That nice Marcy Sutton asked me to test and give feedback about a new product she’s involved with called Evinced, which describes itself as an “Enterprise grade digital accessibility platform for modern software development teams”. Quite what “enterprise grade” means is beyond me, but it’s basically software that can crawl a website from a root domain and check its code against some rules and report back. There are similar tools on the market, and I’ve recently been working with a Client to integrate Tenon into their workflow, so wanted to compare them.
“Now hang on!”, I hear you say. “automated tools are terrible!”. Well, yes and no. Certainly, overlays etc that claim to automatically fix the problems are terrible, but tools that help you identify potential problems can be very useful.
It’s also true that automated tools can’t spot every single accessibility error; they can tell you if an image is missing alternate text, but not that <img src=dog.png alt=”a cat”> has useless alt text. Only a human can find all the errors.
However, many errors are machine-findable. The most-common errors on WebAIM’s survey of the top million homepages are low contrast text, missing alternative text, empty links, missing form input labels, empty buttons and missing document language, all of which were found by running automated tests on them (which, presumably, the developers never did before they were pushed to production).
I personally feel that a good automated scanner is a worthwhile investment for any large site to catch the “lowest hanging fruit”. While some things can’t be automatically tested, other things can, and other aspects live in a grey area depending on the rigour of the test.
For example, a naive colour contrast test might compare CSS color with background-color, and give a pass or fail; a less naive test will factor in any CSS opacity set on the text and ignore off-screen/ hidden text. A sophisticated contrast test could take a screenshot of text over an image or gradient and do a pixel-by-pixel analysis. To do a test on a screenshot would require actually rendering a page. Like Tenon, Evinced doesn’t just scan the HTML, but renders the pages in a headless browser, which allows the DOM to be tested (although I don’t believe it tests colour contrast in this way).
Evinced uses Axe Core, and open-source library also used by Google Lighthouse. It also contains other (presumably proprietary secret-source) tests so that “if interactable components are built with divs, spans, or images – Evinced will detect if they are broken”.
The proof of the pudding with automated site scanners is how well they report errors they’ve found. It’s all very well reporting umpty-squllion errors, but if it’s not reported in any actionable way, it’s not helpful.
Like all the automated scanners I’ve tried, errors are grouped according to severity. However, if those categories correspond with WCAG A, AA and AAA violations, that’s not made clear anywhere.
It’s a fact of corporate life that most organisations will attempt to claim AA compliance, so need to know the errors by WCAG compliance.
One innovative and useful reporting method is by what Evinced calls component grouping: “Consolidates hundreds of issues to a handful of broken code components”.
With other scanners, it takes a trained eye to look through thousands of site-wide errors and realise that a good percentage of them are because of one dodgy piece of code that is repeated on every page. Evinced analyses pages and identifies these repeated components for you, so you know where to concentrate your efforts to get gross numbers down. (We all know that in the corporate world, a quick fix that reduces 10,000 errors to 5,000 errors buys you time to concentrate on the really gnarly remaining problems.)
There’s a vague suggestion that this grouping is done by Artificial Intelligence/ Machine Learning. The algorithm obviously has quite clever rules, and shows me a screenshot of areas on my pages it has identified as components. It’s unclear whether this is real Machine Learning, eg whether it will improve as its corpus of naughty pages gets larger.
I don’t recall signing anything to allow my data to be used to improve the corpus; perhaps a discount for not-for-profits/ time-limited demos could be offered to organisations allowing their data to be added to the training data, if indeed that’s how it “learns”.
Tenon has some clunkers in its web interface (for example, it’s hard to re-run a previously defined scan) because it’s most commonly accessed via its API rather than web back-end.
Evinced makes it easy to re-run a scan from the web interface, and also promises an API (pricing is not announced yet) but also suffers from its UI. For example, one of my pet peeves is pages telling me I have errors but not letting me easily click to see them, requiring me to hunt. The only link in this error page, for example, goes to the “knowledge base” that describes the generic error, but not to a list of scanned pages containing the error.
(After I gave feedback to the developers, they told me the info is there if you go to the components view. But that requires me to learn and remember that. Don’t make me think!)
