Journal tags: readers

8

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Reader

I’ve written before about how I don’t have notifications on my phone or computer. But that doesn’t stop computer programmes waving at me, trying to attract my attention.

If I have my email client open on my computer there’s a red circle with a number in it telling me how many unread emails I have. It’s the same with Slack. If Slack is running and somebody writes something to me, or @here, or @everyone, then a red circle blinks into existence.

There’s a category of programmes like this that want my attention—email, Slack, calendars. In each case, emptiness is the desired end goal. Seeing an inbox too full of emails or a calendar too full of appointments makes me feel queasy. In theory these programmes are acting on my behalf, working for me, making my life easier. And in many ways they do. They help me keep things organised. But they also need to me to take steps: read that email, go to that appointment, catch up with that Slack message. Sometimes it can feel like the tail is wagging the dog and I’m the one doing the bidding of these pieces of software.

My RSS reader should, in theory, fall into the same category. It shows me the number of unread items, just like email or Slack. But for some reason, it feels different. When I open my RSS reader to catch up on the feeds I’m subscribed to, it doesn’t feel like opening my email client. It feels more like opening a book. And, yes, books are also things to be completed—a bookmark not only marks my current page, it also acts as a progress bar—but books are for pleasure. The pleasure might come from escapism, or stimulation, or the pursuit of knowledge. That’s a very different category to email, calendars, and Slack.

I’ve managed to wire my neurological pathways to put RSS in the books category instead of the productivity category. I’m very glad about that. I would hate if catching up on RSS feeds felt like catching up on email. Maybe that’s why I’m never entirely comfortable with newsletters—if there’s an option to subscribe by RSS instead of email, I’ll always take it.

I have two folders in my RSS reader: blogs and magazines. Reading blog posts feels like catching up with what my friends are up to (even if I don’t actually know the person). Reading magazine articles feels like spending a lazy Sunday catching up with some long-form journalism.

I should update this list of my subscriptions. It’s a bit out of date.

Matt made a nice website explaining RSS. And Nicky Case recently wrote about reviving RSS.

Oh, and if you want to have my words in your RSS reader, I have plenty of options for you.

Lists

We often have brown bag lunchtime presentations at Clearleft. In the Before Times, this would involve a trip to Pret or Itsu to get a lunch order in, which we would then proceed to eat in front of whoever was giving the presentation. Often it’s someone from Clearleft demoing something or playing back a project, but whenever possible we’d rope in other people to swing by and share what they’re up to.

We’ve continued this tradition since making the switch to working remotely. Now the brown bag presentations happen over Zoom. This has two advantages. Firstly, if you don’t want the presenter watching you eat your lunch, you can switch your camera off. Secondly, because the presenter doesn’t have to be in Brighton, there’s no geographical limit on who could present.

Our most recent brown bag was truly excellent. I asked Léonie if she’d be up for it, and she very kindly agreed. As well as giving us a whirlwind tour of how assistive technology works on the web, she then invited us to observe her interacting with websites using a screen reader.

I’ve seen Léonie do this before and it’s always struck me as a very open and vulnerable thing to do. Think about it: the audience has more information than the presenter. We can see the website at the same time as we’re listening to Léonie and her screen reader.

We got to nominate which websites to visit. One of them—a client’s current site that we haven’t yet redesigned—was a textbook example of how important form controls are. There was a form where almost everything was hunky-dory: form fields, labels, it was all fine. But one of the inputs was a combo box. Instead of using a native select with a datalist, this was made with JavaScript. Because it was lacking the requisite ARIA additions to make it accessible, it was pretty much unusable to Léonie.

And that’s why you use the right HTML element wherever possible, kids!

The other site Léonie visited was Clearleft’s own. That was all fine. Léonie demonstrated how she’d form a mental model of a page by getting the screen reader to read out the headings. Interestingly, the nesting of headings on the Clearleft site is technically wrong—there’s a jump from an h1 to an h3—probably a result of the component-driven architecture where you don’t quite know where in the page a heading will appear. But this didn’t seem to be an issue. The fact that headings are being used at all was the more important fact. As Léonie said, there’s a lot of incorrect HTML out there so it’s no wonder that screen readers aren’t necessarily sticklers for nesting.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re using headings, labelling form fields, and providing alternative text for images, you’re already doing a better job than most websites.

