Scripting enabled – accessibility mashup event and random Friday link

Scripting Enabled, “a two day conference and workshop aimed at making the web a more accessible place”, is an absolutely brilliant idea, and since it looks like it’ll be on September 19 and 20, the weekend after BathCamp, I’m going to do my best to make it down. (It’s the weekend before I start my Masters in HCI so it’s the perfect way to set the tone for the next two years).

From the site:

The aim of the conference is to break down the barriers between disabled users and the social web as much as giving ethical hackers real world issues to solve. We talked about improving the accessibility of the web for a long time – let’s not wait, let’s make it happen.

A lot of companies have data and APIs available for mashups – let’s use these to remove barriers rather than creating another nice visualization.

And on a random Friday night, this is a fascinating post on Facial Recognition in Digital Photo Collections: “Polar Rose, a Firefox toolbar that does facial recognition on photos loaded in your browser.”

Nice information design/visualisation pattern browser

infodesignpatterns.com is a Flash-based site that presents over 50 design patterns ‘that describe the functional aspects of graphic components for the display, behaviour and user interaction of complex infographics’.

The development of a design pattern taxonomy for data visualisation and information design is a work in progress, but the site already has a useful pattern search, based on order principle, user goal, graphic class and number of dimensions.

Google release AJAX loader

From the Google page, AJAX Libraries API:

The AJAX Libraries API is a content distribution network and loading architecture for the most popular open source JavaScript libraries. By using the Google AJAX API Loader’s google.load() method, your application has high speed, globaly available access to a growing list of the most popular JavaScript open source libraries including:

Google works directly with the key stake holders for each library effort and accept the latest stable versions as they are released. Once we host a release of a given library, we are committed to hosting that release indefinitely.

The AJAX Libraries API takes the pain out of developing mashups in JavaScript while using a collection of libraries. We take the pain out of hosting the libraries, correctly setting cache headers, staying up to date with the most recent bug fixes, etc.

There’s also more information at Speed up access to your favorite frameworks via the AJAX Libraries API.

To play devil’s avocado briefly, the question is – can we trust Google enough to build functionality around them? It might be a moot point if you’re already using their APIs, and you could always use the libraries directly, but it’s worth considering.

Amazon’s new look (with a bit of transparency)

Just today I asked if anyone used drop-down menus anymore, and here Amazon have gone and launched a new design that uses them.

I don’t know how many people would notice, but I like that they’ve provided a link (in the top right-hand corner with the text, ‘We’ve had a redesign. Take a look’) to ‘A Quick Tour of Our Redesign’. The page highlights some of the changes/new features and provides answers to questions including ‘Why did you change the site?’, ‘How did you decide on this design?’ and ‘What’s different?’.

I’m guessing they’ve done their research and found that kind of transparency helps people deal with the changes – I was hoping to blog about our web redesign process, and I think this shows its worth doing. I wonder how many people notice the ‘redesign’ link and are interested enough to click on it.

Nielson on ‘should your website have concise or in-depth content?’

Long pages with all the text, or shorter pages with links to extended texts – this question often comes up in discussions about our websites. It’s the kind of question that can be difficult to answer by looking at the stats for existing sites because raw numbers mask all kinds of factors, and so far we haven’t had the time or resources to explore this with our different audiences.

In Long vs. Short Articles as Content Strategy Jakob Nielsen says:

  • If you want many readers, focus on short and scannable content. This is a good strategy for advertising-driven sites or sites that sell impulse buys.
  • If you want people who really need a solution, focus on comprehensive coverage. This is a good strategy if you sell highly targeted solutions to complicated problems.

But the very best content strategy is one that mirrors the users’ mixed diet. There’s no reason to limit yourself to only one content type. It’s possible to have short overviews for the majority of users and to supplement them with in-depth coverage and white papers for those few users who need to know more.

Of course, the two user types are often the same person — the one who’s usually in a hurry, but is sometimes in thorough-research mode. In fact, our studies of B2B users show that business users often aren’t very familiar with the complex products or services they’re buying and need simple overviews to orient themselves before they begin more in-depth research.

Hypertext to the Rescue
On the Web, you can offer both short and long treatments within a single hyperspace. Start with overviews and short, simplified pages. Then link to long, in-depth coverage on other pages.

With this approach, you can serve both types of users (or the same user in different stages of the buying process).

The more value you offer users each minute they’re on your site, the more likely they are to use your site and the longer they’re likely to stay. This is why it’s so important to optimize your content strategy for your users’ needs.

So how do we adapt commercial models for a cultural heritage context? Could business-to-business users who start by familiarising or orienting themselves before beginning more in-depth research be analogous to the ‘meaning making modes’ for museum visitors – browsers and followers, searchers or researchers – identified by consultants Morris, Hargreaves, McIntyre?

Is a ‘read more’ link on shorter pages helpful or disruptive of the visitors’ experience? Can the shorter text be written to suit browsers and followers and the ‘read more’ link crafted to tempt the searchers?

I wish I could give the answer in the next paragraph, but I don’t know it myself.

IE8 and web standards

A quick pointer to the Joel on Software piece ‘Martian Headsets‘ on IE 8 and standards:

The IE 8 team is in the process of making a decision that lies perfectly, exactly, precisely on the fault line smack in the middle of two different ways of looking at the world. … it’s the difference between “idealists” and “realists”.

