Lateral - the alt text failureTuesday, September 14, 2004
The "perfectly formed" Lateral web design agency is (in)famous in the UK web design for two reasons:
- The design agency behind inaccessible and unusable Odeon website which was such an embarrassment to the Odeon that they've been announcing its replacement since April 2002.
- The Geri Halliwell website that opens 12 popup windows containing the entire site - like a pointless sliding-block puzzle, with no sliding blocks, or a point. Some windows showed five extra words of text (content?) some offered nothing. A marvel of usability - or the lack of it.
With a reputation like that, it is a surprise to see econsultancy mention a press release harking Lateral's ability to achieve WAI Level 2 compliance for their client Cityspace a company specialising in delivering "Urban Digital Networks". Or should it be a surprise?
Lateral have produced a perfect example of how to tick off a series of checkpoints, without actually thinking about accessibility. Testing the website in a screen reader - or even Lynx would be enough to avoid the newbie errors Lateral make.
For example, consider the output of a screen reader:
city space logo, our services, international, press office, about cityspace, contact us, sitemap
Spot the odd one out. Why does a logo even get a mention to what sounds like a primary navigation? Why even does it rate having a page of its very own? Answer: bad alternative text. The link is a link to the homepage. The alt text shouldn't have the word "logo" in it.
Further down the page is this beauty:
home page left hand menu image
Is this a page title (Home page), or a component title (left hand menu), or giving more useless and unwanted information (image). It is conveniently useless alternative text. Apparently - to Lateral's understanding anyway - the quoted passage qualifies as an alternative text to customer comments about Cityspace's services. A happy smiley face of John from Swansea quipping, "This machine is great - I wish we had one where I live" is equivalent to "home page left hane menu image". Check. Also fails checkpoint 6.5 (people using screen readers also benefit from multiple points of view too).
Lateral's priorities are crystal clear with multiple references to "spacer graphic" and "home page graphic". They even manage to present Cityspace's top-level service: "spacer graphic Service for" - what an imaginative and original service!
Since "Service for" is visually a header but not structured as one - count that as a failure of checkpoint 3.5.
Visually, Lateral are courting more disasters. Our already famous "home page left hand menu image" contains a caption of text - a customer comment. Two problems here - the text is an image, and the colour scheme of yellow on white is nigh on impossible to read. Perhaps the customer comments aren't that good? Fails checkpoint 2.2 (Priority 2 for images)
The major visual failing is the abundance of text trapped inside images. Unresizable, unreadable, uncommunicative. Is that the message Cityspace wish to portray?
Of course, accessibility is not that important to Cityspace, since it is well hidden as the last possible piece of text at the end of the page in a miniscule font. After the copyright statement and privacy statement. Surprised?
As it stands Lateral have no grounds to declaring the Cityspace website as conforming to level AA of WCAG.
- W3C: Use the alt attribute
- Alan Flavell: A few alt text howlers
- Dive into accessibility: Day 21: Ignoring spacer images
- Dive into accessibility: Day 23: Providing text equivalents for images
- W3C: HTML 4.01 - How to specify alternate text
- Jukka Korpela: Guidelines on alt texts in img elements
- Checklist of Checkpoints for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0
- Lynx for Windows