Accessibility: Today's Techniques and Tomorrow's Web

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Moving from Accessibility to Universal Access – Bridging Today’s Techniques and Tomorrow’s Web
Presented by: Cory Knobel, Optavia Corporation
Contact [email protected]

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

View Past Workshop Transcripts


You can read the complete transcript of this workshop.

As the Internet moves off the desktop screen and into other aspects of our daily lives, questions and issues of universal access to information and device mobility are becoming increasingly important. Understanding the separation between information and the way it is delivered at is the heart of accessible design.

While today’s accessibility focus lies primarily in designing for people with disabilities, the underlying philosophies and techniques will become the basis for tomorrow’s universally accessed Web. Providing information that is delivered in a variety of modes, through a variety of devices, has become an integral factor in many web sites’ success. This worshop presentation provided a forum for understanding accessibility as it is applied today.

Participants discussed accessibility’s progression from design for disabilities to design for universal access to information, and finished with an interactive discussion of tomorrow’s universal and mobile web.

Key Highlights

  • Learn about the fundamental concepts of Web accessibility
  • Prepare your web site’s content for mobile delivery
  • Understand what your mobile users want and need
  • Gain a new understanding of universal access to information.

Workshop Transcript

Session Moderator: Welcome everyone, and thank you for joining us today! I'm Gail Perry, the managing editor at AccountingWEB and I'll be your moderator for this workshop.

I'm pleased to introduce Cory Knobel, who will be presenting a workshop on Moving from Accessibility to Universal Access - Bridging Today's Techniques and Tomorrow's Web.

Cory Knobel, Knowledge Integration Manager for Optavia Corporation, brings a multidisciplinary background to the human-computer interaction industry as a project manager, knowledge manager, and accessibility and user interface design consultant.

Cory teaches and speaks at local, regional and national conferences, and has consulted with Fortune 500 organizations nationwide.

Cory assists clients in leveraging user-centered techniques to guide project development and increase product quality.

He introduces and teaches principles of user interface design methodology and accessible Web technology for organizations nationally, focusing on user-centered design and universal access to information.

He also researches current developments in emerging technology, and integrates ongoing knowledge management into Opticians consulting practices.

Cory is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (go Badgers!) with a background in mathematics, neuroscience, and linguistics. He also is an alumnus of Up With People, an international educational service organization where he collected experience on international and global issues and perspectives.

Welcome Cory, and thank you for taking the time to be with us today!

Cory Knobel: Thank you, Gail. I'm glad to be here.

I would like to start off by thanking for having me here today to present about the current state of web accessibility, and how its implementation is shaping the future of people's experiences with the mobile Web. I'd also like to thank Scott Cytron of Cytron & Associates for being the catalyst of this presentation, and AccountingWEB's Kelly McRae for her guidance and help with logistics.

A couple of things before we start:

Feel free to ask questions at any time. I'll be presenting some dense bits of information. Please don't hesitate to ask me to clarify anything.

If you have any experiences that relate to mobile technology, please jump in and share them! Both successes and "war stories" are welcome.

If there are more questions at the end, I'm completely open to offline dialogues, and can be reached at [email protected].

Moving from Today's Web Accessibility to Tomorrow's Mobile Devices.

Cory Knobel: I'll begin with a brief description of web accessibility - a term that is appearing more frequently in technology culture, but is still misunderstood or misinterpreted.

I'll also reference some of the standards and guidelines in place that define what it means to be accessible on the Web. After establishing where things are today, we'll talk about:

  • How the needs, demands, and expectations of technology users are changing
  • How technology is changing to meet those needs
  • How accessibility serves as a roadmap to get from here to there
  • How you can position the development of your Web technology to accommodate these changes

Cory Knobel: Before we begin, are there any questions I can answer outright?

What is accessibility?

Cory Knobel: The term accessibility has most commonly been used in referring to accommodating the needs of people with disabilities. It has roots in traditional ergonomics, industrial and biomechanical engineering, education, and more recently, cognitive engineering.

Codification of the importance in accommodating these needs can be readily seen through the Americans with Disabilities Act and American Rehabilitation Act. Looking at history, however, implements for people with disabilities are readily adopted by the general population without awareness of the original intent

An everyday example of designing with accessibility in mind is "curb cuts" - the indentations in sidewalks that lower to street level. Originally designed for people in wheelchairs, they are now commonly used by people on bicycles, people with strollers and luggage, rollerbladers, and a number of other people with transitory, but immediate, situational needs.