Headings weren’t the only way that Léonie got a feel for the page architecture. Landmark roles—like header and nav—really helped too. Inside the nav element, she also heard how many items there were. That’s because the navigation was marked up as a list: “List: six items.”

And that reminded me of the Webkit issue. On Webkit browsers like Safari, the list on the Clearleft site would not be announced as a list. That’s because the lists’s bullets have been removed using CSS.

Now this isn’t the only time that screen readers pay attention to styling. If you use display: none to hide an element from sight, it will also be unavailable to screen reader users. Makes sense. But removing the semantic meaning of lists based on CSS? That seems a bit much.

There are good reasons for it though. Here’s a thread from James Craig on where this decision came from (James, by the way, is an absolute unsung hero of accessibility). It turns out that developers went overboard with lists a while back and that’s why we can’t have nice things. In over-compensating from divitis, developers ended up creating listitis, marking up anything vaguely list-like as an unordered list with styling adjusted. That was very annoying for screen reader users trying to figure out what was actually a list.

And James also asks:

If a sighted user doesn’t need to know it’s a list, why would a screen reader user need to know or want to know? Stated another way, if the visible list markers (bullets, image markers, etc.) are deemed by the designers to be visually burdensome or redundant for sighted users, why burden screen reader users with those semantics?

That’s a fair point, but the thing is …bullets maketh not the list. There are many ways of styling something that is genuinely a list that doesn’t involve bullets or image markers. White space, borders, keylines—these can all indicate visually that something is a list of items.

If you look at, say, the tunes page on The Session, you can see that there are numerous lists—newest tunes, latest comments, etc. In this case, as a sighted visitor, you would be at an advantage over a screen reader user in that you can, at a glance, see that there’s a list of five items here, a list of ten items there.

So I’m not disagreeing with the thinking behind the Webkit decision, but I do think the heuristics probably aren’t going to be quite good enough to make the call on whether something is truly a list or not.

Still, while I used to be kind of upset about the Webkit behaviour, I’ve become more equanimous about it over time. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, there’s something that Eric said:

We have come so far to agree that websites don’t need to look the same in every browser mostly due to bugs in their rendering engines or preferences of the user.

I think the same is true for screen readers and other assistive technology: Websites don’t need to sound the same in every screen reader.

That’s a really good point. If we agree that “pixel perfection” isn’t attainable—or desirable—in a fluid, user-centred medium like the web, why demand the aural equivalent?

The second reason why I’m not storming the barricades about this is something that James said:

Of course, heuristics are imperfect, so authors have the ability to explicitly override the heuristically determined role by adding role="list”.

That means more work for me as a developer, and that’s …absolutely fine. If I can take something that might be a problem for a user, and turn into something that’s a problem for me, I’ll choose to make it my problem every time.

I don’t have to petition Webkit to change their stance or update their heuristics. If I feel strongly that a list styled without bullets should still be announced as a list, I can specificy that in the markup.

It does feel very redundant to write ul role="list”. The whole point of having HTML elements with built-in semantics is that you don’t need to add any ARIA roles. But we did it for a while when new structural elements were introduced in HTML5—main role="main", nav role="navigation", etc. So I’m okay with a little bit of redundancy. I think the important thing is that you really stop and think about whether something should be announced as a list or not, regardless of styling. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer (hence why it’s nigh-on impossible to get the heuristics right). Each list needs to be marked up on a case-by-case basis.

And I wouldn’t advise spending too much time thinking about this either. There are other, more important areas to consider. Like I said, headings, forms, and images really matter. I’d prioritise those elements above thinking about lists. And it’s worth pointing out that Webkit doesn’t remove all semantic meaning from styled lists—it updates the role value from list to group. That seems sensible to me.

In the case of that page on The Session, I don’t think I’m guilty of listitis. Yes, there are seven lists on that page (two for navigation, five for content) but I’m reasonably confident that they all look like lists even without bullets or markers. So I’ve added role="list" to some ul elements.