There’s also terminology oddities. When setting up a new site for testing, the web interface requires a seed URL and to press a button marked “start mapping”, after which the term “mapping” is no longer used, and I’m told the system is “crawling”. Once the crawl was complete, I couldn’t see any results. It took a while for me to realise that “crawling” and “mapping” are the same thing (getting a list of candidate URLs) and after the mapping/ crawling stage, I need to then do a “scan”.
A major flaw is the ability to customise tests. In Tenon I can turn off tests on an adhoc basis if, for example, one particular test is giving me false positives, or I only want to test for level A failures. This is unavailable in Evinced’s web interface.
Another important but often-overlooked UI aspect of these “Enterprise” site scanners is the need to share results across the enterprise. While it’s common to sell “per-seat” licenses, it’s also necessary for the licensee to able to share information with managers, bean-counters, legal eagles and the like. Downloading a CSV doesn’t really help; it’s much more useful to be able to share a link to the results of a run and let the recipient investigate the reports and issues, but not let them change any configuration or kick off any new scans. This is missing in both Evinced and Tenon.
The system is currently in Beta and definitely needs some proper usability testing with real target users and UI love. One niggle is the inaccuracy of its knowledge base (linked from the error reports). For example, about the footer element, Evinced says
Since the <footer> element includes information about the entire document, it should be at the document level (e.g., it should not be a child element of another landmark element). There should be no more than one ><footer> element on the same document
The footer element represents a footer for its nearest ancestor sectioning content or sectioning root element… Here is a page with two footers, one at the top and one at the bottom… Here is an example which shows the footer element being used both for a site-wide footer and for a section footer.
I saw no evidence of this incorrect assumption about the footer element in the tests, however.
A new song. It’s inspired by numbers stations, “a shortwave radio station characterized by broadcasts of formatted numbers, which are believed to be addressed to intelligence officers operating in foreign countries. Most identified stations use speech synthesis to vocalize numbers”. This got me thinking about clandestine communication and betrayal.
I heard chatter on the network.
But I couldn’t crack your code.
I was waiting defenceless
for your bombshells to explode.
If you’re here, there is a reason.
Your ciphers are all known.
To everything there is a season.
Now you’re here, your cover’s blown.
I don’t recall why we are enemies.
I don’t understand what we are fighting for.
I forgot my ideology,
half way across the bridge
in this cold, cold war.
You walked down to the checkpoint.
I saw graffiti on the wall.
You presented your false papers,
and the wall began to fall.
Volpone at RSC was very good last night. Sometimes the pacing was a little wobbly (mostly in the courtroom scenes), and Henry Goodman fluffed a line or two, but it was only the second performance. Goodman’s big set piece – Volpone pretending to be an Italian snakeoil peddlar – was hilarious (and he accused me of being a Norwegian from the stage in an audience participation section).
It’s a Ben Jonson play, so all of the characters are ciphers (and named according to type: Volpone the fox, Sir Politic Would-be, Corvino the crow etc) so don’t expect deep psychology, but more the Jonson parade of fools, monsters and freaks. The drawf, hermaphrodite and eunuch were excellent, and Trevor Nunn’s direction setting it in the Facebook and selfie era was inspired.
Disclosure stuff: I was sent a free copy of this by the publishers. From 2000-2002 I worked with its author. I currently work with Mathias Bynens, the book’s technical reviewer (but didn’t know this until after reading it).
The book looks beautiful. High quality paper, colour images, with real care and attention lavished on the layout and the words. I’m no quivering aethete designer, but I found it pleasurable to read even though it’s a weighty 600 page tome. Each page (or spread) is its own discrete infolump so it’s easy to out down and come back to.
It starts light – defining events, objects, methods and properties, showing the relationship between HTML, CSS and JS, and with a section on Progressive Enhancement (hoorah). However, I was slightly peturbed that the first worked example uses document.write. I can see why you’d do this – it allows you to show something, but without having to muck about appending to the DOM or using getElementById and innerHTML but it didn’t feel particularly good practice (especially as getElementById and innerHTML are introduced soon after, anyway.) In the author’s defence, he does note that this is Considered Naughty.
Elsewhere, we see lots of workarounds and IE-specific aspects of the DOM. I’m comfortable with these being there; we have to live in the real world, and I think that a book that ignores this does a disservice to its readers – it’s right to equip someone to make pages work on IE.wtf or understand what’s happening in older/ inherited scripts.
