[uf-discuss] Request for help from screen reader users from the BBC

Michael Smethurst Michael.Smethurst at bbc.co.uk
Thu May 29 02:26:04 PDT 2008

On 28/5/08 13:41, "Alasdair King" <alasdairking at gmail.com> wrote:

Hi Alasdair

Big thanks for this - really interesting and helpful. One or 2 comments

> Hi Michael,
> I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply any mendacity on your part. I'm
> fully appreciative and admiring of the BBC's long-term support for
> accessibility, including BETSIE, informal support for my BBC-using
> programs, and use of accessibility features like skiplinks. That said,
> I recognise the difficult legal, political and regulatory environment
> you're in: otherwise I'd be writing "Don't use microformats: publish a
> podcast of your programmes with DRM-free video and audio content with
> audio descriptions at the other end instead" and that wouldn't be
> helpful to you, right? Smile.

Yeah, fair cop. It's what we'd like too but as you say "due to the unique
way the bbc is funded etc etc etc" ;-)

Apologies for getting snarky - we've been trying to get an answer to this
for the last 6 months now
> I'm arguing the following:
> 1 You have a large potential base of non-technical, vision-impaired
> users. They really are not technical. They often don't understand the
> Windows Start menu, how Windows Explorer works, the difference between
> an executable and a shortcut on the desktop, the difference between
> HTML as opposed to text format email. They have a set of heuristic
> techniques and processes they have been shown by volunteers or nephews
> and follow them to perform the task they want to do. Some have JAWS,
> lots more have NVDA or Thunder, few know how to change their
> preferences or what that means. They turn on the computer and press
> the keys they have learned to press to do what they want, and that's
> it. If what they get out isn't what they expect, they'll try the keys
> again or restart the computer. It's incredibly time-consuming, but
> it's independent activity.

Yup, point taken. Still it would be nice to have real data to point to about
how users use screenreaders. Hopefully, we'll be doing this research soon

> 2 There was a recent discussion on the British Computer Association of
> the Blind mailing list about how hard blind users found the iPlayer
> pages: well-constructed, fully-accessible web pages, with accessible
> Flash embedded. Good, accessible design from the BBC as always, but
> still people having problems. Why? Because it's really difficult to
> use a screenreader, relative to a sighted person. The cost profile is
> higher and different, in formal usability terms. The solution (I
> believe) is to provide tools (programs) that let vision-impaired users
> do the things they want to do easily. For example, I have a
> well-regarded (free) Accessible BBC Listen Again program that scrapes
> your BBC Listen Again pages and presents the contents as an
> alphabetically-ordered list. Menus control the station. Hit Return to
> Play, Escape to Stop. Volume resets when you close the program in case
> the user accidentally turns it off and can't get any subsequent sound.
> The point is not to provide every feature of your Listen Again pages,
> like the links to the station websites, but to make it really really
> easy to do the core function: listen to the radio with just a few
> buttons.

It's tricky. Sometimes making a site accessible for one community makes it
less useable for another. In general we try not to ghettoise  users into
areas of (dis)ability but this sounds like something the bbc should support
on bbc.co.uk?!?

Anyway it sounds cool. I'll mail you off list for the details.
> I'd like to do this with your television stations, and with your old
> archived output when it's available. If you end up with a bunch of web
> pages I'll write a scraper/crawler, but if you use microformats it'll
> make it much easier and more reliable for me to produce a putative
> "Accessible BBC Archive" program. And if microformats spread from you
> to other sites, then more data will become machine readable and more
> simple tools or scripts for vision-impaired users will be possible.
> Hence my support.

Bbc.co.uk/programmes is designed to be machine accessible. For now this just
means schedules available as json and unflavoured xml:


But over time we'll add json, xml, yaml, rdf, ical, xspf, rss2, atom across
the app. So hopefully you'll never have to scrape screens again.

