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Reading List

A (usually) weekly round-up of interesting links I’ve tweeted. Sponsored by Smashing Magazine who slip banknotes into my lacy red manties so I can spend time reading stuff.

Reading List

A (usually) weekly round-up of interesting links I’ve tweeted. Sponsored by Smashing Magazine who slip banknotes into my bellydancing costume so I can spend time reading stuff.

The practical value of semantic HTML

Bruce’s guide to writing HTML for JavaScript developers

It has come to my attention that many in the web standards gang are feeling grumpy about some Full Stack Developers’ lack of deep knowledge about HTML. One well-intentioned article about 10 things to learn for becoming a solid full-stack JavaScript developer said

As for HTML, there’s not much to learn right away and you can kind of learn as you go, but before making your first templates, know the difference between in-line elements like <span> and how they differ from block ones like <div>. This will save you a huge amount of headache when fiddling with your CSS code.

This riled me too. But, as it’s Consumerfest and goodwill to all is compulsory, I calmed down. And I don’t want to instigate a pile-on of the author of this piece; it’s indicative of an industry trend to regard HTML as a bit of an afterthought, once you’ve done the real work of learning and writing JavaScript. If the importance of good HTML isn’t well-understood by the newer breed of JavaScript developers, then it’s my job as a DOWF (Dull Old Web Fart) to explain it.

Gather round, Fullstack JavaScript Developers – together we’ll make your apps more usable, and my blood pressure lower.

What is ‘good’ HTML?

Firstly, let’s reach a definition of ‘good’ HTML. Many DOWFs used to get very irked about (X)HTML being well-formed: proper closing tags, quoted attributes and the like. Those days are gone. Sure, it’s good practice to validate your HTML, just like you lint your JavaScript (it can catch errors and make your code more maintainable), but browsers are very forgiving.

In fact, part of what we commonly call ‘HTML5’ is the Parsing Algorithm which is like an HTML ninja – incredibly powerful, yet rarely noticed. It ensures that all modern browsers construct the same DOM from the same HTML, regardless of whether the HTML is well-formed or not. It’s the greatest fillip to interoperability we’ve ever seen.

By ‘good’ HTML, I mean semantic HTML, a posh term for choosing the right HTML element for the content. This isn’t a philosophical exercise; it has directly observable practical benefits.

For example, consider the <button> element. Using this gives you some browser behaviour for free:

“What’s that?”, you say. “Everyone has JavaScript”. No, they don’t. Most people do, most of the time. But I guarantee you that everyone is without JavaScript sometimes.

Here’s another example: semantically linking a <label> to its associated <input> increases usability for a mouse-user or touch-screen user, because clicking in the label focusses into the input field. See this in action (and how to do it) on MDN.

This might be me, with my MS; it might be you, on a touch-screen device on a bumpy train, trying to check a checkbox. How much easier it is if the hit area also includes the label “uncheck to opt out of cancelling us not sending you spam forever”. (Compare the first and second identical-looking examples in a checkbox demo.)

But the point is that by choosing the right element for the job, you’re getting browser behaviour for free that makes your app more usable to a range of different people.

Invisible browser behaviours

With me so far? Good. The browser behaviours associated with the semantics of <button> and <label> are obvious once you know about them – because you can see them.

Other semantics aren’t so obvious to a sighted developer with a desktop machine and a nice big monitor, but they are incredibly useful for those who do need them. Let’s look at some of those.

HTML5 has some semantics that you can use for indicating regions on a page. For example, <nav>, <main>, <header>, <footer>.

If you wrap your main content – that is, the stuff that isn’t navigation, logo and main header etc – in a <main> tag, a screen reader user can jump immediately to it using a keyboard shortcut. Imagine how useful that is – they don’t have to listen to all the content before it, or tab through it to get to the main meat of your page.

And for people who don’t use a screenreader, that <main> element doesn’t get in the way. It has no default styling at all, so there’s nothing for you to remove. For those that need it, it simply works; for those that don’t need it, it’s entirely transparent.

Similarly, using <nav> for your primary navigation provides screenreader users with a shortcut key to jump to the navigation so they can continue exploring your marvellous site. You were probably going to wrap your navigation in a <div class=”nav”> to position it and style it; why not choose <nav> instead (it’s shorter!) and make your site more usable to the 15% of the world who have a disability?