The book moves briskly after the traditional introduction to loops, variables and other syntax. By page 270 we’re looking at event listeners, including IE5-8, event delegation, mutation events (with a note that mutation observers are coming, but no more than that.)
Chapter 7 begins with jQuery. Again, there are times when jQuery is entirely appropriate. What’s good is that this book teaches JS concepts first, and always keeps the two separate. (I get tired of “JS” tutorials that are actually about jQuery.)
The rest of the book romps through “HTML5” APIs, JSON, common UI widgets and – usefully – debugging. Attention is paid to pointing out what’s standard and what isn’t, what’s vanilla JS and what isn’t. Progressive enhancement, accessibility and separation of concerns is are kept in mind throughout. This is good. You can see the table of contents.
It’s easy to seriously muck up a production of one of Shakespeare’s great plays, but exceptionally hard to pull off a good production of a relatively weak play like Two Gentlemen of Verona. I enjoy seeing one of the lesser plays produced, as it’s fascinating to see what a really good director and cast can do with unpromising source material.
One thing you can do is have lots of music and spectacle and there are a few musical interludes in this new production. The extended opening is a joy; the ensemble cast re-creates a busy restaurant in Verona, with live music and without dialogue but with lots of audience interaction. It’s great fun. It’s contrasted with the sophistication of the Milanese court later, in a fabulous interlude involving a cabaret singer/ exotic dancer and bizarre Tudorbethan disco dancing.
The production doesn’t try to overwhelm with spectacle, however. In fact, occasionally it lacks pace. This may because I watched it on the third night of its run, so the actors need to get into their stride. But it may be the quality of the text. One of the reasons that the play is weak is that Shakespeare was still learning his craft (many scholars believe this to be his first play) so there are long speeches that are undramatic wordplay. Perhaps they were funny in the sixteenth century but they aren’t now, so I found myself thinking that if I’d directed the play, I’d have been ruthless with my red pencil and removed some of those speeches. (It’s an advantage of one of the minor plays that you can excise stuff without offending too many purists.)
Something else that doesn’t work so well these days are the plays dodgy sex and racial politics. When Proteus falls in love with Sylvia and out of love with Julia he says “And Silvia — witness Heaven, that made her fair!— / Shows Julia but a swarthy Ethiope. / I will forget that Julia is alive”. However, it’s foolish to expect a sixteenth century play to conform to modern standards.
I thoroughly enjoyed the production, especially the performances by Pearl Chanda (Julia), Nicholas Gerard-Martin (Thurio), whose serenade scene was very funny, and Michael Marcus (Valentine). Honourable mentions, too, for Sarah MacRae (Silvia) and Martin Bassindale (Speed). The outlaws were also amusing. It’s also beautifully staged, with enough physicality and dark moments to carry the preposterousness of the plot – no twins or shipwrecks, but we do get a woman dressed as a man and instantaneous reversals of character.
An excellent RSC directorial debut from Simon Godwin. One small niggle: the first half was very long – almost two hours by my watch.
(I was sent a free ebook of this title. That hasn’t influenced my review. This ebook is published by Smashing Magazine and costs €10.95. There’s a sample chapter available. I have no financial connection with the publisher or author.)
When I read about this book I was excited to read it. I don’t need Yet Another Accessibility Book (I co-wrote one a long time ago) but wanted something that delves deeply into WAI-ARIA and how it interacts with HTML5 and assistive technologies. As this book’s blurb says “the underlying theme of this book is about making the interactivity of web applications include keyboard and screen reader users”, it seemed like the book for me. It’s also tech-reviewed by Steve Faulkner who’s my go-to Bogan for practical accessibility information, so I was pretty sure I could trust it.
WAI-ARIA is one of the vital specifications for making the web accessible. There are three problems with using it, though: firstly, the spec is hard to read and understand, even in the context of specs’ inherent indigestibility; secondly, it’s hard to understand how its concepts intertwine with other specs like HTML and, thirdly, most developers don’t use assistive technologies so are unable to understand or test the output of their ARIA pages.
Therefore, I greatly appreciated that author Heydon Pickering is a developer, so keeps the book practical. ARIA is used, in conjunction with markup and script in situations that you’d really encounter. The problem to be solved is elucidated, and the output is clearly explained. It goes deep, too; I learned a great deal and plan to re-read it soon.
