Two wrongs make a Nielsen

Set aside for a moment the principle that all media should be accessible. (Indeed, they must be accessible for people with disabilities by law in many parts of the world even if those laws are obscure or rarely enforced. Certain language groups also have legal protections.) Concentrate instead on the vaguely tokenistic argument that media about accessibility have to be accessible themselves – even to groups not officially “targeted.”

Cultural exchange

In traditional Web sites, we can draw the example of Typetalk and Australian Communications Exchange (ACE), the U.K. and Australian relay services.

The sites work just fine for the “targeted” audience of deaf people, but really, is that enough?

All right, then. Managers of these relay-service Web sites really should know better, but in any event they don’t have a lot of cash and their sins are merely venial. So we’ll stop picking on them.

So what about Jakob Nielsen?

Blowing it big-time

For years, NUblog has derided usability blowhard Jakob Nielsen. (“In the future, first of all, Web sites will be designed by my guidelines... for the simple reason that if they don’t, they are dead.”) For this and other reasons, Jakob Nielsen writes that we have “achieved permanently-blacklisted status... and any E-mail we get from [them] gets deleted unread.” (Juicy!)

But the mighty Nielsen Norman Group enjoys the privileged position of having dumptrucks of cash in the bank with which to carry out usability studies. To its unquestioned credit, the report entitled “Beyond alt Text: Making the Web Easy to Use for Users With Disabilities” surveyed actual “users” with visual or motor impairments in the U.S. and Japan. There’s a companion methodology report available on running your own usability studies with disabled subjects, also to NNGroup’s unquestioned credit.

The reports cost US$190 and $82, respectively. No problem there: You can charge for information.

So what is the problem?

Initially, HRH Nielsen published the report in PDF format only. Finally! An E-book somebody wants to read!

But what is the stated Nielsen policy on PDF publication?

Ensure that your PDF document format is at least one version behind the latest offering.... PDF Version 5 was released recently, but I recommend sticking to Version 3 until 2002 (at which time you can use Version 4; Version 5 should not be used until 2004). I got many complaints when I made... usability guidelines for E-commerce available for download in PDF 4 format recently: even among Internet professionals, there are still many people who have Acrobat Version 3 installed on their machine. I am now wiser and will be keep using PDF 3 for any printable reports I publish in 2001.

But Acrobat and PDF are two separate things. (Did you know that Acrobat is not the only program that can create a PDF?) The only Acrobat version guaranteed to work passably with screen readers is Acrobat 5. (The older Access plug-in was not a bad first start by any means, but it required Acrobat 4.05, subsequent to the “3.0” that Nielsen errantly demands.)

There are still many provisos:

So: Jakob Nielsen has released an accessibility report in an inaccessible format.

The correct course of action would have involved authoring an Acrobat 5 version (with proper tags) and, if necessary to maintain policy consistency, a separate Acrobat 3 version. Nielsen Norman Group has quite enough money to manage that task.

But we’re not done yet!

NNGroup trumped itself by releasing an “audiobook” version on “standard” CD and cassette. The mighty Group betrays massive ignorance of talking-book protocols.

Inaccessible PDFs and amateur, inaccessible CDs and tapes are no way to distribute a report on accessibility. NNGroup has the money to do it right – and it isn’t too late, either. Remaster the PDF in Acrobat 5, and send the report out for recording by an experienced reader using the correct format. Simple, really – and do the same for all future reports regardless of topic. (Tokenism, remember?) Any accessibility expert could have provided that advice for free – and nobody’d end up “dead,” either.

Is all this “screen reader” crapola confusing? Then watch the online video “Introduction to the Screen Reader.” It is slightly too technical and spends too much time on non-Internet uses, but it’s fun to watch. Oh, and ACCESSIBILITY ECUMENISM ALERT – that video, though concerning the blind, is actually captioned.

Posted on 2002-03-13