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.

Standardista Dream Job

Paypal is offering a dream job for the uber-standardista. Do you have what it takes? Here’s a snippet of the job description:

Responsibilities include, but are not limited to: – Standards evangelism: Requires extensive knowledge of Web standards, a passion for advocating their correct usage, excellent communication skills (written and verbal), and a high comfort level speaking to large crowds.
Web Standards Evangelist at PayPal at PayPal

I’d jump at this opportunity if I weren’t already working a dream job. So, hop to it standardistas, give PayPal what they need.

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.

Micropatronage for accessibility – Joe Clark style

Patronage: It ain't just for the Medicis anymore

Joe Clark has an ambitious project on the docket. The Open & Closed Project hopes to create a new standard for video captioning. It also includes plans to develop better training and certification for those creating captioning. Joe even has plans for developing and implementing new fonts that would make it easier to view the online and over-the-air captions.

However, Joe needs some help.

This project won’t run itself and needs funding. He’s asking us to help him raise the funding. Joe needs $7,777 to support 4 months of intensive fund-raising and project co-ordination. Can you help him raise this sum? If you have a friend, family member, or acquaintance that is deaf, this project will significantly help their lives.

If you go to the gym and watch the telly while sweating on a treadmill, desperately trying to figure out what the talking head is saying…. this project may or may not significantly help your life. Sometimes, you just don’t want to know what the idiot on Fox News is saying when some jerk on another treadmill is controlling the remote control… but I digress.

Visit Joe’s site and donate a few bucks. That’s all it takes. You don’t have to be a superstar to make captioning real.

Internet Explorer is officially released

Back in the dark days, programmers battled with a forgotten browser. It was good for its time, like a 4-cyl Fiero. But time marched on and this browser stagnated, forcing those working in the internet world to jump through programming hoops to make their pages work.

There were a few heroes that made this work a bit easier. Big John and Holly started a virtual library. There even became an “IE7” long before Microsoft got off their asses. The IE7 javascript was a library designed to fix the annoying issues in Internet Explorer 6. Zeldman began touring the world preaching the horrors of bad browsers.

And then something magical happened. Firefox was released with great support for standards-based programming. Quick on their heels came Safari and new versions of Opera that made life much easier. Instantly, Microsoft began losing their monopoly on the browser. Something had to be done!

IE7 logoChris Wilson must have been summoned to the all mighty Gates and given the go ahead to build the new beast: IE7. “Go forth and build a browser that fixes as many IE6 bugs as possible. Add tons of security fixes. Add new RSS and open-source features. And whatever you do… make it backwards compatible for our customers.” It was a big order to fill.

Internet Explorer 7 was on the road map.

To show good faith, they released a very early version – IE7 Beta 1. This browser was so meager that it generated even more bad press for the hard working group. Standardistas were up in arms over the remaining bugs. The team began to reach out even further to the developer pool. They made nice with the Web Standards Project, they went to conferences, worked with the web dev teams of large websites, they even gave out really cool shwag.

All of this led to some big promises and regular releases of subsequently better products. Bugs were squashed and developers began to learn how to deal with IE6/IE7 differences. I personally found a bug with transparent png sprites that I was happy to see fixed for the final release.

Internet Explorer Hits The Streets

This is the week we’ve all waited for. Internet Explorer 7 is officially released. Download it now. Microsoft will be actively pushing this browser as a security and feature upgrade. You can expect to see large numbers of your audience using IE7 over the next six months. I wouldn’t be surprised if IE6 is a grade B browser within a year.

Internet Explorer 7 is not as good as Firefox. It’s not as good as Safari. It’s arguably not as good as Opera, only because Opera users love to argue. But it is much, much, much better than IE6.

More importantly, this release finally allows us to use CSS2 rules. IE7 recognizes things like link[ahref=”fr”], div>p, li:hover, and ul:first-child. It doesn’t recognize generated content, that is my biggest complaint about the browser.

Web standard design seems to be stagnating lately as we’ve gotten fat and lazy creating rounded corners without thinking twice. AJAX took over some of our creativity. Now it’s time to go back to the CSS2 specifications and really begin re-inventing web design.

We’ve not only seen the light at the end of the IE6 tunnel, we’re standing out in the sun throwing pinecones at each other and running through the fields like drunk rabbits. Hats off to the IE7 team for delivering a browser we’ve been asking for. It’s not the one we begged and pleaded for, but maybe that’s what IE8 is for.