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  1. #1
    SitePoint Guru mattymcg's Avatar
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    Getting The Government To Flash

    Notice: This is a discussion thread for comments about the article, Getting The Government To Flash, first published in Issue 241 of Desktop Magazine.
    __________

    There are certain types of web projects that arouse interest and excitement in a web designer: a fan site for a high-profile sporting team; a promotional site for a new soft drink; an edgy clothing catalogue … these are all briefs that allow the designer’s creativity to run free.

    Government web sites, however, generally don’t fall into that category. Most sites in the public sector exist to communicate information to the masses, and for this reason must comply with strict guidelines on web accessibility, usability and style consistency, known as the Whole Of Victorian Government (WOVG) web site guidelines.

    These guidelines are great for ensuring that this information is available to all Australian people, including blind, vision-impaired and disabled citizens. However they also mean that, more often than not, a government brief is not terribly creative. In order to comply with government-mandated guidelines, most government sites are implemented using HTML; rich media is practically non-existent. The closest a user may come to an “interactive experience” is the 20 pages of online forms that are necessary to apply for an ABN.

    My Business, My People

    The “My Business, My People” team at Business Victoria was tasked with making available to small business owners a collection of information about the costs associated with staff planning – statistics such as the impact of staff turnover, productivity, overtime and sick leave. Originally this information existed in the form of large amounts of text, written in a very academic style. While comprehensive, this wasn’t a format that was appropriate for the web – or the site’s audience of small business owners and operators.

    “Our target audience is time poor; they don’t have time to read through a huge amount of material, and they’re low-end computer users,” explains project manager Lisa Garnsworthy. “We looked at options for a standard HTML form, or even just making these statistics available as an Excel spreadsheet, but we decided we wanted to make something more interactive for users. In the end we went with Flash. Then these people who are time-poor could see worst-case and best-case scenarios.”

    Inspired by the online superannuation calculators commonly used by investment companies, Business Victoria engaged Tundra Interactive to create four “estimators” – simple sliding scales that allow users to see estimates, in dollars, of the costs based on reasonably complex formulae associated with employing staff. The project was a first for successfully placing Flash media on a Victorian government site.

    Making Flash Accessible

    In order to meet the WOVG accessibility requirements, the project team utilised a number of techniques (see Desktop 235 for a more detailed discussion of web accessibility).

    Key to achieving compliance with the guidelines was the implementation of a non-Flash equivalent of the estimators – a standard HTML form that accepts individual values and outputs the estimated cost. The process of obtaining the estimate using this HTML form is not particularly quick or easy to use compared to the immediacy of the Flash-powered version, nor is it as pretty or rewarding. However the important thing is that the information that the estimates provide are still available to users who do not (or cannot) have the Flash player installed.

    The Flash-based estimators provide several accessibility features to users, including as an intelligent tab order, the ability for the sliding scale to be manoeuvred using the keyboard, and the ability to resize text (so that users with low vision can view the estimators in a larger font size).

    The site also performs some “browser sniffing,” making an educated guess as to whether the user’s machine has the Flash player installed; the user is able to override this default in order to view the HTML version of the site if necessary.

    Bringing In The Experts

    The project team commissioned Vision Australia to perform additional accessibility testing at the end of the project, which included testing by blind and vision-impaired users of their estimators with the popular screen reader software, JAWS. “We sat next to the guy from Vision Australia, and he ran it through JAWS and explained the inner workings of a screen reader – what it reads and some of the problems with Flash sites," explains Garnsworthy. “It was the first time I’d seen a screen reader in action, and it was a real eye-opener.”

    Garnsworthy offers a tip for web designers keen to test their own sites in JAWS without forking out the USD $895 license fee: “You can actually download a trial version of JAWS for free, and use it for 45 minutes. It’s a little inconvenient, but you can reinstall it after that time period is up if you need to – for testing our estimators, 45 minutes was fine.”

    More Public Flashing

    Now that the precedent has been set, Garnsworthy suggests that other sites within the Victorian government umbrella would also be deploying projects using Flash media – among them, additional projects that use a similar sliding scale control. She laughs, “The floodgates have opened.”

    So if you’re a Flash designer looking for your next project, you may want to consider keeping an eye on the public sector. As the My Business, My People project shows, it is entirely possible to implement a site using Flash in a way that ensures the site accessible to vision-impaired and disabled users – it just takes a little extra effort.
    I design beautiful, usable interfaces. Oh, and I wrote a kids' book.
    Follow me on Twitter.
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    Buy my book, Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine.

  2. #2
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    Just looking at it briefly, the project above sounds like a reasonable implementation. I'm not an accessibility expert so I can't really comment.

    The following is probably off topic, but it was the bit in the article that has stuck in my mind all morning.

    What I want to question is the opening assumption about what makes an exciting web project for a genuine web designer. Surely it's not all those endless disposable sites for soft drinks, movies, cars and so on that Advertising Agencies masquerading as Web Agencies churn out?

    Visually, yes, they can be spectacular. Occassionally even beautiful. But if you're really into exploiting those things that only the web can do, then I would have thought they would be pretty dull compared to really getting your hands dirty with solving problems like the one you go on to explore here - even if the resulting site is just to "communicate information to the masses"?

  3. #3
    SitePoint Guru mattymcg's Avatar
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    Thanks for commenting Maxine!

    I guess it depends on where your interests and your expertise lie. Readers of Desktop Magazine are primarily visual folks, with backgrounds in branding and graphic design. I guess I'm guilty of referencing those stereotypes in order to appeal to that audience. The SitePoint crowd may be more likely to jump at a project like this Victorian Government one.

    I don't know. It would be interesting to ask the question. In fact, why don't I do just that and see what the response is? There, done.
    I design beautiful, usable interfaces. Oh, and I wrote a kids' book.
    Follow me on Twitter.
    Read my blog.
    Buy my book, Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine.

  4. #4
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    Hey yeah re the fact is was originally published in Desktop - especially because I wasn't reading it in there that didn't really register with me. But that is a very fair point, and I would imagine you have surmised correctly about that audience.
    And then all those answers at the other thread - really interesting and diverse.
    There really are "two webs" out there in a sense, aren't there.


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