So it is with the Web.

People with various disabilities have the same need for access to information through the Web as anyone else, and it stands to reason that this entitlement would necessitate a shift in both thought and technology to accommodate those needs.

Most often, a disability represents the loss of one or more modalities - vision, hearing, or physical ability. Creating technology to function without relying on a specific modality is at the heart of accessibility.

There are two major sets of accepted standards currently in place to guide these development efforts.

  • The first is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) of the World Wide Web Consortium or W3C (; a global non-profit organization of academics, practitioners, and industry players that sets recommended standards of Web usage.

    WCAG ( sets forth fourteen general guidelines and sixty-five specific checkpoints that must be addressed to accommodate people with disabilities and the assistive technologies that are commonly used to gain access to Web information.

  • The other set of standards in the United States, quickly becoming a buzzword in industry, is Section 508 ( This is an amendment to the American Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which regulates the information technology production and procurement practices of all Federal agencies.

In simpler terms, all IT aspects of the Federal government must comply with these accessibility guidelines, and all IT purchases made by the Federal government must adhere to the same guidelines.

Compliance has become a major concern for private IT industries, as they are in danger of losing Federal government contracts if products do not meet with the recommended guidelines. The impact on the financial status of many companies is immeasurable, as compliance to Section 508 represents not only a competitive advantage, but also now a competitive necessity.

How does this relate to the rest of the population - those who do not rely on assistive technologies to gain access to the Web?

The proliferation of wireless palm devices, Web-enabled cell phones, wearable computers, information kiosks, voice-response telephony, and a host of other mobile and alternative access devices in use by the population-at-large draw upon the same principles of multimodality that have driven advances for people with disabilities.

It is believed that within this decade, the number of Web-enabled mobile devices will outnumber stationary workstations in the United States, and that the margin will continue to increase indefinitely.

One example of this design philosophy is the introduction of on-board computers in automobiles. Interactive GPS systems are becoming more standard, as are computers to coordinate telephone calls, e-mail, and Internet browsing capabilities while driving.

In terms of accessibility, an on-board computer, or AutoPC, must be designed according to the same principles as designing for populations with multiple disabilities.

While driving, the user's ability to devote visual attention to a display screen or interface is severely limited, and poses potentially life-threatening hazards.

The same can be said of the physical ability to manipulate computer controls instead of keeping hands on the wheel. Research into auditory navigation and voice-command systems seeks to remedy these limitations.

Another aspect to the AutoPC is one of cognitive limitation. Awareness of the environment while driving demands a significant amount of attention. Fragmenting this awareness to operate a computer again holds the potential to create dangerous situations.

Creating methods of finding and rendering information in a way that does not significantly detract from pulling attention is parallel to designing for people with cognitive and attention disorders.

Obviously, the need to accommodate these situational limitations will increase in proportion with the infiltration of mobile technology into our culture. Methods of accessing information, and the devices used, will need to become as flexible as the changing environments in which they are employed.

Focusing on the Changing User

Cory Knobel: The expansion of mobile access has also spawned a change in the expectations users have of information technology. The changes can be explained by following a simple W5H questioning process:


As technology becomes cheaper, devices are landing in the hands of more and more populations, many formerly excluded from the Web due to cost. As a result, the levels of education, literacy, technology savvy, age, etc., have become widely variable. A deeper understanding of target users, and designing for their situations, has become critical.

What and Why?

The base answer has not changed. People use technology for three main reasons:

  1. To find information
  2. To perform a transaction (not always a financial one, but this is a significant category)
  3. To be entertained

Cory Knobel: Even as mobile computing expands, I believe it unlikely that these three reasons will vary significantly in the near future. I also believe that information will remain the core utility of the Web.


This is another rapidly expanding area. The simple answer is everywhere. As computing becomes ubiquitous, the transition between real-world interaction and online interaction becomes more seamless.

The Web is evolving to become very much like the "electrical grid." It is always there, always on, wherever and whenever you are. It's just a matter of how you plug in. The evolution of mobile devices will continue to push this envelope.