It’s a short book (but quite dense) and Heydon’s prose style is clear and occasionally humorous. But don’t let that fool you; this is an important book because it’s the only one that thoroughly explains the technical merits and use of ARIA (and doesn’t browbeat the reader about accessibility).
Without hyperbole: every developer should read this book, and put its techniques into practice. Now.
We went to see David Tennant as Richard II in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s eponymous production last night. As a production it was all you’d want from RSC – great actors, impeccably staged. But I can’t get over the feeling that actually, it’s just not a very good play (or it simply hasn’t aged well).
It’s a reasonably early Shakespeare play, almost all in iambic pentameter with very little prose, and a great deal of rhyming couplets (later plays close scenes with a rhyme, but don’t use it throughout). This made a lot of it sound like a Hallmark greeting card poem as the rhyme and rhythm are quite regular.
There’s also a howling clunker of plot, in which one character simply forgets to tell another of the death of the previous King’s widow:
[Servant:] My Lord, I had forgot
To tell your Lordship, to day I came by, and call’d there,
But I shall grieve you to report the rest
[York:] What is’t knave?
[Servant:] An hour before I came, the Duchess died.
I almost laughed out loud at this.
Another problem is that Richard II is a thoroughly unlikeable character. Perhaps it’s a failure of Tennant’s acting or Greg Doran’s direction (but I doubt it; they’re both highly professional) but Richard simply has no redeeming features, so you I didn’t care what happens to him. He’s vain, messianic and treats his nobles badly. He deserves to lose the throne. At least with Richard III, you enjoy his evilness; Richard II just seems rather wet.
Last week, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours upstairs in a sweaty windowless room above a pub in Camden on a scorching summer’s evening.
The reason I subjected myself to this misery was to see a Japanese punky-pop-shoegaze band called Taffy play. Taffy are a bit like The Primitives, with chainsaw guitar and great pop melodies but also sport a shoegazey-disorted lead guitar and sweet vocals from a singer called Iris. Their drummer, an ever-smiling bespectacled chap who reminds me of Penfold from Dangermouse, plays like two drummers together. They might not be ground-breaking, but they do make a great, summery sound. They’re much too cheerful to be real shoegaze, and they’re better musicians and singers than Shonen Knife, with none of their studied wackiness.
Best thing to do is listen. Here’s their latest single “Tumbling” (but the best tracks from their new Lixiviate album, Sweet Violet and Train aren’t singles):
After paying my £6 to get in, who should I bump into but drummer Ken at the bar. As my 14 year old daughter is in love with him (“he’s so adorable”, apparently) she demanded by text that I have a photo taken with him.
The photo was taken by the guitarist. They both signed my CD cover. Note that Ken’s autograph is a smiling anthropomorphised drum kit. (“It’s so adorable!” squealed my daughter.) I didn’t know what Iris or the bassist looked like to get their signatures, so lost my chance at a rare collectible there.
The band went on, and they were great. The sound was terrible, naturally: pub gigs never have a decent PA, the drummer plays loud to fill the room, the guitars turn up loud so they can hear themselves, and vocals are lost in the mix. Iris has a tuneful, engaging voice, but it’s quite high and not powerful. But they were brilliantly tight, and obviously loved playing. The bassist grooved around until his shirt was wringing wet, Ken flailed around on his drums, cleaning sweat off his specs between songs and never letting his smile falter. The guitarist even played an intro by hitting the strings with a glow stick.
As a band, they’ll either disappear or get really big and you’ll all be jealous of my seeing them in a room of 40 people in Camden. I think their tour finished tonight, but I heartily recommend their album.
The kids wanted to see it, so I took them to see The Dark Knight Rises. Because it’s a film based on a comic and I’m over twelve years old, I wasn’t really expecting to like it, but there were some scriptwriting crimes so egregious that I list them here.
Firstly, the film was way too long. It didn’t help that Cineworld in Solihull decided that air conditioning in a packed cinema in the summer is a luxury that our £28 entrance fee didn’t merit. But it was still 30 minutes too long.
On the plus side, the special effects were good (of course they were: it’s a summer blockbuster) and the babes were suitably babelicious, if Hollywood collagen pout is your thing (it isn’t mine).
But the script was terrible. Now, in a Hollywood blockbuster based on a kids’ comic, I don’t hope for emotional depth. But as the Bad Guy had mobilised thousands of normal people who were prepared to be blown up by a nuclear bomb he’d planted, it would be satisfying to be given even a cursory explanation of why they would. Or even, why Bad Guy and Bad Girl would. (“Because they’re bad” doesn’t work.)
