14 May 2008

Usability and accessibility

In recent weeks I have been spending much of my time at work thinking about usability, commenting on it and trying to convince others of my ideas.

This thought has been focussed almost solely around two tasks. The first of these was an interesting proposition - to demonstrate that projects previously completed using Flash could be built using JavaScript. As a useful by-product, I have been able to make some more use of JSquared and particularly my alpha build of FXSquared!

There were two particular products that I have been looking at, the first of which was a finance tool for Fiat. I spent 2 days working on this task and as such was only able to make part of this tool.

I started by building the dials which are the main control for the tool. This involved building a number of animations and some simple interactions. I then worked on the panel which flashes as the values change. Amazingly, in only two days, I was able to match all the functionality of the dials and get the values updating in the panel and get the panel to flash.

Accessibility was not an important consideration however, when reviewing the work I was able to complete, the markup I had written was valid and semantic and the product fully accessible. It was certainly no less usable than the Flash, and due to the keyboard being able to control the tools, it was perhaps more usable. It was accessible and worked without CSS and could be made to work without JavaScript very simply. It was a triumph.

The other product I worked on, was in a similar vein and was a similar success.

The original project manager on the Fiat project could not tell the difference between the two products and it was entirely cross-browser.

The point I am making here is that by writing the tool using semantic HTML and progressively enhancing the code with CSS and JavaScript, I was able to make something more accessible and more usable all at the same time.

My second key experience was joining a project that had a significant development effort behind it already. I was asked to point out where I thought the product was not usable. I found myself pointing out 8 areas that I had issue with. When I took a step back and looked at these comments I realised how each of them could also have appeared on a list of changes to make the product more accessible!

These experiences have really driven home for me how closely linked accessibility and usability are and how investing in one will inevitably be investment in the other. What a great selling point for spending more effort on these vital areas that are sometimes overlooked by clients.

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