Handy Site ForWalking Info

A posting on The American Printing House for the Blind’s
blog turned me on to what seems to be a handy web site. Walk Score tries to tell you how walkable a given address will be based on proximity to items like stores, restaurants, coffee shops and more.

 

A quick trial of several places I’ve lived seems to show that the site is reasonably accurate. It is also much faster than using the various online yellow page options to search for various business categories and building your own list of what’s around.

Button, Button, Eliminate That Button

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article talking about a strong dislike for physical buttons on hardware by Steve Jobs. One of the things that’s frustrating to me about articles like this is the fact that the reporter rarely seems to apply what has been learned from other reporting to the story of the day.

 

I recognized the reporter, Nick Wingfield, as someone who wrote about web accessibility in the past for the Journal. I know back when I was talking more about web accessibility to the press I had several conversations and e-mail exchanges with Wingfield on the topic. While the focus of the article had nothing to do with accessibility, it would have been nice to see this touched on in talking about the implications of the design approach being emphasized.

 

Yet I see not one reference in the article to the accessibility implications of a world with touch screens, flat displays and devices that offer little in the way of tactile distinctiveness. There are approaches being explored to making such technology more accessible but in my opinion having completely flat devices makes accessibility much more complex.

A Bit of a Movie Discovery

Most everyone probably knows the old saying about what happens when you assume so I’ll skip repetition here. But I was operating under the assumption that the National Center on Accessible Media’s
Now Showing page listed all the theaters that had the potential of showing movies with audio description.

 

Not so I’ve subsequently learned. As one example I’ve come to discover that Regal Cinema has many theaters that have the ability to show descriptive movies and one is quite close to my house. In fact it tends to be the theater I go to most often for movies. Odd that the theater never informed me about this even when I asked about descriptive audio. Perhaps this will mean a bit less use of the Netflix account and more trips to the theater.

Endless Frustration

Summer in the Pacific Northwest tends to be absolutely beautiful. Temperatures rarely go above 80 degrees. Breezes offer just enough wind to keep things moving. Storms, as much as I sometimes miss them, rarely spoil the day. Mosquitoes and other flying insects are all but absent from the environment. All in all, as I say summer in the Northwest is pretty close to perfect in my book.

 

Notebook in hand, I decided to resolve a minor annoyance to make my summer even better. I have some Rockport sandals I wear just about all the time in the summer. Far and away they are the most comfortable sandals I’ve ever owned and I was looking to replace them because the bottom of one is wearing out.

 

I started my sojourn into sandal shopping at Endless.com. This is Amazon’s entry into the shoe market that, according to press accounts, is supposed to have a large selection, good prices and such. You know all the things that make the main Amazon.com site so popular for shopping online.

 

This was my first visit to Amazon’s shoe shop and it was another quick reminder of how far web accessibility still has to go. We can have all the accessibility guidelines and standards we want, but my experience is still far too often that web sites present a daunting set of accessibility challenges.

 

This isn’t an indictment of Amazon or Endless. I’m reasonably certain that if you asked the web site developers of these sites, or any site for that matter, if they wanted their pages to be accessible they’d answer in the affirmative. Getting to that point is, however, frequently a different story and I suspect that more often than not the web developers have little idea of whether their pages are accessible or not.

 

To me the questions that are important to answer revolve around what contributes to sites not being accessible and what can the entire web community do to improve things. Guidelines and standards are not enough.

 

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that web accessibility is frequently a moving target. The key to success is finding the sweet spot where site flare and pizzazz intersect with browser support of a technology and where those two meet up with assistive technology support for the end result. Frequently this will mean you may not have the absolute latest and greatest but my experience is also that it doesn’t mean you need to have the most basic and primitive web site.

 

Long term things like web aria (accessible rich internet applications) probably hold the key to making the next big leap in web accessibility. That said, there are steps that can be taken today that would improve site accessibility drastically based on my experience.

More awareness and end user testing with assistive technology would help immensely in improving web accessibility. The majority of technical issues that need to be sorted out today are not overly complex when you break them down to their basic components. Starting with the basic building blocks of HTML, and layering the richer experiences you want to create on top of this gets you most of the way. From time to time you’ll find an issue that needs more attention and then it is typically a case of working with the assistive technology industry to add support for a design situation that’s becoming commonplace.

 

That said, you could still easily end up with a site that met all kinds of technical standards for accessibility but that wasn’t very usable. I know that when I work with people on web accessibility our discussions are more productive when we talk about the end user experience that’s being created versus just the technical nuts and bolts of how to address things like alternative text, we make a lot more progress.

 

While this isn’t a comprehensive analysis, in the case of Endless, a few changes would improve accessibility and usability immensely. First off full use of alternative text, something that’s been a persistent problem with Amazon pages in my experience would help. Today there are too many instances of links that read like this:

 

200107210/ref=topnav_beta_b

homepage/ref=topnav_gw_b

homepage/ref=topnav_gw_b

 

Anyone who uses a screen reader is familiar with this sort of link. It represents a situation where alternative text has been skipped.

 

Category selections on Endless for limiting by size, brand, color and such could be created as full links instead of merely accepting mouse clicks. Finally more appropriate uses of HTML headings on category listing pages where the details about free overnight shipping instead of product names are headings today would improve navigation.

