The Future of Web Accessibility

Posted on Nov 28, 2008

About this time of year, we begin to see an increase in articles and blog posts bravely attempting to predict upcoming developments in various industries. The arenas of web design and virtual technology are no different. Judging by the news feeds populating my inbox every morning, there is much debate and investigation into how these emerging digital trends will impact user experiences going forward.

I’ve been heartened by a strong, sharp incline in the number of folks genuinely interested and concerned about providing accessible content to users with disabilities. At a recent presentation, I recommended that designers and technologists take ownership of these pursuits within their organizations; the response was enthusiastic and supportive. Five years ago, I recall such ideology being a much more difficult sell — especially to creative web designers upon whom the provision of a “skip intro” link was a necessary mandate.

Another prominent trend is the investigation (and occasional abandonment) of three-dimensional interface platforms. These digital spaces, which include such technologies as Second Life or the recently jettisoned Google Lively, provide value to users in richly collaborative and immersive environments. Despite corporate advertisers beginning to retrench their efforts in the virtual space, some encouraging uses have emerged in the past year ranging from information science to the humanitarian sector.

We reside today at something of a crossroad between the disciplines of accessibility and virtual worlds. What follows, then, is an analysis of where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what it means for those of us committed to the craft of inclusive design.

Web 2.0 and Beyond

An article by David Tow came out this week outlining a sort of timeline for the future of the Web, beginning with our current use of social media (often called Web 2.0) and leading up to something called “the Wise Web” in which “all biological and artificial life within a global cooperative intelligence” will be encased. Tow estimates this advancement to occur sometime around 2050, so don’t wait up.

Such proclamations seem laughable until they are released from the exclusivity of a prediction. I’ve been thinking about a new way to interface with digital content in the 3D space, symbiotic with the constraints of text-based websites. Tow mentions, on a very topical level, how these two entities might possibly coincide (my emphasis added in strong bold type):

By 2030, Web 3.0 – advanced versions of the Semantic Web – will have made many important contributions to new knowledge through network relationships, logical inference and artificial intelligence. It will be powered by a seamless, computational mesh, enveloping and connecting most human life and will encompass all facets of our social and business lives – always on and available to manage every need. It will connect not only most of the 8 billion individuals on the planet, but also link with other biological and artificial life forms, as well as countless everyday electronically controlled objects. The Semantic Web and Intelligent Web will have combined.

I emphasize that last point because I think it may eventually speak to a significant, yet often overlooked aspect of accessibility: the design and adaptation of the assistive devices upon which users with disabilities are highly dependent. We can create a network of information and entertainment, but we must also be responsive to the technological limitations and possibilities that provide a conduit to that stream. Which brings me to the next item, how we will interface with our machines.

Talking to Your Computer

The successful user experience of a product often depends upon how the technology is humanized, often at the point of input. Digital accessibility is all about providing the positive redundancy necessary to retrieve and contribute information, regardless of physical or cognitive ability. Users don’t always depend on a keyboard or mouse to control a computer. In fact, according to IBM’s third annual “Next Five in Five” innovations list, the age of the voice-activated Web is practically upon us:

“Going” to the web will change dramatically in the next five years. In the future, you will be able to surf the Internet, hands-free, by using your voice – therefore eliminating the need for visuals or keypads. New technology will change how people create, build and interact with information and e-commerce websites – using speech instead of text. We know this can happen because the technology is available, but we also know it can happen because it must. In places like India, where the spoken word is more prominent than the written word in education, government and culture, “talking” to the Web is leapfrogging all other interfaces, and the mobile phone is outpacing the PC. In the future, through the use of “VoiceSites,” people without access to a personal computer and Internet, or who are unable to read or write, will be able to take advantage of all the benefits and conveniences the Web has to offer. And by the web becoming more accessible by using voice, it will become easier to use for everyone … as if you are having a conversation with the Web.

According to this article, voice-activation could surpass haptic interfaces and touch-screen technology as the primary input for users with disabilities in the very near future. Which leaves us to the harmonization of how Web experiences are designed and constructed, my last item.

(Re)Defining the Standards

I made a somewhat controversial point at a recent talk: I declared that in the context of e-commerce, accessibility standards without adoption may as well not exist. I cited as my evidence the National Retail Federation’s rejection of the class-action NFB v.Target Corp settlement as a precedent, one that should have underscored the importance of standardizing online accessibility features for commercial websites.

To review, NRF Spokesperson Scott Krugman insisted that any set of standards cannot result from one single recommendation. Without a broad range of opinion leaders’ input, and with the broad scope and excessive speed at which Web technology evolves, how could a set of standards possibly be instituted?

I countered that standards are not there for the sake of the retailers, they exist to serve the customer base for whom goods and services are intended. In the case of a physical store, reasonable accommodations are provided for customers with mobility impairments in the form of an automatic sliding door or a wheelchair ramp. In the case of the Web, recommended standards exist in the form of fundamental benchmarks currently in execution by Web practitioners, technically defined by the World Wide Web Consortium through the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Next month we should see the implementation of WCAG 2.0, developed in part to acknowledge the sophistication of today’s web applications. Websites now feature asynchronous updates with complex scripting languages, contain advanced rich media elements and share interoperability with devices outside the browser. The Guidelines are scalable and testable, with benchmarks that can be iteratively measured as the technology evolves.

WCAG 2.0 is crucial to the future accessibility of the Web, and its importance cannot be understated. I wonder, however, if it may be time to investigate a set of guidelines that take into account not only the textual code base, but also how we as users interpret physical accommodation in virtual reality. A failing of some virtual worlds, I believe, is a lack of understanding with the core principles of usability and accessibility.

What This Means for Web Accessibility

We keep hearing reports about how the online experience will be increasingly 3D, how avatar interoperability will transform our notion of identity, how digital contexts will alter and ultimately define our global perception of living and working. I hope that future enhancements will take into account inclusiveness as well as ubiquity, perhaps via an approach guided by the principles of Universal Design. I think Nicholas Negroponte said it best in his classic book, Being Digital:

The history of human endeavors to make machines more usable is almost exclusively devoted to enhancing the sensory points of contact and evolving better physical designs.

Whatever the future of the Web, the future of digital accessibility is at the point of impact.