Add accessibility to your AJAX applications

In December, I made a number of predictions for the 2007. I confidently predicted that Gez Lemon would discover a solution to AJAX accessibility issues. Gez had earlier defined the virtual buffer’s role in JAWS.

Understanding the virtual buffer is essential for empowering screen reader users, particularly considering the number of Web 2.0 applications that depend on Ajax. Screen readers typically take a snapshot of a web page, and place the content in a virtual buffer to allow the user to interact with the content.
Gez Lemon and Steve Faulkner – http://juicystudio.com/article/improving-ajax-applications-for-jaws-users.php

Gez and Steve Faulkner have just released a set of javascript functions that refresh the virtual buffer by working with setAttribute. They discovered this function triggers JAWS 7.1+ screen readers to grab a new snapshot of the page.

The scripts are fairly simple. When the page loads, insert a hidden form input. When your AJAX application completes its duties, change the value of that hidden input with the setAttribute function. This setAttribute activity will refresh the buffer and the screen reader will announce the content that has been changed via an AJAX call.

The updateBuffer function presented here extends the limited improvements in JAWS 7.1 and later, by providing a mechanism to update the virtual buffer for other interface elements, that works regardless of input device. This means that users of JAWS 7.1 and later do not need to explicitly update the virtual buffer in order to interact with Ajax applications.
Gez Lemon and Steve Faulkner

As I also predicted, I believe the YUI Connection Manager will incorporate this type of functionality. This will give enhanced accessibility to thousands of web sites instantaneously.

2007 Web Development Predictions

The standardistas were abuzz a year ago with hopeful predictions for the coming year. Visions of sugar plums dropping rounded corners, AJAX, and alpha transparent pngs danced through their heads. 2006 has been a great year for web development. Did we get what we wanted? Did we get too much of what we wanted? Further, what lies ahead?

Getting drunk on the possibilities and waking up to sober reality

It could be argued that 2006 was the year of AJAX and DHTML. They matured this year and solid libraries were released. The Yahoo User Interface Library makes a JavaScript mangler like me seem downright competent. Not only that, it’s got some good accessibility and security built in. Gez Lemon and others have been tearing apart AJAX for a possible accessibility hook that makes all of us happy. JSON gave us new ways to transfer information.

Yes, we got giddy with the possibilities. I helped build Yahoo! Tech. It’s a great site, if I do say so myself. We launched with every flash, web 2.0, animation, AJAX driven widget imaginable. Someone even called it “an explosion of a web 2.0 factory.” The site was accessible, harnessed the powers of a web-service architecture, and was the first completely new site for Yahoo! Media in a long time. But the web 2.0-ification was the star in many people’s eyes.

A funny thing happened over the months after launching. We got rid of the flash on the home page. We removed the dynamic width widget. We removed some animations. We began removing these Web 2.0 stars because the users didn’t use them AND they made the site performance horrible. Yahoo Tech, like many other sites, learned an age-old lesson. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Prediction #1 – In 2007, AJAX and DHTML will be used reasonably.

I predict new sets of AJAX/DHTML libraries will be released with great features and accessibility. People will go gaga over a few sparkly ideas and ultimately settle with good sites that use the libraries reasonably. I predict AJAX will be used less often as commercial sites realize they need page refreshes for advertising revenue. AJAX will continue to be used for features that significantly help the user’s experience (Yahoo Finance Streaming Quotes) and not so much for page level mechanisms (Yahoo! Tech Search).

No More Rounded Corners

I hate rounded corners. They were fashionable for a year and everyone had to have them. You could build them with 15 nested divs, with javascript, with extra paragraphs, extra this, that and the other. Die rounded corners die!

Seriously, rounded corners add a bit of visual white space but they’ve gone overboard. They’ve hit the designer’s toolkit like a bad font and are being used because people feel like that have to use them. It’s time to be creative again and kill rounded corners. Please!

