SXSW – Day two, still going strong

    Ian Lloyd

    One of the most problematic aspects of SXSW is knowing what to attend and what not to attend. At any given time there may be up to six different sessions that you can attend. That means each day you have to miss out on five sessions, four times over. When you’ve paid for the registration, it seems a shame to miss out on so many potentially great sessions, but that’s just how it is. This morning I had to make a choice from:

    • What’s hot in web applications
    • Respect your elder bloggers
    • Important startup decisions
    • How/why to podcast an event
    • Digitally convergent business
    • Design and social responsibility

    Which would you choose? This year I’ve tried not to make a judgment based on who’s presenting but basing it on the title alone. Many of the sessions sound like some that I’ve attended at previous SXSWs or they’re simply not something that applies to me (like the startup session mentioned above), but maybe advice in that session would be good for all web sites? It’s tricky, and there’s nothing more annoying than coming out of a lacklustre session and hearing someone else raving about the one they’ve been to – you backed the wrong horse!

    For the first session, I opted for ‘Design and Social Responsibility‘. I had no preconceived ideas about what the content might be, but was not too surprised to discover that there was a strong accessibility theme running through. The issue of making Flash-based sites or applications accessible cropped up, is it inevitably does, and included a great example of how to do it right. One of the panelists, Thea Eaton, demonstrated a typical use of Flash – a drag-and-drop jigsaw puzzle for kids that also worked using key presses and audio feedback such that a blind user could complete the puzzle using a different technique. Obviously the experience for a blind user and sighted user is different, but comparable, and it showed that with a little thought seemingly difficult tasks can work for both. Among the quotes on the accompanying slides were the phrases “but flash and the web are visual tools” and “we will have to sacrifice interactivity and fun”, typical comments that we’re all used to hearing, and it was refreshing to see these debunked so successfully. One of the panelists, Gordon Montgomery, gave one of the most quick-fire presentations I’ve seen yet, with slide after slide of quotes and ideas thrown up on screen perfectly in sync with the commentary. That’s not to say it was rushed – it was just quite amazing to me how he kept it all together (we’ve all lost our place before when doing presentations when you skip on to content from the next slide and have to catch up with yourself, right?). One of his comments rung true with me regarding Flickr. Now, I love Flickr, love the way it works, the community aspect of it and everything but as he said “my mum still can’t use it”. It was a timely reminder that even something as apparently easy for you and I to use still may be missing the target for a large proportion of potential users. Flickr lite, anyone?

    I then headed off to a panel entitled ‘Us and Them: A Blog Conversation Survival Guide‘. I’m the first to admit that I don’t really put any effort into my personal blog, but was interested in the impact for corporate blogs (something that I’m still somewhat undecided about, or at least how useful something like this might be for the company I work for where I’ve floated the idea). As it turned out, there was not an awful lot regarding the corporate aspect, and really boiled down to some simple common sense ideas. Among the messages were that being civil is of the highest importance (one of them called it the ‘Roadhouse’ rule, referring to a scene in the Patrick Swayze film where he tells the guys on the door that if someone calls you an idiot, just be nice straight back to them – not always an easy thing to do!). Other quotes from the session included “Don’t start more fires than you can put out”, “assert yourself” and the age old “don’t feed the trolls”.

    Someone in the audience told a great story about how a group of poets in one forum suddenly lost their virtual gathering place when it was shut down and so found another home for their poetry – in this woman’s message board. The way she told it, there were a bunch of poets let loose and they decided that her message board was the one for them and she had to shoo them away, the pesky cyber squatters! Another guy from the audience told us about an identity theft incident where someone had been posting comments on other people’s blogs using his name and website address, leaving highly inappropriate comments that went totally against the ethic of the company (he is an author and the content of the book says to do the exact opposite of the tactics employed by this ghost poster). It’s certainly nothing that I would have even considered a possibility before, and just goes to show there’s more to blogging than making decisions about comment moderation.

    In the afternoon I settled upon the ‘Web 2.1: Making Web 2.0 Accessible‘ session. It was in the biggest of the rooms and very well attended – evidently this is a topic that people felt strongly about. It was the session that I ended taking the most notes in so far, furiously trying to keep up with the panelists. Quote of the session, if not the day, came from Shawn Henry (W3C, Web Accessibility Initiative) who began the session explaining what WCAG 1.0, WCAG 2.0 and the various other less well known W3C documents were about. She prefixed the quote by saying: “Don’t take this out of context”. And on to the quote: “Don’t read WCAG 2.0”. There was a moment of disbelief at this point but she went on to explain that what people should be reading is the ‘Understanding WCAG 2.0‘ document instead, as the WCAG 2.0 guidelines themselves are extremely difficult to understand, mostly because of their stated aim to make them technology-agnostic. Hence, long overcomplicated and non web-specific terminology (Shawn gave a couple of typically wordy examples as a taste).

    The key message from Shawn was really that despite the new guidelines, the basic issues of accessibility are still the same ones, namely alt attributes for images, using correct link phrases and so on. The main difference is that the new guidelines are testable, or should be. Derek Featherstone alerted the audience to the dangers of using off-the-shelf JavaScript and/or AJAX libraries, all of which appear to present accessibility issues in their current format. If you want to be sure of a clean, accessible end result, you really have to ‘roll-your-own’ (or hack the libraries into shape). Rounding off, Shawn said that what we need to do is “make accessibility cool”. Good luck with that! Seriously, though, what she was saying is that we still don’t have enough examples of beautiful-looking sites that are totally accessible and feature-rich. It’s still very much the minority.

    So, this evening it’s the annual Web Awards final and, as Shawn said on stage, just how many of the category winners would be fully accessible sites? I’m guessing I could count them on one hand. But we’ll see … More tomorrow