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  1. #1
    One website at a time mmj's Avatar
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    How much is too much?

    So, humans are shallow. Although the word shallow has a negative connotation, I don't mean it particularly negatively. It's our nature to make judgements based on appearance, simply because appearance is the only way we have of forming a first impression.

    So, if we presume that our website visitors will make a first impression based on the appearance of our site, it would make sense that we should make our site look as pleasing as possible. But how much is too much? Does design hinder accessibility? When have we gone a little bit too far toward our "design"? And when have we gone a little too far in terms of usability/accessibility? Is that possible?

    Until recently a particular the trend among many websites was to use a series of tables, with images inside them, to create a fully image-laden page. All things were possible - it allowed for tiled borders, rounded corners, clickable photographs and other pleasing effects that just scream "multimedia". You continue to see it on your DVD menus.

    Are we seeing a reversal of this trend? If you have seen the new SitePoint design, you might think so. Daringly, SitePoint has replaced their previously familiar "curvy" interface with a brand-new, "clean" and rectangular interface. Looking beyond the lack of rounded corners and curvy buttons, the usability of the site is much improved. But how much effort does it take for us to look behind a design?

    There are a few ways of thinking about what makes a good design. We can think about how aesthetically pleasing or impressive it looks, and we can think about how familiar it is to us. When creating a design, we strive for both. We strive to make an original and impressive-looking look and feel, and we strive to make it familiar to the user.

    When we start trying to make this design usable and accessible, however, often we are forced to make difficult decisions. Should we remove the rounded corners and the curvy buttons in favour of a quicker loading time and a more familiar hyperlink? Just how far can we take it when designing an interface, and then how far can we take it when we're trying to make it usable? Does a compromise have to be made?

    Technology seems to be coming to the rescue. While Cascading Style Sheets have existed for years, we are now beginning to see them in wider use, due to the gradual disappearance of outdated browsers such as Netscape 4 and earlier versions of Internet Explorer. CSS makes it possible for us to make our rather basic and simple design a lot more interesting. We can do all sorts of things we couldn't do before, just by changing the style sheet - and best of all, it doesn't have to harm accessibility or usability. Alternate style sheets can be selected by the user. Style sheets can be provided for print media, spoken text, and other formats - providing the potential for interfaces to become both more flexible and more accessible. The entire layout and design of the page can now be done, due to the power of CSS2. It does give us new possibilities, but it isn't a full replacement, yet, for the tables-and-images design. What's missing is the curves and rounded corders.

    Thankfully, in my opinion, it seems that "curvyness" is on the way out. It doesn't seem to be as popular now as it was two years ago. It this is true, then, it would indicate that now would be a good time to move away our tables-and-images designs and experiment a bit with some cleaner HTML and some alternative style sheets. Perhaps, by the time CSS3 comes along, we'll be ready for the return of the rounded corner.

    While designing for usability and accessibility can seem like a compromise, I don't think it has to be a particularly awkward one. I, for one, don't mind the disappearance of curvy tables-and-images based designs in favour of a better loading time or a more intuitive navigation system. I've seen some awesome CSS-based designs. If we tone it down on our designs, our visitors may just be more able to see past our designs to the content and navigation beneath.
    Last edited by mmj; Feb 27, 2003 at 09:53.
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  2. #2
    SitePoint Wizard Ian Glass's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mmj
    [CSS] does give us new possibilities, but it isn't a full replacement, yet, for the tables-and-images design. What's missing is the curves and rounded corders.
    There's nothing prohibitive to rounded corners or various other stylistic uses for tables in CSS. People often say that CSS layouts look "boxy," but really that's just a limited interpretation of CSS. What are tables but aligned boxes? Well, CSS is just based on boxes, too, but with far more options and control available to the designer.

    The trouble with rounded corners in CSS isn't a technical limitation (of the standard at least), but of style and interpretation. There is something inherently against the spirit of the standards regarding images and markup used solely for presentation, but there's nothing in the technology itself that prevents this abuse.

    Given that, I object to the notion that "technology seems to be coming to the rescue." It's a misnomer. I'd go so far as to say that CSS is inherently more inaccessible and unusable than it's older counter part simply because it's so much more powerful. In fact, the only major advancement in accessibility and usability for CSS over HTML 3 is that you can turn it off (which in itself, is no small consent to accessibility). Nothing in HTML 3 says you have to use <font>, <b> or <u>, just as nothing prevents (mis)using CSS to redefine <div>s and <span>s when other elements are more appropriate (aside from a stiff admonishment from me).