For more on this, I humbly point you to my 2014 post Should you use HTML5 header and footer?. A survey of screenreader users last year showed that 80% of respondents will use regions to navigate – but they can only do so if you choose to use them instead of wrapping everything in <div>s. Now you know they exist, why wouldn’t you use them?

New types of devices

We’re seeing more and more types of devices connecting to the web, and semantic HTML can help these devices display your content in a more usable way to their owners. And if your site is more usable than your competitors’, you win, and your boss will erect a massive gold statue of you in the office car park. (Trust me, your boss told me. They’ve already ordered the plinth.)

Let’s look at one example, the Apple Watch. Here are some screenshots and excerpts from the transcript of an Apple video introducing watchOS 5:

We’ve brought Reader to watchOS 5 where it automatically activates when following links to text heavy web pages. It’s important to ensure that Reader draws out the key parts of your web page by using semantic markup to reinforce the meaning and purpose of elements in the document. Let’s walk through an example. First, we indicate which parts of the page are the most important by wrapping it in an article tag.

diagram of an article element wrapping content on an Apple Watch

Specifically, enclosing these header elements inside the article ensure that they all appear in Reader. Reader also styles each header element differently depending on the value of its itemprop attribute. Using itemprop, we’re able to ensure that the author, publication date, title, and subheading are prominently featured.

Apple Watch diagram showing how it uses microdata attributes to layout and display information about an article

itemprop is an HTML5 microdata attribute. There are shared vocabularies documented at schema.org, which is founded by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Yandex. Using schema.org vocabularies with microdata can make your pages display better in search results:

Many applications from Google, Microsoft, Pinterest, Yandex and others already use these vocabularies to power rich, extensible experiences.

(If you plan to put things into microdata, please note that Apple, being Apple, go their own way, and don’t use a schema.org vocabulary here. Le sigh. See my article Content needs a publication date! for more. Or view source on this page to see how I’m using microdata on this article.)

Apple WatchOS also optimises display of items wrapped in <figure> elements:

Reader recognizes these tags and preserves their semantic styles. For this image, we use figure and figcaption elements to let the Reader know that the image is associated with the below caption. Reader then positions the image alongside its caption.

Apple Watch diagram showing how it lays out figures and captions if appropriately marked up

You probably know that HTML5 greatly increased the number of different <input> types, for example <input type=”email”> on a mobile device shows a keyboard with the “@” symbol and “.” that are in all email addresses; <input type=”tel”> on a mobile device shows a numeric keypad.

On desktop browsers, where you have a physical keyboard, you may get different User Interface benefits, or built-in validation. You don’t need to build any of this; you simply choose the right semantic that best expresses the meaning of your content, and the browser will choose the best display, depending on the device it’s on.

In WatchOS, input types take up the whole watch screen, so choosing the correct one is highly desirable.

First, choose the appropriate type attribute and element tag for your form controls.
WebKit supports a variety of form control types including passwords, numeric and telephone fields, date, time, and select menus. Choosing the most relevant type attribute allows WebKit to present the most appropriate interface to handle user input.

Secondly, it’s important to note that unlike iOS and macOS, input methods on watchOS require full-screen interaction. Label your form controls or specify aria label or placeholder attributes to provide additional context in the status bar when a full-screen input view is presented.

Apple Watch showing different full-screen keyboards for different email types

I didn’t choose to use <article> and itemprop and input types because I wanted to support the Apple Watch; I did it before the Apple Watch existed, in order that my code is future-proof. By choosing the right semantics now, a machine that I don’t know about yet can understand my content and display it in the best way for its users. You are opting out of this if you only use <div> or <span> because, by definition, they have “no special meaning at all”.

Summary

I hope I’ve shown you that choosing the correct HTML isn’t purely an academic exercise. Perhaps you can’t use all the above (and there’s much more that I haven’t discussed) but when you can, please consider whether there’s an HTML element that you could use to describe parts of your content.

For instance, when building components that emit banners and logos, consider wrapping them in <header> rather than <div>. If your styling relies upon classnames, <header class=”header”> will work just as well as <div class=”header”>.

Semantic HTML will give usability benefits to many users, help to future-proof your work, potentially boost your search engine results, and help people with disabilities use your site.

And, best of all, thinking more about your HTML will stop Dull Old Web Farts like me moaning at you.

