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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Birth of the Cool

"Birth of the cool," The first album Released by Miles Davis as a bandleader, radically changed the way we would perceive American music forever.  It contained the seeds that would take us from standard bebop into modern jazz.  Recently, Joe Lavano released a new album with help from the great Günter Schuler, one of the original members of the Miles Davis band that made the historical recording back in the late 1940s.  The new album preserves in a near museum like manner the original Gil Evans arrangements but introduces us to how they would be played by some of today's hottest musicians.  If you're a jazz fan I strongly recommend checking this album out.

The release of "Birth of the Cool" also introduced the word "cool" into popular American English describe something other than temperature.  Today, nearly 60 odd years later, virtually all Americans understand what one means when they say "Samuel L. Jackson may just be the coolest man in history."

Over these same 60 years, the value of "cool" has increased dramatically and I'm certain that somebody at a business school or some MBA type somewhere has some equation that can be applied to the market value of the relative "cool" of a product.  Thus, companies that sell consumer products, especially those who want to sell products to young people, do whatever they can to maximize what I will call "the cool quotient."

I fully understand why Apple products, especially the iPod, seem "cooler" than their competitors.  Apple Computer spends far more time and money on maximizing the cool quotient in their products than do their competitors.  This makes sense for a product like the iPod as its primary selling factor is the "coolness" of the device.

What happens, though, when the "cool quotient" causes problems with accessibility?  Furthermore, why do authors of products with little or no "cool" potential waste their time and development dollars making flashy, nonstandard and fundamentally inaccessible interfaces for their software?

Recently, I bought a USB Blue Tooth dongle to use to test some of my programs.  The dongle is tiny, pops right into my USB port and, unlike my previous Bluetooth dongle, chose to be incompatible with the Windows hardware profile for such a device.  Kensington, the manufacturer of this product, for no reason apparent to me chose to add a bunch of useless software on top of their hardware and by doing so they threw away the convenience of what is usually a "plug and play" experience.  To make matters worse, all of their so called value added software was very difficult to use with a screen reader.  Virtually all other brands that make USB dongle's are happy to have their customers just plug the thing in and start working, perhaps with a few settings you might want to tweak in the Windows Control Panel where standard Blue Tooth devices are configured.  What, if anything, did Kensington improve with its "cool" interface to what is ordinarily a highly standard and highly accessible type of hardware?

This morning, I went into my home office with the intent of hooking up my brand-new APC UPS.  When you live in the county where people have the highest probability of being struck by lightning in the entire United States, one takes continuous power supplies and surge protection very seriously.  I attach the cable from the UPS to one of the USB ports in the back of my trusty old Dell desktop and inserted the setup CD.  The installer read nicely with JAWS and I thought things were going smoothly.  Then, I ran its configuration program.  I found that I can get some information by poking around with the JAWS cursor but I received no indication whatsoever about whether or not I could click on something, change a setting or do anything else.  With the PC cursor turned on all that JAWS would say is "blank" and the tab key and other standard navigation keys did absolutely nothing.  What could the APC developers be thinking when they decided to make a nonstandard interface to the configuration program for uninterruptible power supply?  What can possibly be "cool" about an UPS device?

For the past six months or so I've been dabbling in some.net programming using Visual Studio.net 2005.  With the scripts written by the guys on the blind programming mailing list (available on the empowermentzone website and, soon, on hofstader.com), a blind programmer can do a credible job of slapping together a very usable, albeit not likely very pretty, user interface.  To remove basic accessibility from an application built using the Visual Studio designer actually requires extra effort.  So, companies like APC and Kensington are probably using older tools but, nonetheless, ignore accessibility entirely in hopes of having a unique or "cool" interface to products that at best have a very low "cool quotient."

Other products that seem superfluously inaccessible because of an attempt by their authors to create a "cool" interface include spam filters, virus protection products and other security related programs.  The only time a person with or without a disability cares to interact with such software is when they're installing it and when something has gone terribly wrong.  Lots of flashy graphics, animations and other user interface elements intended to make the product look "cool" has nothing to do with the purpose of such products whose users rarely interact with them and, when they do, they may be in a total panic.

Of course, even the programs with the highest potential "cool quotient" with the most extremely nonstandard interface can be made accessible with a minimal amount of extra effort on behalf of its developers.  When it comes to these programs I'm frankly quite sick and tired of hearing mainstream developers first say, "for our audience it has to be very, very cool..." and, even worse, "we'll build a separate, text only version for your people."  Returning to Thurgood Marshall, "separate but equal isn't," so my advice to the mainstream developers of the world is to make your software or website as cool as you want but, follow the well-established accessibility standards and guidelines and learn principles of universal design and you can make super cool programs and websites that can be enjoyed by everyone -- with or without a disability.

Afterward

Recently, I've read a few things in Blind News about Google's accessibility improvements.  While I applaud Google for making the effort to create an accessible search facility, I am discouraged by their approach to solving this problem.  Only a tiny fraction of users with vision impairment who use computers require a special, text only interface to Web content.  Dr. Raman has made tremendous contributions to the world of computing for people with vision impairment but, it's time to realize that it's no longer 1985 in that text only solutions are no longer necessary nor optimal for blind computer users.

Google should reevaluate this strategy and choose a path that follows the guidelines and standards that have been widely adopted for Web accessibility.  Access technology software that are not compliant with the user agent guidelines do not provide the level of access necessary to level the playing field for people with disabilities.  As I say above, separate but equal isn't and suggesting that developers, web or application, maintain separate interfaces for each group of people that may have different use needs is simply ridiculous.

In my well-informed opinion, the solution to universal accessibility will only be achieved with universal standards exposed by technologies and then read by as many different user agents as necessary to serve as interfaces for as many different use cases as possible.

Returning to the Google example, a user who prefers a text only console for doing their work can use a text-only web browser as long as said browser is compliant with the user agent guidelines.  If such text only browsers, most popular on the GNU/Linux platforms do not comply with the user agent guidelines, that is not the fault of web developers but, rather, of the people who work on such browsers.  In the GNU/Linux case, the source code to at least two text-only browsers is freely available so anyone with a few programming chops can make them compliant with the user agent guidelines.  Thus, I respectfully request that the anachronistic, text only aficionados shut up and program instead of whining at the world of technology has progressed since 1984.

-- End

2 Comments:

Anonymous Scott Rains said...

I especially appreciate the way you set up your argument.

The "Cool Quotient" is one fiercely-held marketing orthodoxy. By assuming, but never examining, the functional diversity of potential customers it prevents designers, coders, product managers, and many others from adopting the Universal Design paradigm. As such it works against the basic purpose of marketing - to sell more widgets.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Chairman Mal said...

Howdy comrades!
BC hits the nail on the head of the old mother board once again! The current notion of cool is simply cruel to far too many folks who haven’t the physical abilities or the technical chops to deal with these nonstandard interfaces. There’s always been a tendency for capitalists to add bells and whistles to existing products hoping to fool the gullible consumer into purchasing a product that seems more modern. I remain convinced, however, that the revolution is beginning and Universal Access will replace old notions of cool. Baby boomers with trillions of bucks to spend and with diminishing vision will demand products that are friendly to nonvisual consumers. Regards, chairman Mal: Power to the peeps!

12:30 AM  

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