    Currently, there's only a "limited subset" of the actual standards available to designers (mostly the "elite" or whoever puts in enough time to learn it), but when :hover, text-shadow and CSS3 become widely supported by WYSIWYG editors, we may well find ourselves discussing how much better and more accessible XSL is over CSS. When you have to code by hand and fully understand the rationale behind the standards, the benefits of semantically accurate markup become immediately clear in a variety of ways; but, when the inner-workings are shrouded in a GUI, the benefits are lost ideals for academics to debate.

    WYSIWYG has cheapened Web design. Its very premise is fundamentally contrary to (X)HTML, but it's the image millions share of the Web. As with desktop publishing, editors can't really hope to improve someone's design sense. But, Web editors can and should reinforce the idea that they are different from desktop publishers, that the Internet is different than print by:
    • editing the copy separately from the design,
    • pointing out the elements of a web page,
    • assuming defaults and warning when they're broken,
    • and impressing upon the author the varied ways and situations in which a page might be read.


    Does design hinder accessibility? When have we gone a little bit too far toward our "design"? And when have we gone a little too far in terms of usability/accessibility? Is that possible?
    It's my ardent belief that neither a very plain nor an overly stylized Web page can be usable--by our very nature, we'll ascribe traits like unusable and inaccessible to such a page. People like order; they prefer balance; consistency reigns. Whether a design is so highly stylized that it falls outside their expectations or so devoid of style as to make different parts indistinguishable, both are bad designs with poor usability (I usually consider accessibility to be more of a technical matter: alt tags and such).

    So, to reframe your main question: How little is too little (understanding of the technology, of users)? :-)

    ~~Ian

  3. #3
    gingham dress, army boots... silver trophy redux's Avatar
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    as web designers/developers, we need to walk the fine balance between offering good content, logical site/navigation structure, pleasant but unobtrusive design, accessibility and usability. all these aspects play an essential part in the creation of what i would term a good website. place too much emphasis on any of these individual elements to the detriment of the others, and you've got a problem. it's about striking a balance. imho, of course.

    oh yeh, and curves (and gradients) are so mid to late 80s
    Last edited by redux; Mar 1, 2003 at 09:22.
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  4. #4
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    People often forget that it's design, and not art, which annoys some of the true "web artists" who want everything to have a giant image attached to it and don't care if there site is totally useless to anyone without a highspeed connection and 20/20 vision

    I really don't like the all CSS accessabilty-minded style sites, every thing will become so boring, for something that is supposed be be becoming "media-rich" and with the advances in streaming media, flash, etc the whole accessability thing is spinning it right around back the other way!

    The key is to strike a happy medium I guess, everyone has gone crazy becuase suddenly they can creats "pleasant" looking sites without going near a graphics editor, all using style sheets and xhtml. They've taken it too far (IMO), for your average site, it's too boring, and is never going to talked-up or memorised by people.

    Sites with some graphical content AND relying on CSS for features of the site which can be reproduced using it (which in the past would have had to be created and saved as an image) should be done... But don't think you should compromise on design purely because of the accessabilty argument.

    Sure the site might display on your mobile phone, PDA, and displays properly on every browser under the sun useing a series of "hacks" because no one can decide on a standard yet But when you consider the time you would have spend making the site, and the time it *could* have taken you if you'd used more conventional means, i'd much rather strike a happy medium between the two.

    I hate to use sp as an example, but most designers could have whipped up that in probably 10mins in photoshop, coded it using a fair bit of CSS-style design within the hour...

    The think that gets me is spending hourse figuring out why the box model doesn't work properly, why you can't apply two backgrounds to a single element and why the site looks absolutly terrible in any other browser than mozilla or IE6. (i'm not talking about SP anymore here hehe - just having a rant, so don't get confused ).

    People have flocked to these accessable designs, but i'll give it a year for people to realise how boring and limiting they are for your "average" website and I doubt people will use it much more than they do now (mainly for positioning, and text styling rather than entire layouts).
    Last edited by platinum; Mar 1, 2003 at 06:32.

