Remember accessibilty when using widgets on your website

There’s been much excitement in the media during the past week about a new widget application called Sprout. It aims to be an easy to use Flash based interface with simple drag-and-drop features, to build live, interactive multimedia content that can easily be added to any web page. Once a user publishes a Sprout widget, it can be copied to any website in much the same way as an embedded YouTube video clip. If you make updates to your ‘Sprout’ when logged into your account, it will update on all of the websites you have embedded your homegrown sprout on. Quick and easy.

It’s still in closed beta stage currently, but you can sign up now ready for when it gets to public release.
I’m hoping that when it is fully available for a wider audience to use on their social networks and websites, that it makes amends with its lack of accessibility.

I ran a workshop for non-profits earlier this week on the topic of getting a website for organisations, focussing on many of the free or quick ways available to get an online presence easily. Web standards, usability and accessibility formed a large part of the workshop where I was able to demonstrate that many sites are either unusable or inaccessible to many of the people they aim to reach and work with.

So how could widgets like Sprout be improved to enable a wider audience to be able to access your message and communications? What’s the problem, it looks great on my screen?

The following is a really simple example of the how a websites accessibility and usability can be compromised when flash media widgets are used on a website.
Screenshot of the Sproutbuilder homepage
Above is a screenshot of the Sprout home page. The main content area of the page contains and displays two sprouts embedded media objects, one as an example of what you could create, and the lower sprout contains information and links to more information about Sprout (not visible in this picture, you’ll need to hop across to the Sproutbuilder website to see the full page).
Sproutbuilder home page viewed with a text only browser
Just take a look at the Sprout home page when viewed through a Lynx viewer. (Note – there are lots of other online validators and simulators to use. I chose Lynx as just one example to show how the content of the web page would be viewed in a text only browser)
Where is any information about what appears on those widget media objects? In the Lynx viewer all it reads is some complex code. The information is all hidden away within the flash widget. How would you know if you were using assistive technology to access this website what the website is trying to tell you? Okay, there are links to other pages, but the main content information area of this page is tucked away in the flash widgets, so you could not access it. If the widget was used to compliment an existing site for example, being used in a sidebar rather than hold the main content for a page, that would help the site to be more usable, but still more could be done.

If you are planning on using flash based websites or widgets, accessibility should be taken into account. If someone either chooses not to show flash content or is unable to access it because of their technology or own needs, does the flash degrade into showing some alternative text to notify the reader with any relevant information so that they are not missing any content that they should be made aware of? Flash isn’t all bad, it can be made more accessible and usable if used properly.

What I hope to see is that the developers at Sproutbuilder.com and others who are creating ‘quick and easy’ flash takeaway content for people to use, that they take the importance of accessibility of their product on board in several ways:

  • Provide some simple guidance on their site to explain how users of their applications can use their widgets wisely for example – tips and reminders to users to ensure that if the widget is being used to convey important information, the content could be repeated in text elsewhere on their webpage or website.
  • To provide embed codes and scripting for users to take their newly made widgets to their own sites, written in a manner which complies with web standards and accessibility (you may also be interested to see my post last year on making YouTube embedded media more accessible when using a YouTube video broke my validation).
  • To provide these widgets in a way that can degrade gracefully, showing alternative information or text about the content. I feel that this could be easily built into the the widget application process, so in the case of Sprout cited here as an example, an extra part of the creation of the widget could be another section where the person adding their content also adds some informative text about what they are trying to convey in their widget. If the end user reader cannot access the flash content, alternative usable data is displayed.

Surely this is not too difficult to accomplish and to me should be included as standard. If the builders of Sprout and other applications (there are many more coming this year, I’m currently testing quite a few from an accessibility angle) added these essential features as part of the production of these applications and made real usability and accessibility as an integral feature, it would help to make the web a better place for all. Doesn’t even need to be branded as ‘accessibility feature’ it should be there, as is, no matter what. The average user of these applications doesn’t want to know all about the accessibility functions, but just wants create something that will work. Build it in as part of the process.

The social web is growing fast, and people are now easily able to create quick content and enhance their existing sites quickly. Most non-profits are seeking something quick and free, widgets like Sprout can seem a quick solution. Potentially now, anyone can create their own place on the web within minutes with interactive content.

Whenever I work with groups and explore with them accessibility and inclusion for all on the web, many are astounded that these features are not already built in, or weren’t aware of the impact of using such objects and embedded media which could create problems for some. Many non-profit organisations strive to be inclusive and are committed to equality for all. So these organisations do need to be aware and be able to establish the purpose and need of using such media which could potentially create barriers to potential users of their services in accessing their websites.

I still dream that in the coming years ahead, our technology will become advanced enough, so that if anyone records a video, automatic captioning can take place, and text transcription alternatives are created. Also, that the embed codes and content given by these online services include everything needed to enable people of all abilities with out the need for in depth knowledge of how websites and related technologies work, to be able to create and use these widgets and other embedded media in a way that means everyone can participate with enjoying the content that the web has to offer without excluding anyone.

We’re still a very long way from all of that, but will keep hoping and dreaming, that everyone has the opportunity to participate with the web one day.