The expectation that is evolving among users of mobile technology is this: "I want exact information delivered to me in the most appropriate and efficient way for my current state or situation."

If a person is checking e-mail over a Web-enabled cell phone that reads messages aloud, that person (in the moment) does not care how the interface looks or reacts when sitting behind a desk, looking at a 17-inch monitor.

Delivering the requested information in the most efficient modality has become a louder and louder demand of the mobile user population. In response, different devices of varying size and modality are being created every day. The major challenge is to create a flexible and convenient device that adapts to changing user situations and contexts.


This is, in my opinion, one of the most radical changes in user expectations of Web technology.

Until recently, we all understood that if we wanted to find information on the Web, we would have to take the time to sit down at the computer, dial in, and engage a standard interface. We had to make time for it, and we had to seek out the environment in which we could do our work. This is no longer the case.

According to reports by Forrester and Zona Research, users of traditional Web technology (PC access), have a threshold of 8 to 12 seconds before the cost-benefit of waiting for engaging information expires. We have become impatient and see it as our right to have instant information.

I think a good characterization of this is seen in Roald Dahl's popular children's book, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. One character, a horribly spoiled young girl named Veruca Salt, led the charge with a battle cry of "I want it NOW!"

With respect to access of Web information, we have become a culture of Veruca Salts. We see instant delivery of information, exactly what we want in the way we want it, as our inalienable right, and we become ill tempered when we are not accommodated.

This is particularly applicable to the financial industry, as certain types of information and transactions are limited not by situation, but by time.

Stock trading, account checking, and communications which drive businesses can have critical expiration dates. We want our information, and we want it now, no matter where we are. This is one of the promises of mobile technology.

Unfortunately, expectations of the devices have frequently raced ahead of our ability to effectively design the delivery. This creates a challenge in maintaining effective CRM systems for a growing mobile user base. As seen over and over in business, the customer only has to be let down once before switching loyalties to a better promise.

So, how do we deliver on the promise of mobile technology?

How are devices and information changing to meet these needs?

In truth, they are evolving to accommodate multimodal access and fluid situational contexts, frequently striving for the principles of accessibility, yet far too infrequently utilizing established guidelines and standards that can efficiently focus efforts and foster an understanding of "why we're doing what we're doing."

A large factor in this may be a simple lack of awareness that such guidelines exist. Another significant factor may be the common association that accessibility addresses only the needs of people with disabilities.

A shift in thought needs to occur in both business and technology cultures that accessibility is not simply about a user group with specific needs, but is about universal usability.

The aim of accessibility, and ultimately of universal usability, is the ability to interact with the Web anytime, anywhere, in a way that is:

  • Situationally sensitive
  • Safe
  • Efficient
  • Timely (fast)
  • Flexible
  • Easy and intuitive
  • Non-intrusive
  • Personalized
  • and experientially satisfying

Cory Knobel: The balance of these factors, while daunting, can be readily achieved by following a design process that focuses on the specific needs of users, methods of accessibly structuring information, and capitalizing on the modality of deployment devices.

Cory Knobel: Before I move on, are there any questions?
Session Moderator: How does cost play into all this?
Cory Knobel: That's a great question, Gail.
Cory Knobel: I'll be touching on some cost issues later, but the general rule for implementing accessibility is this...

The earlier in the development process it starts, the less it will cost in the long run.

It follows the same pattern as is found in most traditional software development process literature - that the cost to make a change at the analysis phase is roughly 100 times less than addressing it at rollout.

Of course, the cost will depend on the scale of the project, but there are many points in the development cycle which can be quickly and cheaply implemented to ensure that you are following the right path.
Cory Knobel: Did that answer your question adequately?
Session Moderator: yes - thank you!
Cory Knobel: Great. Let's move on to talking about how accessibility moves in two directions.

As businesses and individuals who are putting information out on the Web, we have little to no control over the specific device a particular user will choose to access our information. What, then, can we actively do to promote the accessibility and universal usability of our messages and services?

It is important to note that accessibility moves in two directions. First, as we have seen, the modal capabilities of a specific device govern the delivery of our information. We don't design the devices, so many assume that we are at the mercy of the hardware. There is another aspect of design that is completely under our control - the structure of the information content itself.