As with so many things related to accessibility—and the web in general—this is a situation where the only answer I can confidentally come up with is …it depends.

aria-live

I wrote a little something recently about using ARIA attributes as selectors in CSS. For me, one of the advantages is that because ARIA attributes are generally added via JavaScript, the corresponding CSS rules won’t kick in if something goes wrong with the JavaScript:

Generally, ARIA attributes—like aria-hidden—are added by JavaScript at runtime (rather than being hard-coded in the HTML).

But there’s one instance where I actually put the ARIA attribute directly in the HTML that gets sent from the server: aria-live.

If you’re not familiar with it, aria-live is extremely useful if you’ve got any dynamic updates on your page—via Ajax, for example. Let’s say you’ve got a bit of your site where filtered results will show up. Slap an aria-live attribute on there with a value of “polite”:

<div aria-live="polite">
...dynamic content gets inserted here
</div>

You could instead provide a value of “assertive”, but you almost certainly don’t want to do that—it can be quite rude.

Anyway, on the face it, this looks like exactly the kind of ARIA attribute that should be added with JavaScript. After all, if there’s no JavaScript, there’ll be no dynamic updates.

But I picked up a handy lesson from Ire’s excellent post on using aria-live:

Assistive technology will initially scan the document for instances of the aria-live attribute and keep track of elements that include it. This means that, if we want to notify users of a change within an element, we need to include the attribute in the original markup.

Good to know!

ARIA in CSS

Sara tweeted something recently that resonated with me:

Also, Pro Tip: Using ARIA attributes as CSS hooks ensures your component will only look (and/or function) properly if said attributes are used in the HTML, which, in turn, ensures that they will always be added (otherwise, the component will obv. be broken)

Yes! I didn’t mention it when I wrote about accessible interactions but this is my preferred way of hooking up CSS and JavaScript interactions. Here’s old Codepen where you can see it in action:

[aria-hidden='true'] {
  display: none;
}

In order for the functionality to work for everyone—screen reader users or not—I have to make sure that I’m toggling the value of aria-hidden in my JavaScript.

There’s another advantage to this technique. Generally, ARIA attributes—like aria-hidden—are added by JavaScript at runtime (rather than being hard-coded in the HTML). If something goes wrong with the JavaScript, the aria-hidden value isn’t set to “true”, which means that the CSS never kicks in. So the default state is for content to be displayed. There’s no assumption that the JavaScript has to work in order for the CSS to make sense.

It’s almost as though accessibility and progressive enhancement are connected somehow…

Accessible interactions

Accessibility on the web is easy. Accessibility on the web is also hard.

I think it’s one of those 80/20 situations. The most common accessibility problems turn out to be very low-hanging fruit. Take, for example, Holly Tuke’s list of the 5 most annoying website features she faces as a blind person every single day:

  • Unlabelled links and buttons
  • No image descriptions
  • Poor use of headings
  • Inaccessible web forms
  • Auto-playing audio and video

None of those problems are hard to fix. That’s what I mean when I say that accessibility on the web is easy. As long as you’re providing a logical page structure with sensible headings, associating form fields with labels, and providing alt text for images, you’re at least 80% of the way there (you’re also doing way better than the majority of websites, sadly).

Ah, but that last 20% or so—that’s where things get tricky. Instead of easy-to-follow rules (“Always provide alt text”, “Always label form fields”, “Use sensible heading levels”), you enter an area of uncertainty and doubt where there are no clear answers. Different combinations of screen readers, browsers, and operating systems might yield very different results.

This is the domain of interaction design. Here be dragons. ARIA can help you …but if you overuse its power, it may cause more harm than good.

When I start to feel overwhelmed by this, I find it’s helpful to take a step back. Instead of trying to imagine all the possible permutations of screen readers and browsers, I start with a more straightforward use case: keyboard users. Keyboard users are (usually) a subset of screen reader users.

The pattern that comes up the most is to do with toggling content. I suppose you could categorise this as progressive disclosure, but I’m talking about quite a wide range of patterns:

  • accordions,
  • menus (including mega menu monstrosities),
  • modal dialogs,
  • tabs.

In each case, there’s some kind of “trigger” that toggles the appearance of a “target”—some chunk of content.

The first question I ask myself is whether the trigger should be a button or a link (at the very least you can narrow it down to that shortlist—you can discount divs, spans, and most other elements immediately; use a trigger that’s focusable and interactive by default).