What’s not to love? Have a splendid holiday season, whatever you celebrate – and here’s to a semantic 2019!

More!

Reading List

A (usually) weekly round-up of interesting links I’ve tweeted. Sponsored by Smashing Magazine who slip banknotes into my underwear so I can spend time reading stuff.

Reading List

A (usually) weekly round-up of interesting links I’ve tweeted. Sponsored by Smashing Magazine who slip banknotes into my underwear so I can spend time reading stuff.

How to invite a conference speaker

I received an invitation reading

Acme Inc is organizing and sponsoring Timbuktu’s biggest annual developer conference called “Timbuk-Toot!”. Past speakers include Richard Stallman, Morgan Freeman, Humphrey Bogart and Cruella de Vil.

Would you like to give a workshop or a talk at Timbuk-Toot! in February 2019?

Let me know!

And that was it. It’s not nearly enough information to make a decision, so —unless it’s from someone I know, or I’ve always always wanted to visit Timbuktu— I park this, thinking “I’ll email back and ask them for more information”. Then, of course, the rest of the day happens and I forget about it.

So, if you’re emailing someone to ask them to speak, at a minimum I’d need this information:

You need to tell me why I should care about it. You might be huge in the Timbuktu web industry, but I don’t know you. So far, all you have done is raise questions which means I have to reply to you and ask them, on top of all the other things I have to do today.

Don’t make me think!

Reading List

A (usually) weekly round-up of interesting links I’ve tweeted. Sponsored by Smashing Magazine who slip banknotes into my underwear so I can spend time reading stuff.

Reading List

A (usually) weekly round-up of interesting links I’ve tweeted. Sponsored by Smashing Magazine who slip banknotes into my underwear so I can spend time reading stuff.

Screenreader support for text-level semantics

There has been a couple of blogposts recently about text-level HTML semantics and assistive technology; for example, You’re using <em> wrong and Accessibility: Bold vs. Strong and Italic vs. Emphasis, the latter of which says

The Strong tag, <strong>, and the Emphasis tag, <em>, are considered Semantic Markup that allows for added meaning to your content. It serves as an indication to a screen reader of how something should be understood.

Whenever I read “some browsers” or “some screenreaders”, I always ask “but which ones?”, as did Ilya Streltsyn, who asked me “what is the current state of the text-level semantics in HTML reality?”

Léonie Watson to the rescue! Over Twitter, Watters wrote

Most are capable of reporting these things on demand, but do not as standard. So you don’t hear the text/font characteristics being announced as you read, but you can query a character/word etc. to discover its characteristics. This is based on the visual presentation of the text though, rather than through any recognition of the elements themselves (which as @SelenIT2 notes, are not mapped to the acc API).

Ilya (@SelenIT2) noted that “almost no text-level semantic element has a direct mapping to any accessible object”, linking to HTML Accessibility API Mappings 1.0 to demonstrate. This means that even if a screenreader vendor wanted to pass that information to a user, they can’t, because the browsers don’t expose the information to the Accessibility Tree that assistive technology hooks into.

Ilya also pointed my to a GitHub issue on the NVDA screenreader “Semantic support (not just style support) for del and ins on web pages”, in which the developers pose an interesting usability conundrum:

While I normally push for semantics over style, I’ve always found elements like this to be tricky. Strong and em, for example, don’t really mean anything to most people, even though they have more semantic meaning than bold or italic. That said, I think ins and del would mean more to most users semantically speaking…

It’s worth noting that we do support strike, super and sub. We just don’t report them by default. Also, while you make valid points, the reality is that we must always consider the concerns of our users over those of authors. If users find that it causes excessive verbosity, that is reason enough for this not to be a default…

Having emphasis reported by default has been extremely unpopular with users and resulted in a lot of complaints about NVDA 2015.4. The unfortunate reality is that emphasis is very much over-used in the wild. I had serious misgivings that this would be the result when we implemented this and it seems these unfortunately turned out to be quite warranted. As such, we’ve now disabled this by default, though the option is still there for those that want it.

So, should we stop using text-level semantics? Well, <strong>no</strong>. They continue to add meaning to sighted users, and as Watters says, some AT users can benefit from them. But don’t over-use them. Like adding title attributes to all your links, there’s such a thing as too much accessibility.