Weblogs: Web Accessibility

Resizing text and confidence

Thursday, September 27, 2007

On the backdrop of Ian Lloyd's helpful video on browser text resizing, Grant Broome raises a number of scenarios where a website based text-resize widget is still useful to a visitor. He says we have to accept that some people will never learn to fish either because they can't or they don't want to. If they don't want to, who are we to say they have to?.

Its an interesting point, because Grant looks beyond the technical issues and examines the personal and social aspects of the issue, and finds a deeper human problem about computers. Its the only insightful contribution to Ian's conversation I've seen so far.

Computers, the metal monster

Computers are scary devices. If you are not used to using computers, they can be intimidating and unfriendly. Its something we, in lives dominated by computer use, are very prone to forget. And that's bad from an accessibility perspective, because we fail to consider the real human beings struggling with their own abilities and perceptions - ones very much different from our own experiences and perceptions, and people who we strive to embrace into our communities.

Confidence is a key factor in working with computers. Everyone has had that horrible moment where they think that what they've just done with a computer has broken it and its all their fault. We live in terror of breaking it. Whether the resulting calamity is losing lots of data, odd behaviour from a computer, not being able to print a document, to a long-distant confession to her son that the computer doesn't work as expected.

Improving confidence

Sometimes the key to building confidence is a little tough love. It doesn't work for everyone, but it can encourage others to take a little step outside their comfort zones, and create an overall improvement. Its not easy - I know, but it does need to be encouraged. Confidence needs to be built - everyone has their own comfortable speed and that needs to be taken into account.

I know what its like to rely on a comfort zone - building up confidence to extend that zone isn't easy. Sometimes it takes some tough action by friends to push me out of that protective zone. I'm lucky to have really good friends to help me through these situations. Recently, Christian volunteered me to give a talk for AbilityNet about accessibility and Ajax. That's something I wouldn't have volunteered to do on my own - stemming from a lack of self-confidence. And yet I gave a talk that was well received, and I really enjoyed doing it. It widened my comfort zone, and I took a small step towards an important goal of talking to real people about web accessibility.

It is the computer's fault

The vast majority of the time when computers go wrong, the problem is repairable, and it's normally because of a usability problem of the software. Accidentally changing the font-size in Internet Explorer is guaranteed to terrify people who are not experts in computers. Because sometimes it changes how websites look, and its not obvious looking at the application of what has changed. The user is in a no-win position. Something is broken, but there's no cue as to what broke it, and thus no obvious path to fixing or correcting the problem.

Solving the usability problem

And that's why text resize widgets are beneficial. When you click on a change font size icon on a web page you typically see an immediate reaction - a change in font size. This is an important cue, mainly because inexperienced computer users understand links, and when they click on links something happens. When they click buttons something happens. When they see and click text-resize widgets, something happens. Cause and effect - that's the basis of acceptable usability.

The problem with browsers is that the text resizing features are well hidden from the casual user. Typically a setting that is hidden from view is understood to be a difficult or tricky feature that's not supposed to be used by normal people. Icons that are in view are accepted as being usable by anyone - like the bold and centering icons in Frontpage make everyone a website designer.

Ian Lloyd tries to solve the hidden options problem by demonstrating how to get font-resizing icons appearing on a browsers toolbar. This is a critically important step, and as Grant correctly surmises, far too complicated for the type of people who benefit from text-resizing.

This is a clear failure of the browser.

The human interface

Grant is right, a number of groups of people do benefit from text resize widgets. Ian is right, by providing a visible text resizing icon in the browser toolbar is a better long-term approach. Empowering the groups of people Grant is highlighting is a big problem that will take time, effort and patience to solve.

Ian Lloyd's initiative is a step in the right direction. But we need the browser vendor's help to lower the barrier for browser users. Removing the barrier of customising browsers to display the text-resizing icon on the toolbar.

Browser feature requests

The text-resize icon should be visible by default in the browser toolbar. Firefox would do well to reimplement Patrick Lauke's Text Resize icon so its part of the core Firefox application, and visible by default. (Patrick's extension also works with Thunderbird - another example of an application that benefits from visible text-resizing features)

Internet Explorer can change its default customisation to ensure their Text resize icon is available by default in the browser toolbar.

Those two steps alone will empower users to control the font-size of text in their browsers far more than site-specific text-resize widgets. They lower the barrier to people who aren't conversant with using computers, opening up a wider number of sites they can use with their newly found feature.

Until then, its a little disingenuous to call for the scrapping of text resizing widgets in websites. Particularly when the browser vendors have not been involved in the discussions and the issue brought to their attention.

Ian Lloyd has done a great job in raising the awareness of text-resizing capabilities of browsers. Grant Broome does an important job of reminding us web developers that we're not done yet. We have to engage with browser vendors to lower the barrier to text-resizing features for users.

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