As is so often the case, the answer is “it depends”, but generally you can’t go wrong with a button. It’s an element designed for general-purpose interactivity. It carries the expectation that when it’s activated, something somewhere happens. That’s certainly true in all the examples I’ve listed above.

That said, I think that links can also make sense in certain situations. It’s related to the second question I ask myself: should the target automatically receive focus?

Again, the answer is “it depends”, but here’s the litmus test I give myself: how far away from each other are the trigger and the target?

If the target content is right after the trigger in the DOM, then a button is almost certainly the right element to use for the trigger. And you probably don’t need to automatically focus the target when the trigger is activated: the content already flows nicely.

<button>Trigger Text</button>
<div id="target">
<p>Target content.</p>
</div>

But if the target is far away from the trigger in the DOM, I often find myself using a good old-fashioned hyperlink with a fragment identifier.

<a href="#target">Trigger Text</a>
…
<div id="target">
<p>Target content.</p>
</div>

Let’s say I’ve got a “log in” link in the main navigation. But it doesn’t go to a separate page. The design shows it popping open a modal window. In this case, the markup for the log-in form might be right at the bottom of the page. This is when I think there’s a reasonable argument for using a link. If, for any reason, the JavaScript fails, the link still works. But if the JavaScript executes, then I can hijack that link and show the form in a modal window. I’ll almost certainly want to automatically focus the form when it appears.

The expectation with links (as opposed to buttons) is that you will be taken somewhere. Let’s face it, modal dialogs are like fake web pages so following through on that expectation makes sense in this context.

So I can answer my first two questions:

  • “Should the trigger be a link or button?” and
  • “Should the target be automatically focused?”

…by answering a different question:

  • “How far away from each other are the trigger and the target?”

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it helps me out when I’m unsure.

At this point I can write some JavaScript to make sure that both keyboard and mouse users can interact with the interactive component. There’ll certainly be an addEventListener(), some tabindex action, and maybe a focus() method.

Now I can start to think about making sure screen reader users aren’t getting left out. At the very least, I can toggle an aria-expanded attribute on the trigger that corresponds to whether the target is being shown or not. I can also toggle an aria-hidden attribute on the target.

When the target isn’t being shown:

  • the trigger has aria-expanded="false",
  • the target has aria-hidden="true".

When the target is shown:

  • the trigger has aria-expanded="true",
  • the target has aria-hidden="false".

There’s also an aria-controls attribute that allows me to explicitly associate the trigger and the target:

<button aria-controls="target">Trigger Text</button>
<div id="target">
<p>Target content.</p>
</div>

But don’t assume that’s going to help you. As Heydon put it, aria-controls is poop. Still, Léonie points out that you can still go ahead and use it. Personally, I find it a useful “hook” to use in my JavaScript so I know which target is controlled by which trigger.

Here’s some example code I wrote a while back. And here are some old Codepens I made that use this pattern: one with a button and one with a link. See the difference? In the example with a link, the target automatically receives focus. But in this situation, I’d choose the example with a button because the trigger and target are close to each other in the DOM.

At this point, I’ve probably reached the limits of what can be abstracted into a single trigger/target pattern. Depending on the specific component, there might be much more work to do. If it’s a modal dialog, for example, you’ve got to figure out where to put the focus, how to trap the focus, and figure out where the focus should return to when the modal dialog is closed.

I’ve mostly been talking about websites that have some interactive components. If you’re building a single page app, then pretty much every single interaction needs to be made accessible. Good luck with that. (Pro tip: consider not building a single page app—let the browser do what it has been designed to do.)

Anyway, I hope this little stroll through my thought process is useful. If nothing else, it shows how I attempt to cope with an accessibility landscape that looks daunting and ever-changing. Remember though, the fact that you’re even considering this stuff means you care more than most web developers. And you are not alone. There are smart people out there sharing what they learn. The A11y Project is a great hub for finding resources.

And when it comes to interactive patterns like the trigger/target examples I’ve been talking about, there’s one more question I ask myself: what would Heydon do?

Accessibility on The Session revisited

Earlier this year, I wrote about an accessibility issue I was having on The Session. Specifically, it was an issue with Ajax and pagination. But I managed to sort it out, and the lesson was very clear:

As is so often the case, the issue was with me trying to be too clever with ARIA, and the solution was to ease up on adding so many ARIA attributes.

