TAG | accessibility
At the risk of sounding like an Edwardian school boy, I think Twitter is magic. I mean this in the supernatural sense (fitting, as it was Halloween last weekend). The mysteries of the internet have always struck me as evidence of occult intervention somewhere - some particularly intuitive websites send my eyes scouring the page for evidence of pentagons – but Twitter really takes the biscuit.
Twitter gives words the sort of power that has traditionally been associated with witchcraft. When a tweeter writes a particular formula, their words create a genuine effect. However, ancient runes have been replaced by a very modern symbol: the hashtag. This tool bridges the divide between words that communicate and words that perform an action. The hashtag may have originated as a way for participants to organize material on Twitter, but it has developed real power.
When Livestrong wanted to raise awareness of cancer, they tweeted the words #beatcancer. Each time the hashtag was consequently repeated, PayPal and SWAGG donated $0.05 to cancer charities. Suddenly, words didn’t just say something, they did it. Formerly only magic users have been attributed the power to use words to such tangible effect.
It could be that this unprecedented power is a symptom of larger scale decline. For a time the internet was fertile ground for writers. Text-only blogs abounded as technological restrictions limited communication to text. Now however, many brands use text merely as a gateway into a multimedia experience. Thus we come to another use of the hashtag. Recently, an Orange campaign offered to record certain hashtagged tweets as songs. In doing so, the campaign reduced text to the status of prototype; not quite the real thing.
Of course, there are benefits to an increasingly visual online experience. Key examples are increased usability and ease of access. Firstly, in contrast to a dense paragraph of text, video narratives require less initial commitment from the user. Thus, in using visual media, designers and developers are reacting to the requirements of casual web users. Another instance of these benefits is something we at Open CC have developed with the Whitechapel Gallery. We have enriched an exhibition with additional text, images and film which are accessible to smart phones. This is enabled by QR Codes – 2D barcodes which, when scanned, circumnavigate the need for a textual URL. The aim is to provide the user with engaging content immediately – without the requirement to type an address on a fiddly keypad interface. The reward, without the effort.
All this goes some way to explaining why, when I read media blogs, I am often struck by the apparent consensus that text will soon be obsolete. The future, we are told, lies in digital rich media – brimming with images, videos and interaction. We have seen that whilst text is used increasingly as a tool for linking one source to another (rather than as a reliable documenter itself), it may soon become redundant even for this purpose. Perhaps, then, the magical power of the hashtag is not only a triumph, but a swansong.
The release of any new publically funded website inevitably provokes a tide of articles across the technology pages of the national press. The Queen’s new website, The Official Website of the British Monarchy, is the latest to face public scrutiny.
The Telegraph offers not one, but three articles providing detailed analysis of Her Majesty’s latest venture. In one of them, Julian Sambles reviews the site for its Search Engine Optimization and concludes that, scandalously, there are a number of areas in which it falls short:
- There are 2.6 error pages to every 1 genuine, working page
- Missing pages have no 404 page (‘This is a basic requirement for any website, let alone the Queen’s’)
- The homepage is duplicated and confusingly labelled
- There are inconsistencies in the title tags and the URL structure
- No h1 or h2 tags are present
His conclusion is pretty damning:
It is disappointing that as our head of state, Her Majesty has allowed the creation of a website which should have been designed to engage with her subjects as much as possible but has overlooked the basics of good Search Engine Optimisation.
Dear, oh dear. Queen Elizabeth really shouldn’t have signed off on her own site without checking its SEO.
Aashish Chandarana raises the important issues of accessibility and usability throughout the site, in a second article by the trusty Telegraph, citing the inconsistent use of Alt tags and the same colour applied to both links and standard text. Fair enough – these are pretty basic errors that can make some users’ experiences incredibly frustrating.
I have some more general criticisms of the site. As with the new No. 10 site discussed in an earlier post, why can’t I leave comments on any of the videos? Why can’t I add my own obsessively catalogued pictures of the Royal Family to the paltry selection on some of the galleries? Why doesn’t the LightBox functionality work properly? Why, in the ‘Contact the Queen’ section of this ostensibly Web 2.0 site, can’t I just send her an email? What kind of an egomaniac only accepts communication stamped with her own face?
Why are there only 4 videos of the Duke of Edinburgh? And why does only one of them feature the good Duke? (The National Playing Fields Association 1951 advert is well worth a look incidentally, as he explains to a bunch of urchin-like children how to go about getting a playing field in their community – an issue that only surfaces when one of their number is brutally run down by a car whilst playing football in the street.)
The list goes on, but I won’t. I actually rather like the site – there’s a wealth of archive material and the articles I’ve read were informal, well-written and pretty interesting.
Now, whilst Sambles does sound at times as though he thinks Queen Elizabeth has been personally responsible for designing and coding the site –
– these sort of articles do of course raise some very real issues. It is right that publically funded sites in particular should be rigorously scrutinised, and it is absolutely right that the web should be accessible to all.
The articles highlight a numbers of issues surrounding the pursuit of best practice in our industry, which we should all aim to meet. If our monarch’s site doesn’t follow the basics, where does that leave the rest of us? In an industry so fast-paced, with attitudes and technologies changing faster than Prince Philip can say “Aren’t most of you descended from pirates?” to an islander in the Caymans, it’s difficult to stay on top of best practice methodologies.
This struck us recently when we developed a Flash game for BBC Ouch, a site ‘aimed at those with a stakehold in disability’. We do a lot of work in Flash, but it’s notoriously difficult to make Flash content accessible. However, the project gave us an excellent opportunity to learn about and improve in this area. Needless to say, developing for screen readers was a steep learning curve for all of us – and we’d be the first to admit that we’ve still got a lot to learn.
In fact there’s little doubt that there’s much more we – those of us in digital media – need to do to stay on top of usability and accessibility best practice values, however much of an uphill struggle that can be.
“Everybody was saying we must have more leisure. Now they are complaining they are unemployed.” (Duke of Edinburgh, during the 1981 recession).