Prediction #2: Rounded Corners Replaced With Dancing Hamsters

Let’s look at alternate container variations. Put rounded corners on the shelf next to drop shadows and let’s explore line quality, tonality, texture, and contrast instead.

Accessibility is a big deal and then it isn’t

Accessibility for web sites will become a big deal in 2007 as the Target lawsuit comes back and someone figures out a way to make AJAX accessible and easy to implement. I’m putting my money on Gez Lemon finding a solution and the Yahoo! User Interface Library making it available.

Firefox, Apple, Yahoo!, Google, IBM, Sun, and who knows what other companies will come together and agree that there is a particular way that these things should be done and will create some resolutions. After these things happen, you will see more and more sites become accessible without even trying. Platforms such as WordPress have already made huge impacts in setting up sites to be accessible from the beginning. Look for more advances from Microsoft, Adobe, and more.

Apple will release their new OS with extended assistive technologies built-in. Existing screen reader companies will have to deal with a big new competitor. Watch for Jaws, et al to scurry around fixing outstanding issues to hold onto their audience.

Prediction #3 – Accessibility for All

Even if JaneDoe43 is simply dragging images into her MyLinkedInSpace page, it will have the hooks necessary to be accessible. Platforms and libraries will make it easier for people to worry more about content and less about rules. The web will be a better place for novice and advanced programmers. It will certainly be better for those that need assistive technologies.

IE7 opens the possibilities

Internet Explorer 7 has been released and will soon see adoption rates increase significantly. Vista is ready to also increase the graphic processing potential for millions of users. As web developers, we have new tools in our kit to work with. Start studying your attribute selectors, pseudo selectors, and playing with alpha transparencies. 2007 will see the death of Internet Explorer 6. It will still sit on a small percentage of machines, but IE7 will take over and with it comes hope.

Prediction #4: CSS2 and CSS3 Get Used

Start looking at progressive enhancements with your CSS. Give Firefox, Opera, Safari, and IE7 the best possible experience. You may have to dumb down some of the IE6 images but go for the beauty and simplicity that advanced CSS offers.

Where’s the new blood?

The standardistas of the past are busy working on big projects now. Sure, they’re still doing some innovative stuff. But where are the young guns inventing wonders like Son of Suckerfish, Microformats, CSS Zen Garden,Image Replacement, SIFR, and god-forbid the image-free rounded corners? Seriously, it’s time for some exciting developments to come from people recently discovering web standards and bringing a new approach to solving issues. Who knows who will be the next Erik Meyer, Big John, Andy Budd, Shaun Inman, PPK, etc. Who’s gonna carry Joe Clark’s torch for being the genius with a cattle prod as he solves the captioning dilemna next year?

Prediction #5 – New Standardistas Rock The House

Further, these new standardistas are going to come from Asia, India, South America, and possibly the United States and Europe. They’ll have us on the edge of our seat as AListApart releases the latest tools to completely change the way we build sites. My number one pick for standardista of the future goes to Hedger Wang who tirelessly experiments and publishes little teasers on a regular basis.

I can picture the @media 2008 conference in Singapore with Molly, Andy, PPK, et al lining up for a chance to rub shoulders with the new greats.

Making AJAX work with screen readers

Gez Lemon and Steve Faulkner have published an excellent description of how screen readers react to AJAX and what you can do to make your AJAX-powered pages more accessible. Making AJAX work with screen readers is a comprehensive description of the mechanics behind screen reader behavior, workarounds, and theory. Hats off to these programmers for laying out a clear description of the issue.

FLORWAX – Mobile 2.0?

I sat next to Adrian Cockcraft on the plane up to San Jose yesterday. He just finished the ETech conference in San Diego.

He told me about his concept of bringing the Web 2.0 infrastructure to mobile appliances with some consistency. FLORWAX uses flash with AJAX like behaviors built on the Ruby on Rails platform. It’s just an accronym at this point. Let’s see if there’s any traction for this approach.