Two can’t-be-arsed script devices were employed repeatedly. The lazy, lazy flashback-with-a-voiceover technique was used several times, as was clankingly clumsy Obvious Explication Dialogue:
“I want you to give me Clean Slate”.
“you mean, the computer program that lets you type in your name and erases you from databases?”
Imagine if people in real life spoke like that:
“Have you got the keys to the car, Bruce?”
“You mean, our blue Nissan Micra that I bought from my father when he upgraded to a Passat? The one I scratched when I reversed it into a wall outside Aldi last Wednesday?”
Then there is the mysteriously common movie trope whereby a character who doesn’t speak English suddenly learns it in time for them to utter the words that allow them to fulfill their plot function. I’m thinking of the bald guy in prison who needs translation until he whispers encouraging, motivational words to Batman. Imagine being that guy! All that time, unable to communicate with the Anglophone world and, just when the deus ex machina grants you fluent English so you can go to the pub and chat up girls, you disappear from the world as your bit of plot has finished. Bummer.
And don’t get me started on the unrequited homo-erotic thing between Michael Caine and Christian Bale. Any scriptwriter that requires Caine to cry should be drummed out of the scriptwriters’ guild. He’s spent 85 years being celebrated for not acting – he’s not going to start now.
More fool me for expecting anything other than cartoon characters, I suppose, but grown adults had promised it’s “dark” so I expected a Bergmanesque investigation of why a man would wear tights, with added “Pow!” overlays. Should’ve gone to see The Lorax instead.
I’ve been doing a lot of flying lately, and can’t use the lappy on a plane so decided to read computer books (so the boss can’t berate me for enjoying myself on company time) and review them, actually on a blog rather than simply tweeting “Awesome!” or “EPIC FAIL”.
Presumably because I have incriminating photos of Zeldman, the A Book Apart people send me free copies of their publications, but they haven’t asked me to review them, let alone required me to be nice.
This book accompanied me to Bulgaria and I was, I confess, pretty sceptical. I’ve seen a lot of hand-wavy “design and inspiration” talks at conferences (“Look at the lovely Flickr images, I’ve got an iPad, aren’t we all awesome“). I’ve also seen lots of scarily aggressive Americans talk about how they went from start-up to millionaire in less time that it takes me to get around to scratching my balls in the morning, and disliked those talks even more because they displayed a very un-British lack of taboo about money.
Therefore, I was worried that a book about design and money would be some ghastly hybrid of this: “Hey, we’re all children of the universe which is awesome and like, totally full of, like, emptiness. So make all your websites full of whitespace, then grab that mofo and leverage it into the dollar domain!”
My fears were unfounded. Firstly, there is precisely zero designer handwaving in this book. The author explicitly rejects that:
A designer requires honest feedback and real criticism, and that’s not going to happen in a realm where colleagues or clients are worried bout crushing the spirit of a magical being. The sparkly fog of affirmation gets in the way…A designer solves problems within a set of contraints…a designer understands goals…
There is money talk, as there has to be in a book called “Design is a Job”. But there was even a section entitled “Your ethical responsibility” in which Monteiro writes
You have a responsibility to the community at large to make sure that what you’re signing up to design is worth being designed…So before you take on a client, ask yourself whether the problem the client is asking you to solve is one that you feel good about attaching your name to…There is absolutely nothing wrong with making money…but making it to some else’s detrimnent makes you complicit in that persons’s downfall. If a product you design does harm, then you have done harm.
The author (who I’ve never met and know nothing about) comes across to me as a craftsman – someone who takes pride in the job he does, and the wider craft, but who wants to make an honest living doing it. Whether it be design, or branding, or coding doesn’t really matter. Monteiro writes about design because that’sd what he knows best, rather than because the points made in the book are only relevant to product or web design.
Standout chapters for me were the ones that deal with sticking to your own process and the importance of having lawyers. If I were ever in business by myself – regardless of what type of business – I’d keep those chapters close by me.
To conclude: I’m surprising myself to be recommending this book, even though I expected to hate it. Lots of practical advice, written without bullshit in a voice that seems Monteiro’s own rather than that of his editor or publisher, and which can be read on a couple of European flights.