It does raise the question of whether it's worth supporting microformats. At
the moment the main driver for keeping them is the move towards indexing ufs
and rdf-a by yahoo etc. I'll keep people informed if those talks progress

A move toward rdf-a is still on the table

> 3 Working in web accessibility leads one to mix with highly-technical
> professional screenreader users. They should not, I argue, be your
> target audience. A highly-technical JAWS user will write a script to
> get round ABBR problems and distribute it to other users, or just use
> the webpages for sighted people, or turn off ABBR again. If
> microformats take off then Freedom Scientific will make sure that
> script ships with JAWS anyway, and all the vendors will follow suit. I
> am, therefore, as a professional working in software for
> vision-impaired people, not worried about the impact on screenreader
> users of the ABBR tag, since I think the temporary and minor
> disbenefits are outweighed by the major benefits.

I guess we're worried about closing off the use of abbreviations in domains
that need them. Things like share trading (stock ticker abbreviations),
travel (airport abbreviations) etc

We'd like to use microformats but with a more accessible alternative to the
abbreviation design pattern. But that prospect never seems to move any

Ideally we'd favour a move towards hiding data intended for machines but
know that that conflicts with the philosophy of microformats
> Finally, on people with cognitive problems: a significant proportion
> of the UK population has cognitive, literacy, and learning
> difficulties. How much time do you spend on their needs in web design?
> A far smaller proportion are screenreader users: how much time do you
> spend on their needs in web design - like now? There is a strong
> argument that the needs of people with cognitive problems are not
> properly addressed. I don't have any answers for that one, I must
> stress, but it does seem to me that the needs of screenreader users
> have historically been politically more important in web design -
> possibly because people with cognitive problems have more alternative
> technologies and sources of content, where for blind people the
> Internet is unique as a source of news, entertainment, communication
> and independence.

All true. We do spend quite a lot of time considering users with cognitive
difficulties. Although like you say probably a little less than time spent
on screenreader users. Whether that's true for other web publishers I can't

There's a wider study going on about usability for people with cognitive
difficulties on bbc.co.uk. We're planning to wrap some microformats research
into this. Again I'll report back

Anyway, thanks for your help. Much appreciated
> All the best,
> Dr. Alasdair King
> WebbIE
> http://www.webbie.org.uk
> On Tue, May 27, 2008 at 9:47 AM, Michael Smethurst
> <Michael.Smethurst at bbc.co.uk> wrote:
>> On 22/5/08 19:04, "Alasdair King" <alasdairking at gmail.com> wrote:
>>> Michael Smethurst wrote:
>>> "Of 4 users 2 had abbreviation expansion turned on."
>>> Ah, but what was your sample group? Were they, by any chance,
>>> highly-able professionals, probably with a business interest in web
>>> design and accessibility? Or were they little old ladies using Thunder
>>> or NVDA because those screenreaders are free?
>> The honest answer is I don't know. But I'm not sure why highly-able
>> professionals shouldn't be able to find out what's on telly tonight.
>>> Apparently JAWS has ABBR support off but ACRONYM on by default, which
>>> surprised me. Anyway, I have one user whose screenreader doesn't
>>> support ABBR (Thunder), and one who uses JAWS and leaves it off so
>>> far. I'll mail you details privately.
>> Thanks, any data appreciated
>> Abbreviation expansion is not our only problem. Screenreaders can also be
>> set up to read *all* title attributes - read tool tips and expand
>> abbreviations settings are orthogonal. With tool tips reading turned on
>> users get the full datetime read out when they float their mouse over the
>> abbreviation. Anecdotally this seems to be a far more common configuration
>> for partially sited users.
>>> Interestingly, I think your "what about people with cognitive problems
>>> getting confused?" point might be of more real-world importance, but
>>> since people cognitive problems are not as powerful politically they
>>> probably aren't a problem for you.
>> Don't want to sound prickly here but our intentions are strictly honourable.
>> We're not doing this to pick holes with microformats or tick bbc boxes or
>> avoid being sued. We're just a bunch of developers trying to do 'the right
>> thing'. Whether people with cognitive problems are politically powerful or
>> not if they can't use our site we're doing something wrong.
>> http://www.bbc.co.uk/
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