Tuesday, 31 March 2015

If in doubt ... redesign

There are many reasons why a web site should be redesigned. Being stale is one, as is following a rebranding of the organisation it serves. Catching up with user habits and new technologies is yet another.

The arrival of a new iteration of the Bootstrap framework from Twitter, which reached version 3.1.4 a couple of weeks ago, coincided (coincidentally) with the launch of the latest version of the BBC's web site. Being one of the most visited online destinations in the world, and also being an organisation who generally try to 'do the right thing' when it comes to its publications, this is worth looking at in more detail.

While not linked, the two changes are connected in that both revolve around responsiveness. For quite a while, mobile users of the BBC web site had been redirected to a responsive version, and I have been using this regularly. I should also add that I use it instead of the BBC News app on my iPhone.

I suggest you start with Robin Pembrooke's blog piece entitled BBC News: a single web solution for everyone (One web to rule them all, perhaps). This links onwards to further background information. You should also read the comments: they do seem somewhat unhappy, but this could just be following the basic rule of comments that people complain (which allows specifics) rather than praise (which is more general). Personally I find the layout a bit large on a desktop screen, with some images not only over-sized but even over-stretched (a problem with responsive sizing of images), but on the whole I am happy to continue using it.

The image problem, whereby an image is set to fill a particular cell of the layout and so changes its displayed size dynamically, is a symptom of the increasing reliance on JavaScript to manage the layout based on things such as window width. This runs counter to the older guideline that you should tell the browser how large something is before it renders the page. This can be bad enough on a desktop but on a phone it can be really irritating as things you start reading suddenly disappear below the fold as the browser inserts an image further up the page. For the latest kit with fast processors and download speeds this will be disguised by the speed at which the page is put together but a slow connection or a slower browser can make this build process very evident. (I should add that this isn't a problem I've seen on the BBC site.)

If you can, then, see how your responsive pages render on slower systems.

Of course, sites don't always have to keep revamping themselves if they just work from the start. I regularly use the MacInTouch web site and this doesn't appear to have changed ever. No images, no advertising banners (apart from a funding plea), but plenty of useful content.

Update 1st April: After getting on for a lifetime, MacInTouch changed their design today! Were they listening? It's still simple though ... and hopefully not an 'April Fool' prank.

Update 2nd April: It was an 'April Fool' prank. Ah well ... back to the spaghetti tree harvest.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Access and accessibility in digital: Issues in vogue for the UK

I started off looking up some present trends in digital accessibility but ended with some surprising stats on the UK’s lack of basic digital access that upstaged ‘accessibility’ somewhat.

So, I’ll try to blend the key points from both salient issues although it may involve a bit of leap-frogging on your part. But if you’re part of digital already, that’s par for the course, right?

I’m sure that many of us will do a double take at the focused, hard-nosed approach taken by none other than the Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills. They published their Report, Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future, on Feb 17th. It actually is easy to read, hard-hitting and sounds sensible. Yes, quite a shock. Suddenly what all of us in digital have all been saying for years has reached a crescendo of warning bells for the UK. Am-Az-Ing! If I just throw out a few tasters from the report, you’ll see what I mean.
  • A report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in 2013, meanwhile, found that the size of the digital economy was almost double official estimates.... Digital technology is pervasive across all aspects of life, so much so that the ‘digital economy’ is becoming synonymous with the national economy.
  • Digital skills (the skills needed to interact with digital technologies) are now necessary life skills. ... It is not acceptable for any group to be excluded from access to digital technologies.
  • All of this will require universal access to the internet to engage with vital public and personal services. That is why we conclude that the Government should define the internet as a utility service, available for all to access and use.
  • The new digital age offers huge opportunities as well as significant risks; it can make the UK, or break it.
  • Access to digital technologies
    • 49. Objective 1: The population as a whole has unimpeded access to digital technology.
    • 50. This includes:
      • facilitation of universal internet access: the internet is viewed as a utility; and
      • removing ‘not-spots’ in urban areas
The BBC News, Digital skills should be core subjects, says the report (17 Feb 2015), highlights the following stats that are pretty shocking. In themselves, they relate to ‘access’ and motivation. No wonder the report is hard-hitting. The Select committee genuinely believe that the UK is at a tipping point that undermines the economic health of the country.
  • A digital divide persists in the UK, with some six million citizens never having used the internet and 9.5 million lacking adequate digital skills, partly because they have been "poorly served at school", the report warns.
Well, with such basics as hard infrastructure of access to superfast broadband and soft infrastructure of digital skills in the population under the microscope, you’ll see why I got a bit side-tracked.

So here’s the counterpart about ‘accessibility’ of sites. Once people are accessing sites, they need to be easy and straightforward to use. Again, some stats worth noting are:
  • the UK’s 12 million disabled people have a spending power of £120 billion
  • accessible sites are 35% more usable by everyone whether they have special access needs or not
Ability Net, Web Accessibility Resources, This site has many pointers to accessibility resources so it’s worth noting.

Better Connected’, is a report about the accessibility of council web sites that has been done annually for 17 years. There was a massive dip in performance in 2013 that the report’s originators, Soctim, put down to the poor testing of mobile sites. Soctim uses people with disabilities to test the sites. Many might not understand the range of disabilities that can cause problems with sites such as dyslexia, learning difficulties and poor vision. The Digital Accessibility Centre has a good resources page with some free testing that you might find useful.

This is a larger blog than usual but you can see why. I hope.