A good place to start is with a document I mentioned earlier, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines from W3C. Gaining familiarity and expertise in applying the guidelines maximizes the likelihood that your content will be ready for most devices, and will render effectively in multiple modalities.

If you work with Federal clients, or clients who serve the Federal government as an IT vendor, a thorough knowledge of Section 508 is necessary. Most of these guidelines are directly adapted from WCAG, so there is a significant amount of overlap.

Beyond adherence to these guidelines, there are some specific technologies to explore in accommodating the evolving mobile world. Perhaps the most significant is XML.

XML or eXtensible Markup Language is a way of providing context to pieces of information by assigning predetermined definitions, classifications, or categories. For example, in HTML a street name is entered the same way as a last name - simply a string of text.

If you were to search for someone named "Smith" who lives on "Johnson" street, you would get a list of everyone on Johnson Street, as well as everyone with the last name of Johnson and everyone living on Smith Street.

With XML, you could designate content as Smith and Johnson, thus narrowing down queries more effectively and efficiently.

There is within XML, a specified set of tags - a custom dictionary, if you will - that has been adopted by the financial industry. XBRL.

It contains a pre-defined set of XML tags that have been adopted as an industry standard and is supported by the AICPA. This allows all XBRL tagged databases across the financial industry to perform apples-to-apples functions, since all of the data is contextually defined.

The true power of XML for mobile devices comes through its conjunctive use with another Web technology - XSLT, or eXtensible Style Language for Transformation.

XSLT is to XML as cascading style sheets (CSS) are to HTML. They control the presentation of content based upon the delivery device.

Usually, a content provider will have multiple XSL style sheets available. When a user connects, the server will detect what type of device is being used, and will serve up the appropriate style sheet, thus rendering the content in a device-customized manner, capitalizing on the device's modal capabilities.

This allows businesses to optimize the user experience with their content by accommodating the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the individual user. Since the content is tagged through XML, the company can control what pieces of information can be viewed on a particular device, and in what order.

This, of course, is a more expensive and time-consuming endeavor, as it requires investment in converting to an XML-based content strategy, research into a multitude of devices being used by target users, development of any number of XSL-based style sheets, as well as hardware expenditures on specialized transformation servers that can detect different devices, both mobile and stationary, and serve up the associated style sheet and content.

Where do we begin in addressing all of this? Let's talk about what we can do today, and what is coming up tomorrow in accommodating this mobile world.

The organizational conversion to being prepared for tomorrow's mobile-computing based world does not happen overnight. Embracing the change as a process is key in making a smooth transition.

The first step is defining your organizations need to engage in the mobile world. Some organizations are ready for it, while many are not. Analysis of your target users needs, wants, habits, environments, and attributes while accessing your information can guide these initial decisions.

The second step is in education and awareness. Building accessibility knowledge in-house, or contracting a qualified external consultant, is a good first move.

In my experience, simply charging an internal person with "Go and learn about accessibility" is not particularly productive, as many aspects of accessibility and universal usability are based upon interpretation of various guidelines, strong familiarity with a specialized vocabulary and set of concepts, and experience in wading through the intimidating amount of literature on the subject. Guidance can set your organization on the right track.

The next effective step lies in proceeding with accessibility initiatives on two parallel tracks - strategic and tactical.

The strategic component involves adopting a user-centered philosophy on an organizational level, from top management down, from business strategy to development, from implementation to CRM. Providing a unified stance that stems from an understanding of the issues on all levels is key in a successful move to tomorrow's Web.

The tactical level involves gathering the tools and resources to pull this off, as well as gaining a mastery of the techniques associated with analysis, design, development, evaluation, and deployment.

Educating designers, developers, content managers, sales personnel, network staff, and managers in the construction of accessible interfaces, content, coding, and network solutions is necessary to deliver a quality product - your valuable information - to an increasingly demanding and mobile customer base.

Cory Knobel: At this point, I'd like to open the workshop to questions.
Cory Knobel: Has anyone taken part already in a project that involved implementing a mobile strategy?
Cory Knobel: Or, alternatively, has anyone experienced needing to address accessibility issues with their technology?

Michael Heines: Cory, I hate to be a party pooper and recognize that I am not conversant in mobile technology, but as the administrator of an accounting firm I'm curious as to what information I can provide to staff and or clients that requires the type of mobility that you are discussing
Cory Knobel: Michael...are you asking about the forward-looking mobile needs, accessibility needs as they are applied now (mostly for people with disabilities), or both?