  5. #5
    gingham dress, army boots... silver trophy redux's Avatar
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    plat, i think there needs to be a clear distinction on sites meant for entertainment, and those meant to convey information. it comes down to the target audience, and what you're actually trying to do.
    accessibility is paramount for information sites, in my opinion. entertainment sites can take some more liberties in that regards.
    accessibility does NOT stand in the way of media-rich sites. video can still be used, as long as you use captioning, alternative audio tracks, or at the very least text transcripts. this does not just benefit "the blind guy at the back", but also ensures your media-rich content is automatically indexable, that you can get automatic translations, or you can just - for instance - quote from a speech (available as video) without having to type it up by hand.
    flash is improving in terms of accessibility as well (mainly because macromedia don't want to miss out on juicy government contracts in the US in the light of section 508, some cynics might argue )
    and let's not forget the ease of maintaining a CSS styled site, where content and presentation have been nicely separated...
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  6. #6
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    Yeah I (partly) agree, no doubt content rich sites benifit greatly from these type of things, but if someone with a disability visits a site they should use a tool inbetween them and the site, as designers we shouldn't have to worry how blind people are going to access the site. Sure, it's great to provide text on the page (rather than rendered text from a graphics program) so that they may use the specialist tools (text readers, etc) with the site, but it's simply too difficult for designers to cater for every single person personally

    The majority of CSS touting people seem to be developers who wouldn't know design if it came up and bit them, and because they can suddenly develop sites without much thought of making it look good, sites can be made "accessable" or "boring"

    For things like manuals (PHP.net style sort of things) all thats being given is text info, so having an "accessable" site is awesome, and it works well... there's simply no need for any other graphics, etc.

    BUT your average website, and i'm talking not your personal blog or experimental site, maybe a company site and so on needs graphics to make it work well. There are only two primarily CSS designs I have ever liked, the wired site and itec's playpen... both use graphics in conjuction with the accessable(css) side of things rather that a total replacement

  7. #7
    gingham dress, army boots... silver trophy redux's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by platinum
    but if someone with a disability visits a site they should use a tool inbetween them and the site, as designers we shouldn't have to worry how blind people are going to access the site.
    sorry, but i don't only find that naive, but actually quite offensive. as designers, we need to offer a solution that satisfies the need of the end user. there ARE tools "in between them and the site", but these tools can't work if you don't code to accessible standards, or if you don't offer alternatives. you can't live in a vacuum, thinking that you can just do what you want and some "in between" thing will take care of making it allright for your users.
    you CAN design something that looks great but is still accessible. sure, it requires a bit more effort and planning, but it's not impossible. mainly, it needs a shift in attitude on the part of the developers/designers, which i think your post demonstrated.
    sorry, i'm going to go and cool off for a bit, as i'm quite vocal about this issue and can get quite caught up in the moment....
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  8. #8
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    I'm sorry if that offends you, and I think I came across a little to much in the wrong direction.

    Of course you should design to certain standards, and as I understand it most text readers work fine with sites that use proper markup (ie <h(x)> for headings, <strong> for text that should be made more important, title/alt tags on images) but (and it's a large 'but') what more should designers need to look at? how else can things be improved with out absolutly going all-out to satisfy the needs of a very small number of people whom [more than likely] have tools made to work with such sites.

    For example, consider a blind person, the government is not obligated to create magical "guiding" walkways which lead them to their destination, they will use a tool (ie a guide-dog, or guiding stick) to assist them with their disability.

    Mobile phone's are the same, any blind or even deaf person has great trouble using them, a good friend of mine is fairly deaf, and uses a hearing aid to assist him hear properly, if this were the case in making websites, what you seem to be saying it tha he should not have to use any tools, rather everyone else should carry a megaphone, *just in case* they should meet someone with hearing troubles.

    Well thats my point of view, I certainly would never make it hard for people to access a site, but on the same level, unless it is a narrow audience, you really should not have to spend copious ammounts of time catering for the minority who just might visit your site [and with the accessablity tools, ie screen magnifiers, text readers] there should be no problem at all.

  9. #9
    gingham dress, army boots... silver trophy redux's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by platinum
    I'm sorry if that offends you, and I think I came across a little to much in the wrong direction.
    as i wrote elsewhere, i'm being a mr grump lately and seem to read too much into posts...so once again apologies as well...

    Of course you should design to certain standards, and as I understand it most text readers work fine with sites that use proper markup (ie <h(x)> for headings, <strong> for text that should be made more important, title/alt tags on images) but (and it's a large 'but') what more should designers need to look at? how else can things be improved with out absolutly going all-out to satisfy the needs of a very small number of people whom [more than likely] have tools made to work with such sites.
    screen readers etc work fine with html4 - if it's cleanly coded. i think you may be thinking that only pure xhtml+css solutions with boring layouts are truly accessible. this is far from the truth. the so, to answer your question, there is nothing more to look at. nowhere does it say that an accessible site needs to be plain, or should have no graphics, no video, no nothing.