Recommendations for AJAX and accessibility

A new Webcredibles article, AJAX accessibility for websites, highlights some of the potential benefits and disadvantages of AJAX technologies.

The section on recommendations for AJAX and accessibility was particularly useful, and a lot of the advice probably applies to non-traditional browsers such as mobile phone users. Basically:

  • Inform users early in the page that dynamic updates will occur
  • Highlight the areas that have been updated
  • Don’t change the focus
  • Offer the option to disable automatic updates
  • Ensure the site works if JavaScript isn’t enabled

Final diary entry from Catalhoyuk

I’m back in London now but here goes anyway:

August 1
My final entry of the season as I’m on the overnight train from Cumra to Istanbul tonight. After various conversations on the veranda I’ve been thinking about the intellectual accessibility of our Catalhoyuk data and how that relates to web publication and this entry is just a good way to stop these thoughts running round my head like a rogue tune.

[This has turned into a long entry, and I don’t say anything trivial about the weather or other random things so you’d have to be pretty bored to read it all. Shouldn’t you be working instead?]

Getting database records up on the website isn’t hard – it’s just a matter of resources. The tricky part is providing an interesting and engaging experience for the general visitor, or a reliable, useable and useful data set for the specialist visitor.

At the moment it feels like a lot of good content is hidden within the database section of the website. When you get down to browsing lists of features, there’s often enough information in the first few lines to catch your interest. But when you get to lists of units, even the pages with some of the unit description presented alongside the list, you start to encounter the ‘800 lamps’ problem.

[A digression/explanation – I’m working on a website at the Museum of London with a searchable/browsable catalogue of objects from Roman Londinium. One section has 800 Roman oil lamps – how on earth can you present that to the user so they can usefully distinguish between one lamp and another?]

Of course, it does depend on the kind of user and what they want to achieve on the Londinium site – for some, it’s enough to read one nicely written piece on the use of lamps and maybe a bit about what different types meant, all illustrated with a few choice objects; specialist users may want to search for lamps with very particular characteristics. Here, our ‘800 lamps’ are 11846 (and counting) units of archaeology. The average user isn’t going to read every unit sheet, but how can they even choose one to start with? And how many will know how to interpret and create meaning from what they read about the varying shades of brown stuff? Being able to download unit sheets that match a particular pattern – part of a certain building, ones that contain certain types of finds, units related to different kinds of features – is probably of real benefit to specialist visitors, but are we really giving those specialist visitors (professional or amateur) and our general visitors what they need? I’m not sure a raw huge list of units or flotation numbers is of much help to anyone – how do people distinguish between one thumbnail of a lamp or one unit number and another in a useful and meaningful way? I hope this doesn’t sound like a criticism of the website – it’s just the nature of the material being presented.

The variability of the data is another problem – it’s not just about data cleaning (though the ‘view features by type’ page shows why data cleaning is useful) – but about the difference between the beautiful page for Building 49 and rather less interesting page for Building 33 (to pick one at random). If a user lands on one of the pages with minimal information they may never realise that some pages have detailed records with fantastic plans and photos.

So there are the barriers to entry that we might accidentally perpetuate by ‘hiding’ the content behind lists of numbers; and there is the general intellectual accessibility of the information to the general user. Given limited resources, where should our energies be concentrated? Who are our websites for?

It’s also about matching the data and website functionality to the user and their goals – the excavation database might not be of interest to the general user in its most raw form, and that’s ok because it will be of great interest to others. At a guess, the general public might be more interested in finds, and if that’s the case we should find ways to present information about the objects with appropriate interpretation and contextualisation, not only to present information about the objects but also to help people have a more meaningful experience on the site.

I wonder if ‘team favourite’ finds or buildings/spaces/features could be a good way into the data, a solution that doesn’t mean making some kinds of finds or some buildings into ‘treasure’ and more important than others. Or perhaps specialists could talk about a unit or feature they find interesting – along the way they could explain how their specialism contributes to the archaeological record (written as if to an intelligent thirteen year old). For example, Flip could talk about phytoliths, or Stringy could talk about obsidian, and what their finds can tell us.

Proper user evaluation would be fabulous, but in the absence of resources, I really should look at the stats and see how the site is used. I wonder if I could do a surveymonkey thing to get general information from different types of users? I wonder what levels of knowledge our visitors have about the Neolithic, about Anatolian history, etc. What brings them to the website? And what makes them stick around?

Intellectual accessibility doesn’t only apply to the general public – it also applies to the accessibility of other team’s or labs content. There are so many tables hidden behind the excavation and specialist database interfaces – some are archived, some had a very particular usage, some are still actively used but still have the names of long-gone databases. It’s all very well encouraging people to use the database to query across specialisms, but how will they know where to look for the data they need? [And if we make documentation, will anyone read it?]

It was quite cool this morning but now it’s hot again. Ha, I lied about not saying anything trivial about the weather! Now go do some work.
(Started July 29, but finally posted August 1)

At UK Museums and the Web 2007 I suggested looking at how other sites differentiate user-generated content from institutionally-created content. In that light, this post could be of interest: Newspapers 2.0: How Web 2.0 are British newspaper web sites?

Over the last two weeks I’ve reviewed eight British newspaper web sites in depth, trying to identify where and how they are using the technologies that make up the so-called “Web 2.0” bubble. I’ve examined their use of blogs, RSS feeds, social bookmarking widgets, and the integration of user-generated content into their sites.