Sunday, July 16, 2017

What @laurenweinstein and @kevinmarks are saying about the unreadable web

During my time as a Motorola product manager, I occasionally had to deal with Section 508.

What is Section 508?

In June 2001 Section 508 of the Workforce Rehabilitation Act went into effect specifying the requirements for accessible Information and Communication Technology (ICT) that each federal agency needed to follow.

And if I skip over a lot of gobbledygook from the GSA page quoted above, we get to this:

Ensuring that government acquisitions of information and communication technology meet federal accessibility requirements for use by people with disabilities;

I'd guess that the majority of my readers have working eyes and ears, but what if you didn't? Section 508 and its related regulations ensure that you can still continue to read important blog posts like this one, and that you can get something out of pictures and visual content - even if you can't see the content.

(Confession: I was stymied as a product manager to figure out how Section 508 could apply to one of my scenarios, that in which a latent fingerprint examiner compared the ridges and bifurcations of two fingerprint images. Motorola wasn't selling a lot of latent workstations to the federal government when I was a product manager, but I was still musing about how a latent fingerprint examiner would compare images in the Section 508 world. How was he or she supposed to do this if blind - by a 3D physical representation of the contents of the screen? Tooltips ain't gonna help here.)

OK, now I'm going to show you a picture. Before I tell you where the picture came from, I'd like you to look at it and form your impressions. Don't worry about the words - just the general feel of the two images. Go ahead - I'll wait.

Now that you've looked at the picture, I'll give proper credit. This is taken from a post by Lauren Weinstein, and compares two separate blogs authored by Google. One of them uses a new visual format, while the other uses an old format. Can you guess which is new, and which is old?

Here, let me let Lauren help you answer that question.

Let’s compare the readability of two Google blogs. On the right, a recent item from Google’s main blog, which has converted to Google’s new low readability design. On the left, a recent entry from the Google Security Blog, which is currently still using the traditional high-readability design.

The differences are obvious, and the low contrast on the right is especially bad for persons with aging vision (this degrading of vision typically begins around age 18, by the way).

I should note that the terms "low readability" and "high readability" are not (obviously) used by Google itself, but were probably coined by Weinstein (or by someone else who doesn't care for the change). Weinstein is quite passionate about his dislike of the new format. He has not only expressed this dislike in the post that contained this comparison, but also in two prior posts on the topic.

How did we get into this mess in the first place? A Kevin Marks article in WIRED provides, background.

So why are designers resorting to lighter and lighter text? When I asked designers why gray type has become so popular, many pointed me to the Typography Handbook, a reference guide to web design. The handbook warns against too much contrast. It recommends developers build using a very dark gray (#333) instead of pitch black (#000).

The theory espoused by designers is that black text on a white background can strain the eyes. Opting for a softer shade of black text, instead, makes a page more comfortable to read....Schwartz himself admits the conclusion is subjective.

Another common justification is that people with dyslexia may find contrast confusing, though studies recommend dimming the background color instead of lightening the type.

Several designers pointed me to Ian Storm Taylor’s article, “Design Tip: Never Use Black.” In it, Taylor argues that pure black is more concept than color....Taylor uses the variability of color to argue for subtlety in web design, not increasingly faint text.

Marks also makes the point that designers often design in optimal conditions - the best screens in optimally-lit offices. The designs that look great in such conditions may be look so good when you're standing outside on a sunny day, squinting at a mobile phone.

But all of that doesn't matter, because the trend is established and anyone who doesn't implement unreadable text will be ridiculed as not having a modern interface. After all, minimalistic designs are cool.

The design professional's description of this page says that is "uses just enough color to draw the eye to important content on the site." Of course, Weinstein, Marks, and others say that it accomplishes this by making the allegedly unimportant content completely unreadable. Which of course raises the question - if you don't want people to read that text, why did you put it there in the first place? Why not just use some "lorem ipsum" stuff instead? That text is quite popular; I guess a lot of SEO experts are recommending it.

But there's still hope, because the people that insist on unreadable interfaces are the same people who still insist on mandatory periodic password changes (see my #empoexpiire series of posts) - even though NIST no longer recommends mandatory password changes. Eventually the unreadable interface crowd will be locked out of their accounts, or (more likely) someone will guess their deceptively easy password and modify their code so that the fonts are readable.
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