Well, fast forward to the past few weeks, when I was contacted by one of the screen-reader users on The Session. There was, once again, a problem with the Ajax pagination, specifically with VoiceOver on iOS. The first page of results were read out just fine, but subsequent pages were not only never announced, the content was completely unavailable. The first page of results would’ve been included in the initial HTML, but the subsequent pages of results are injected with JavaScript (if JavaScript is available—otherwise it’s regular full-page refreshes all the way).

This pagination pattern shows up all over the site: lists of what’s new, search results, and more. I turned on VoiceOver and I was able to reproduce the problem straight away.

I started pulling apart my JavaScript looking for the problem. Was it something to do with how I was handling focus? I just couldn’t figure it out. And other parts of the site that used Ajax didn’t seem to be having the same problem. I was mystified.

Finally, I tracked down the problem, and it wasn’t in the JavaScript at all.

Wherever the pagination pattern appears, there are “previous” and “next” links, marked up with the appropriate rel="prev" and rel="next" attributes. Well, apparently past me thought it would be clever to add some ARIA attributes in there too. My thinking must’ve been something like this:

  • Those links control the area of the page with the search results.
  • That area of the page has an ID of “results”.
  • I should add aria-controls="results" to those links.

That was the problem …which is kind of weird, because VoiceOver isn’t supposed to have any support for aria-controls. Anyway, once I removed that attribute from the links, everything worked just fine.

Just as the solution last time was to remove the aria-atomic attribute on the updated area, the solution this time was to remove the aria-controls attribute on the links that trigger the update. Maybe this time I’ll learn my lesson: don’t mess with ARIA attributes you don’t understand.

Drag’n’drop revisited

I got a message from a screen-reader user of The Session recently, letting me know of a problem they were having. I love getting any kind of feedback around accessibility, so this was like gold dust to me.

They pointed out that the drag’n’drop interface for rearranging the order of tunes in a set was inaccessible.

Drag and drop

Of course! I slapped my forehead. How could I have missed this?

It had been a while since I had implemented that functionality, so before even looking at the existing code, I started to think about how I could improve the situation. Maybe I could capture keystroke events from the arrow keys and announce changes via ARIA values? That sounded a bit heavy-handed though: mess with people’s native keyboard functionality at your peril.

Then I looked at the code. That was when I realised that the fix was going to be much, much easier than I thought.

I documented my process of adding the drag’n’drop functionality back in 2016. Past me had his progressive enhancement hat on:

One of the interfaces needed for this feature was a form to re-order items in a list. So I thought to myself, “what’s the simplest technology to enable this functionality?” I came up with a series of select elements within a form.

Reordering

The problem was in my feature detection:

There’s a little bit of mustard-cutting going on: does the dragula object exist, and does the browser understand querySelector? If so, the select elements are hidden and the drag’n’drop is enabled.

The logic was fine, but the execution was flawed. I was being lazy and hiding the select elements with display: none. That hides them visually, but it also hides them from screen readers. I swapped out that style declaration for one that visually hides the elements, but keeps them accessible and focusable.

It was a very quick fix. I had the odd sensation of wanting to thank Past Me for making things easy for Present Me. But I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.

I pushed the fix, told the screen-reader user who originally contacted me, and got a reply back saying that everything was working great now. Success!

Testing

It’s tempting to think of testing with screen-readers as being like testing with browsers. With browser testing, you’re checking to see how a particular piece of software deals with the code you’re throwing at it. A screen reader is a piece of software too, so it makes sense to approach it the same way, right?

I don’t think so. I think it’s really important that if someone is going to test your site with a screen reader, it should be someone who uses a screen reader every day.

Think of it this way: you wouldn’t want a designer or developer to do usability testing by testing the design or code on themselves. That wouldn’t give you any useful data. They’re already familiar with what problems the design is supposed to be solving, and how the interface works. That’s why you need to do usability testing with someone from outside, someone who wasn’t involved in the design or development process.

It’s no different when it comes to users of assistive technology. You’re not trying to test their technology; you’re trying to test how well the thing you’re building works for the person using the technology.

In short:

Don’t think of screen-reader testing as a form of browser testing; think of it as a form of usability testing.