of a link, and applet elements as a regular img element.

Although these guidelines seem simple, correctly describing content can make a substantial difference to usability and accessibility so it is worth spending a little time to decide on the most appropriate text for alt attributes.

Title attributes

In many articles and blog posts on web accessibility use of the title attribute is promoted. Unfortunately this isn’t the magic bullet that many developers think it is, and I will argue for its use as a last resort.

First let’s see what the HTML 4.01 spec has to say:

This attribute offers advisory information about the element for which it is set.

Values of the title attribute may be rendered by user agents in a variety of ways. For instance, visual browsers frequently display the title as a “tool tip” (a short message that appears when the pointing device pauses over an object). Audio user agents may speak the title information in a similar context. For example, setting the attribute on a link allows user agents (visual and non-visual) to tell users about the nature of the linked resource.

Sounds like it might be quite useful. The specification gives an example of its use:

<a href="http://someplace.com/neatstuff.gif" title="Me scuba diving">
   me scuba diving last summer

Here we start to see the problems in the way it is used. Very often a title attribute on an anchor repeats information that is already contained in link text. Supposing that the title text is read by a screen reader what additional information does it provide? Little to none in this example, and unfortunately in most other examples I have seen.

Of course just because it is used badly in an example (and in most places that it is found in the wild) doesn’t prevent it being useful in other cases. What does is the way user agents deal with title attribute values.

As the specification says title attributes are most commonly displayed in user agents (web browsers in most cases) as tooltips, but only on hover with a pointing device and not on keyboard focus. If you are a keyboard only user with a visual user agent then it is very likely that you will not see a single title.

Even if you use a mouse or other pointing device there is a good chance that you will not see title attribute content as there is no visual indication that there is content to find, so unless you are in the habit of hovering over every element on a web page just in case a title attribute is set they will often be missed. Links are the most common place to find title attributes, but even then a user has to hover over a link for a second or two before the tooltip appears thus limiting their discoverability.

What about for users of screen readers then? Sadly they fair no better. As Jared Smith of WebAIM said in a comment on a recent accessibility tips article

…the title attribute is VERY rarely read on links. Screen readers have an setting to read the screen text (the blue underlined text inside the link), the title attribute, or the longer of these two. The default is screen text and I’ve only very rarely seen users change this so that the title attribute is read. So, while it’s OK to use title attribute to provide additional advisory information (that’s what the HTML spec says title is for), do not rely on it for accessibility and don’t count on it ever being seen or read by a screen reader.

So title attributes aren’t very useful then, but does this mean they are harmful? In my opinion they can be because they give the impression to developers that their use can make content more accessible to users and this simply isn’t the case. Often I see title attributes being used to cover up for inadequacies in regular content, for example:

<a href="#" title="Information about XYZ">click here</a>

The issue here is that the link text does not provide sufficient information about the destination when it is not in its full context. The solution is to fix the link text, not to add a title attribute.

An example of an appropriate use of the title attribute is given in the Techniques for WCAG 2.0 document when it offers the following advice about using title attributes on input elements:

  • User agents will display a tool tip when the mouse hovers above an input element containing a title attribute.

  • If no label is available, JAWS and Window-Eyes speak the title attribute when the form control receives focus

    • JAWS 6.0 and later can be set to speak both label and title when the two items are different; however, very few users are aware of this setting.

    • WindowEyes 5.5 has a hot key, ins-E, that will display additional information, including the title attribute, for the item with focus.

I have one criticism of this advice however, and that is that it doesn’t make it clear that this is a technique of last resort. In a situation where a label cannot be accommodated by the visual design first consider the possibility that the visual design might be flawed rather than immediately use this technique. As with links title attributes on input elements are not displayed on keyboard focus, and only after delay on mouse hover. While for many users the layout may provide sufficient context from which to derive the purpose of an input element add a screen magnifier to the mix for a keyboard only user and we are back to content that is obfuscated. If it is possible to accommodate a label for each input element in a design then do so rather than use a title attribute.

In conclusion, whenever you are thinking of using a title attribute think carefully about whether this is the right approach – more often than not you will find that by changing your content the problem, and the need to use title, goes away. If you can find no other alternative then understand that there is no guarantee that content in a title attribute will be available to your users.


There are a couple of comments that deserve a response.

As Jared points out the key phrase in the HTML specification is ‘advisory information’, however I think it can be difficult to determine what is advisory and what can, for some users, turn an unusable interaction in to a usable one. In my opinion the safest option is to assume that any potentially useful content is useful, and sometimes necessary, to all users and where possible to display it by default. Sometimes a tidy design which otherwise improves the user experience doesn’t allow for advisory information, in which case use of the title attribute is a possibility, but as I say in the post it should perhaps be a last resort. The same can apply to any situation were you want to visually hide content, for example to make it available only to screen readers by positioning it off screen – it is a great technique but be sure to understand the consequences before using it.

Thierry mentioned the problems screen magnifier users can have with title attributes. The focus of this post was how unreliably content in title attribute values is made available to users, but he is right to point this out. The issue is that when a title attribute is displayed as a tooltip it covers, and can obscure, other content. With a screen magnifier a smaller area of the page is visible at a time, the tooltip will cover a larger proportion of the visible area than normal, and can therefore get in the way that much more.

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.