Tuesday, 9 June 2009

When is the right time for the fancy stuff?

Derek Featherstone wrote an interesting post on When is the right time for accessibility? His thesis is that accessibility should be planned for at the design stage, but that implementing it should not be a high priority early on. The idea is that accessibility should be worked on as the product matures and included in a subsequent release.

As far as web accessibility and interaction-heavy sites are concerned, he is asking the wrong question. What he should be wondering is, When is the right time for the fancy stuff?

Sites with a lot of flash and javascript tend to be the worst accessibility offenders because the meaning of the site is only apparent by interacting with scripts on the page. The content is not comprehensible from the DOM itself. If you're sight impaired, don't use a mouse or don't have the reflexes of a twenty-something-year-old flash developer then you might be out of luck.

Derek is of course aware of the importance of accessibility. However his approach seems to be to build the stairs first and then put in the wheelchair ramp later, and no matter how well you plan you will always come across implementation problems you had not considered.

My main criticism of Derek's article is that he constructs a dichotomy between business imperatives (getting the site up) and doing the right thing (implementing accessibility). However there are tangible benefits for your project in getting accessibility right early on.

Most importantly, there is one blind and deaf user that every web developer should be concerned about: Googlebot. If a site is not accessible for a human with a disability then it almost certainly will not be indexed properly by Google. You cannot improve your site through user feedback if you have no users because no one can find your site.

The other main advantage of tackling accessibility early is that progressive enhancement is a sounder development methodology than building everything big-bang style. Build your pages so that they work without any flash or javascript. Once you have that working, you have a sound basis on which to build your incredibly sexy ajax effects.

That affords your testing finer granularity. You can test the plain version of your page before you spoon on the flash and javascript. If there is a bug, you will know whether it occurs as part of the form-submission process or in the interaction layer. That beats monitoring HTTP requests with Firebug trying to work out where the hell the problem is.

Of course, a big motivation web developers to make their sites accessible is that it's the right thing to do. And it is. But if you follow progressive enhancement and make accessibility part of your development process then you'll get more out of it than just a warm fuzzy feeling.


  1. Hi there -- nice points, and I'm not in disagreement with you. I do think you've missed the point of what I'm discussing in my article, though. Very specifically, I'm talking about new, experimental technologies that have no history at all. I'm not talking about building accessible web pages/apps using established technologies and techniques. I'm talking about inventing new technologies and when accessibility fits in that process.

  2. @feather Fair enough. My post did transplant your comments away from their original context (Bespin) to talking about run-of-the-mill RIAs.

    I'm definitely a fan of iterative software development and I agree that "perfect is the enemy of good" and that you can't have everything in a first release.

    However I do think that the accessibility and testability of an interface go hand in hand regardless of the technology in question and that implementing accessibility early on can help the iterative process.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking original post.