Jordan Miles: No experience with rolling one out, but definitely I have seen some situations where employees are on site and need data, etc.
Cory Knobel: Jordan....good point. Yes, for many companies, on-site access to centralized databases through mobile devices is becoming increasingly common, and will continue to grow.

Michael Heines: From what you have been discussing I'm under the impression that the scope is limited to hand held mobile devices vis-à-vis mobile phones and how data can be interpreted most successfully on these limited devices
Robert Keister: I'm considering mobile applications (palm type devices) for employee time input for a construction company with several remote jobsites. The overhead savings will pay for the system in no time....
Cory Knobel: Right now, hand-held devices are the most common, yes. However, technology is branching in different directions that go beyond the hand-held world.
Michael Heines: Are you addressing the needs of people with disabilities or using the guidelines provided by the ADA and other recommending authorities as a guideline for future mobile communication?
Cory Knobel: Michael - that's the idea. The philosophy of design for mobile and access for disabilities is the same.
Cory Knobel: Yes, I'm recommending that people developing for mobile look to these guidelines.
Michael Heines: I view wireless technology quite different from the limited hand held devices that are currently marketed and recognize that future technologies will once again provide additional capabilities
Cory Knobel: ADA, Section 508, W3C WCAG, etc....exactly right.

Cory Knobel: The capabilities are constantly evolving. However, I think that the core reasons we want the information, as well as the ability of people to digest it, will not move as quickly as the technology.

Mobile technology, and the way we interact with mobile interfaces, revolves around changing and limiting situations.

Michael Heines: If that is the case that way at the beginning of the conversation you mentioned auditory and verbal response as a possibility to keep ones attention focused "on the road" if following guidelines established by the ADA does that not eliminate the deaf from having this ability to communicate and drive safely?
Cory Knobel: For example with a traditional palm pilot, it is still reliant upon visual contact, and manual dexterity to tap the screen.

Cory Knobel: Regarding the AutoPC question...yes it does.

As of yet, there has been little to no success in creating the one device that handles all modalities in all contexts.

However, the structuring of information itself in a way that can be delivered in multiple ways allows users to choose the device that is most appropriate for their modal needs, and allows companies to only have one source of information or content.

Michael Heines: Thank you Cory for providing us with the cutting edge information, I guess I'll have to take a wait and see attitude to see how information I want to get out is best suited to this type of communication.
Cory Knobel: Michael, I'd be happy to continue this offline, You raise several good and valid points.

Session Moderator: Thank you so much, Cory, and everyone, for sharing your time with us today!
Cory Knobel: Thank you, Gail, and everyone for your time. As I said, feel free to contact me with further questions at [email protected]


Cory Knobel, Knowledge Integration Manager for Optavia Corporation, brings a multidisciplinary background to the human-computer interaction industry as a project manager, knowledge manager, and accessibility and user interface design consultant. Cory teaches and speaks at local, regional and national conferences, and has consulted with Fortune 500 organizations nationwide.

Cory assists clients in leveraging user-centered techniques to guide project development and increase product quality. He introduces and teaches principles of user interface design methodology and accessible Web technology for organizations nationally, focusing on user-centered design and universal access to information. He also researches current developments in emerging technology, and integrates ongoing knowledge management into Optavia’s consulting practices.

Cory is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a background in mathematics, neuroscience, and linguistics. He also is an alumnus of Up With People, an international educational service organization where he collected experience on international and global issues and perspectives.

Speaking Topics/Areas of Expertise

Leveraging Usability to create a customer-centered Web experience.

  • Practical approaches to usability testing.
  • Information Architecture.
  • Implementing Section 508 standards and W3C guidelines.
  • Web Accessibility: Creating web pages that work effectively for more people in more situations.
  • Moving from Accessibility to Universal Access – Bridging Today’s Techniques and Tomorrow’s Web.
  • Integrating user-centered design into project development.
  • Usability testing protocol.

Member of Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA)

Associate Member of HFES (Human Factors and Ergonomics Society)

Professional member of Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)

Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) and Special Interest Group on E-Commerce (ECOMM)

Member of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) special interest group on Usability

Member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group (WCAG WG)

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