    For example, consider a blind person, the government is not obligated to create magical "guiding" walkways which lead them to their destination, they will use a tool (ie a guide-dog, or guiding stick) to assist them with their disability.
    well, making a site accessible is more akin to building a ramp next to stairs for mobility-imparied people, or widening doors that might be too narrow. you could argue "as an architect, i should not worry about wheelchairs and stairs...mobility-imparied people should have special tools to enable them to use stairs". that argument would most likely not hold...

    Mobile phone's are the same, any blind or even deaf person has great trouble using them, a good friend of mine is fairly deaf, and uses a hearing aid to assist him hear properly, if this were the case in making websites, what you seem to be saying it tha he should not have to use any tools, rather everyone else should carry a megaphone, *just in case* they should meet someone with hearing troubles.
    if you're providing a service (e.g. a bank or shop), you should have induction loops, text phones or similar. again, the distinction is: not everybody should carry a megaphone, but only those who are providing a service should offer an easy way of communication with their customers who may have hearing difficulties.

    you really should not have to spend copious ammounts of time catering for the minority who just might visit your site
    and if you incorporate considerations of accessibility into your design from the initial stages, rather than seeing it as a last step, retrofitting what you've done to make it accessible, the ammount of time needed to cater for users with disabilities is minimal, if not negligible. and once again, it's not just about catering for a minority: accessible features benefit everybody. a good example would be the proper coding of forms. ensuring the tab order makes sense makes it easier for anybody to fill in a form, not just users with a screenreader. properly labelled checkboxes and radio buttons ensure that you can click on the descriptive text of a box/button as well to activate it (and not just the small area of the box/button itself) which can be a benefit on small screens set to high resolution, as it can become hit and miss if you use a mouse. see also my previous example about providing alternative text transcripts and/or captioning.

    [and with the accessablity tools, ie screen magnifiers, text readers] there should be no problem at all.
    and there isn't as long as you use standards and follow recommendations from the start, and not as the last step in your design process. again, let me reiterate that screenreaders cope perfectly well with properly formed html4 that incorporates the minimal ammount of additional markup that makes certain elements more accessible (ALT tags, LABELs, etc). accessible does not mean xhtml+css boring layouts.

    ok, i'm going around in circles, but i hope this got the point i'm trying to make across...
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  10. #10
    gingham dress, army boots... silver trophy redux's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by platinum
    The majority of CSS touting people seem to be developers who wouldn't know design if it came up and bit them,
    additionally, i think this is only partially true. consider that design trends in general (in print, moving image, etc) have moved back towards minimalism, swiss typographic rules, less is more, bauhaus/constructivist, form follows function.
    it's not just a trend on the web, but everywhere. the 90s were the time of david carson style grungey f*cked up typography and zany layouts. before that we had all gradients, curvey, cuddly (which is making a small return now with winXP and OS X, much to my chagrin)...
    don't blame the developers, blame global design sensibilities.
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  11. #11
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    Understood, and well said

    As long as people use good habits when writing their code, is should be perfectly readable by devices designed to read it, I think that a majority of well designed websites (aimed at accessablity or not) probably can be accessed perfecly well - as long as people keep pushing accessability through good habits, but not through changing fundamental design (unless it's absolutly required/ or absolutly limiting) most end users will be happy.

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    Quote Originally Posted by redux
    additionally, i think this is only partially true. consider that design trends in general (in print, moving image, etc) have moved back towards minimalism, swiss typographic rules, less is more, bauhaus/constructivist, form follows function.
    it's not just a trend on the web, but everywhere. the 90s were the time of david carson style grungey f*cked up typography and zany layouts. before that we had all gradients, curvey, cuddly (which is making a small return now with winXP and OS X, much to my chagrin)...
    don't blame the developers, blame global design sensibilities.
    True, true - although plently of the revolutionaly bauhaus concepts have been and still are heavily used today (I guess that formed a pretty big part of the "new" design age) - heh and yeah everything these days needs a gradient to be cool

  13. #13
    gingham dress, army boots... silver trophy redux's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by platinum
    plently of the revolutionaly bauhaus concepts have been and still are heavily used today
    that's what i meant...we're currently seeing a return to the minimalist tradition...and the web is partially following suit with other design disciplines.

    sorry about the lengthy rants before, eh ? i just get very passionate about this sort of stuff...but i know we're cool
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    Quote Originally Posted by redux
    sorry about the lengthy rants before, eh ? i just get very passionate about this sort of stuff...but i know we're cool
    It was good to see it from another viewpoint No probs about the rants, I think my posts were like that too


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