 

Technically none of these changes would be complicated. Given that the site is now live there would obviously be a need for more testing before making such changes but I suspect that had someone mentioned these changes at the time the site was being developed, none of these changes would have been refused.

 

We’ll see what sort of luck contacting Endless has in making progress. For now it is off to the nexe purveyor of summer footware to enjoy a bit more of summer strolling.

From the Road

This definitely comes from the partly too-much-technology department but this post is being written from the road. The road in this question is I-5 as we head back from Portland to the Seattle area.

 

I was curious how sharing the net connection on my cell phone would work to surf the web from my notebook. So far it is working well with about a 400K connection as we drive along.

 

We went to Portland for the weekend to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary.

 

This time we decided to stay in the heart of downtown Portland at the Paramount Hotel. The hotel isn’t bad but if it weren’t for a deal from Priceline, I’m not sure I would stay there again. It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with the hotel, more that aside from location I didn’t find anything unique or interesting about the hotel. And with several hotels in the downtown area, if we opt to stay in the downtown area again I’d probably see what other lodging in the area has to offer.

 

Staying in downtown Portland has some definite advantages though. Downtown Portland is a shining example to the pedestrian friendly nature of much of the entire city. It is of course no means perfect and as you get into the burbs, the U.S. car culture can obviously be seen more and more. That said, Portland is second only to San Francisco for the places I’ve lived in terms of being a genuinely pedestrian and public transit friendly location.

 

TriMet, Portland’s regional transit authority, offers numerous bus, light rail and even streetcar connections throughout the city. The downtown area is central to many of these transit alternatives. Staying in the area over the weekend reminded me of just how easy it can be in Portland without a car.

 

This is by no means to say that Portland is perfect. It isn’t but what strikes me each time I visit is how much more happens on the public transit front in the city compared to Seattle. I lived in Portland for about five and one half years and have been in Seattle for a year longer already. In the time I lived in Portland, the city expanded their light rail, known as MAX, to the west side and was well underway with a line to the airport. Since that time the airport route has become operational and construction on another route is well underway.

By comparison, Seattle seems stuck on the talk phase. Some progress has happened and I won’t pretend to be an expert but the region seems to lack both a driving coordination of a regional transit plan and the ability to get much done. Seattle in size is clearly not Portland and some of the transit challenges are different in Seattle but I’ve seen what can happen and believe the Seattle area falls short of the mark.

 

Our trip of course wasn’t about evaluation of public transit. Friday morning we headed over to Northwest Portland for breakfast at Besaw’s Restaurant. Absolutely perfect summer weather, an outdoor patio and good quality breakfast food made the dining experience topnotch. Of course the company was the most important thing.

 

Friday evening we went to McMenamins Crystal Ballroom to take in a concert from a band Aimee wanted to see called Galactic. The ballroom has a rich history and is good to catch live shows if dancing and such are what you want along with music. Seating is limited to a balcony above the main ballroom floor and the acoustics that result from this listing point have a bit of a barn-like echo. This was more noticeable during the opening act where the volume was a bit lower. I never did catch the name of this opening act but they rocked the early crowd.

 

Galactic took the stage about 10:15 PM. I wasn’t familiar with the band aside from Aimee’s brief description that they’d been described as playing funk and jazz. These are two genres of music that I prefer to experience live because recordings rarely capture the energy and variation that a live performance offers. I was impressed with what I heard which was good old rock music mixed together with some New Orleans style jazz. This is a band I’ll explore further.

 

Saturday afternoon we spent a few hours at the Waterfront Blues festival held at Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Another absolutely gorgeous northwest summer day and a wide range of music on the menu made the three hours we spent a great time. My music collection’s going to have to grow as an artist by the name of Liv Warfield that we listened to captured my attention.

 

Festivals like the one we attended usually have you walking around between various stages listening to snippets of music, taking in the various stands selling goods and in general strolling around. I had heard Liv singing in the background while we were walking around and wanted to hear more. Eventually we made our way to her performance and to my ears, this is one performer to listen to. She has a voice and presence that fills the room, which is saying a lot for an outdoor music festival. Her voice is full and the songs I heard spoke to many of the basic human emotions and experiences. Not being familiar with the artist, I’m not sure of the song titles yet but there was some of the standards found in music like love, dishonesty and in general the passion of life. We humans are certainly messed up at times but I guess it provides ample material for artists.

 

Saturday evening we met a longtime friend for dinner at Swagat, an Indian restaurant again in northwest Portland. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m pretty fickle n the food department but I’ve come to enjoy some of the spices associated with Indian food. My menu selections still tend to revolve around variation on the chicken and rice theme but I do enjoy quality Indian food. Swagat wasn’t outstanding but it is a place I’d go again.

 

Our trip is closing down as I said with our drive back up I-5 to Redmond. A web search for breakfast has us heading off to someplace called the Shipwreck café so we’ll see how that goes.

 

Closing out from the technology aspect of this posting, the net connection has remained solid for the entire drive thus far. The world is getting more connected daily. The part of me that studied journalism in college marvels how I can sit here composing these words as we drive and have them published online while I continue to ride in the car. It is a long way from the days of a manual typewriter and cut and paste operations that were the norm in my high school newspaper writing career. It is only the failure to bring one particular cable that’s stopping me from publishing some of the audio from our trip along with this post. That will have to wait until we get home.