There Is No Cat

Groovy '60s Sounds from the Land of Smile!

Sunday, September 15, 2002

And it didn't take a clue-by-four to get done

David Weinberger, Cluetrain co-conductor, Loose Joiner of Small Pieces, NPR commentator, newsletter editor and fascinating blogger, fixed something on his blog today that had been bugging me since I started reading it. I could barely distinguish his links. They looked like almost exactly the same color as his text to me (I'm colorblind), and there were no underlines. I sent him an e-mail yesterday explaining the problem, and like the clueful person he is, he changed the site. Thank you, David. Your site is much easier for me to read now. I would wish you a Happy Yom Kippur, but given the nature of the holiday, that's always seemed inappropriate to me. So Happy New Year instead. All is forgiven. :-)

There's a basic principle that underlies (or underlines) this, and that's that for the sake of accessibility, you want to design web sites so that there are multiple clues when something is a link. Don't count on solely color to distinguish links; change something else as well so that people who can't tell the difference can rely on another clue. Apple had an important page last year that showed whether certain consumer-level DVD players were compatible with SuperDrive-authored DVD-Rs. Unfortunately, the method they used to distinguish between compatible and incompatible players was to mark each with a little bullet of either red or green. Yeah, that's what traffic lights do, but traffic lights also have the position of the light to note the difference. Apple's site would have worked much better if, in addition to color, they had also used different shapes, for example, like maybe a check mark for yes and an X for no, providing a redundant channel for the information that would have made it possible for me to use their lovely chart without having to call in my fiancee for help. I sent e-mail to Apple complaining about the page, but I don't think they ever changed it. Or if they did, it was after I had given up on looking for it since the page was useless to me. Apple's decision to use the same color scheme in the LEDs on its Airport Base Station cost one of their poor tech support people 15 minutes or so in deciding whether or not my flying saucer was dead because I couldn't tell what color the flashing LED was. (It was.)

I'm always struck by how large the implications of small design decisions can be. I try to remember that when I'm doing my own web designs. Hopefully I mostly succeed.

I've been interested in accessibility on the web for a long time. Back in the mid-90s I worked for a year for a boss who happened to be blind, and it kind of opened my eyes, so to speak, to some of the issues, and sensitized me to the topic. The fact that I maintain some sites related to shortwave radio, where there is a substantial blind constituency, has also been important. There was a pretty good book on the topic of web accessibility published a number of years ago by the unfortunately-named Crystal Waters, but nobody but me seemed to notice. It's great that accessibility is finally starting to get its due. Thank you, Section 508.

Mark Pilgrim's Dive Into Accessibility series includes a colorblind person. I don't agree with all of Mark's characterization (and I really don't like that his colorblind persona has a ferret named Ralph, heh), but it does a pretty decent job of explaining the potential pitfalls and providing some decent remedies. Glasshaus has a decent book on the subject, and I really look forward to Joe Clark's upcoming tome on the subject of web accessibility, which should be out any day.

Posted at 8:07 PM

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This site is copyright © 2002-2017, Ralph Brandi.

What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio


There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

Sylvester (the Dorito Fiend), who died at Thanksgiving, 2000.


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