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Ten questions for Laura Carlson

15-July-06

Laura Carlson

Laura Carlson is an information technology professional with accomplishments in web standards design and development, CSS, (X)HTML, accessibility, usability, information architecture, photography, and digital imaging. Beyond these, she has expertise in higher education, management, organizational leadership, strategic planning, distance learning, training, learning technologies, instructional design, and technology documentation. Her education includes a Bachelors and Masters degree.

[1] Russ: What does your job entail at the University of Minnesota Duluth?

Laura: My job entails web design and development services, training, and research for UMD's Information Technology Systems and Services Department.

ITSS is a great place to work. It offers employees the opportunity to grow and improve professionally and to seek new challenges. I work with a group of highly motivated, creative people, who make my job fulfilling.

[2] Russ: When did you become interested in web standards - particularly in the area of accessibility?

Laura: I began my work in accessibility when I joined our department web team approximately eight years ago.

In 1999 I attended a Web Design Conference in Denver where Jeffery Zeldman gave a very inspirational keynote. After that I began to buy lots of books and study.

That lead to taking classes from the HTML Writers Guild. Kynn Bartlett taught a great seven-week Accessible Web Design class in 2001. I completed that class and his advanced accessibility class. I followed that up with a couple CSS classes. Eric Meyer taught the advanced CSS course back then. Eric's six-week course was very challenging and demanding. It had quite a bit of CSS theory as well as practice that helped me to understand why browsers behave as they do, what should be happening, and how to try to turn things to an advantage. Topics explored included: how selectors really work, why the cascade and specificity can turn your hair gray, techniques to overcome strangeness in line layout, media-specific and alternate styles, how doctype switching can make styling easier or harder, and a few ways to sneak past browser bugs without upsetting others.

[3] Russ: I've heard you provide accessibility services for client web sites. What do these services generally entail?

Laura: Accessibility guidance, evaluations, and audits are some of the services our department provides for the University of Minnesota Duluth community.

Conformance evaluation of web accessibility entails a combination of semi-automated evaluation tools and manual evaluation by experienced reviewers and user testing. Additional information on the evaluation process is available in Evaluating Web Sites for Accessibility. We do conformance testing for Section 508, University of Minnesota accessibility standards as well as selected W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). We also manually review accessibility features and markup. Many of the tools that we use are listed in the tool section of the Web Design Reference site.

[4] Russ: What are your overall feelings about WCAG 2.0 and the impact it will have on the development community?

Laura: At this point I am in agreement with many in the web standards development community. I've read WCAG 2.0 (the 27 April 2006 version) and found because of its technology-neutral approach and extensive jargon, the main document (which is the only normative one) is confusing and has flaws and loopholes. Gian Sampson Wild, in her Ten Questions Interview and Joe Clark in his ALA Article described many of the concerns well.

For educators the fact that the guidelines do not address the needs of people with learning and cognitive disabilities, as Lisa Seeman has illuminated in her Formal Objection to WCAG 2.0, is troubling. Techniques do exist that can greatly aid in making sites more accessible to this group and others. The techniques needed are simply an extension of those, which have already made the web successful. That is, intelligent use of graphic design, ease of use, and fault tolerance.

Also, two main concepts in WCAG 2.0, namely scope and baseline, have a real potential for abuse and exclusion. Accessibility is about inclusion. It's about ensuring that what you are offering is available to the largest possible audience. What it comes down to is the ability to access information. A complete focus on the user (all users) is derived from an understanding of why people are coming to your web site: Information. Accessibility is the effort toward providing equivalent access to the information to all, regardless of the methods they use to access it. Scope and baseline are dangerous concepts because they can shut people out. As Tim Berners-Lee has said, "The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect."

I'm hopeful that WCAG 2.0 will be an opportunity for developers, corporations, organizations, and governments to improve their own accessibility policies. Instead of exempting themselves from whatever they don't feel like complying with, these groups can prove they are socially responsible and equitable. They can demonstrate that they care about providing access to information to those who would otherwise be locked out and unable to use their web site.

I'm trusting that responsible web developers will take the approach of the poet Robert Frost in his poem 'Mending Wall':

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

Excerpt from "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost

Joe Clark and the WCAG Samurai's errata for, and extensions to WCAG 1.0 may help provide a viable solution for some developers.

For those who want to try to understand the new guidelines, it will take study. So it will be a marketing opportunity for people who provide training, author books, and also for companies who sell editing and evaluation software and tools.

[5] Russ: You run the Web Design Reference site - one of the hugest resources in this area on the web. How did it all start and how many resources do you currently have listed?

Laura: It all started when I took a HTML class in 1995. I began collecting references as part of my own web design and development education. The links were my bookmarks. In order to organize those bookmarks, I designed and created a web site. It grew with my interests. To use it as a teaching and learning tool for others, I made it public. It's all about education and sharing information.

The web site tries to address audience needs and interests by being committed to spreading news and knowledge of relevant subject matter. It advocates accessibility, usability, web standards and many related topics by providing information:

  • On making web sites obtainable and functional to largest possible audience.
  • For designing web sites that are effective, efficient, engaging, error tolerant and easy to learn.
  • Of web design and development theory and methods.

Approximately six thousand resources are currently listed. References include recent articles by knowledgeable authors, as well as the expected links to major organizations, events, and resources.

[6] Russ: I'm constantly amazed at how you are able to keep adding resources to the site - so that it is always current. How much time do you dedicate a week to maintaining such a large resource?

Laura: I don't track the time. It is a labor of love to which I donate much of my free time. For users to suggest new references, I have a Suggest a Link form on the site. I also keep a lookout for new items by subscribing to quite a few listservs and RSS feeds.

As for maintenance, link rot is a well-known problem for every web site. It is an ongoing battle on the Web Design Reference site too. I try to be very conscientious and not change, rename or remove internal URLs on the site. But external links are completely beyond my control. So on a regular basis I find and repair any dead or broken external links with a link-checking program. Bad links are corrected. Dead ones are eliminated. That certainly helps reduce the number of links on the site.

[7] Russ: For such a large reference site, articles are still very easy to find. Have you had to change the navigation system over time to accommodate the ever-increasing amount of links and categories?

Laura: The site had one major redesign in 2003. The redesign goals were to improve the navigation, to base the visual design on our campus templates, to eliminate all layout tables, and to be standards compliant, and accessible. Among the navigation improvements were:

  • The original drop-down navigation menu was eliminated in favor of a simple navigation list. Drop-down menus prevent users from seeing all their options in a single glance. They hide available navigation options so you can't see what is available without mousing over every menu. Unless you explore everything with your mouse - which some cannot do - you may never know that is buried under the menu. And it is known that Users Decide First; Move Second.
  • As a supplement to the global navigation, a breadcrumb trail was added to aid in access to higher and lower level pages in the web site. Breadcrumbs help users find their way back up to any higher levels and help provide context of how a page is nested.
  • Search was incorporated on each page because some users prefer to use a search engine to reach target content.
  • A site map was provided to assist users in conceptualizing the framework of the site.

Since the 2003 redesign, any changes have been refinements. The current design allows for adjustments and fine-tuning by having defined information regions that can be added to or refined as needs change.

I prefer this evolutionary model of web design instead of major redesigns, adding a feature here, revamping a feature there. As Gerry McGovern has said, it is best to "think twice before re-designing your website". And as Jared M. Spool has written there has been a "quiet death of the major re-launch".

[8] Russ: What is the Web Design Update Newsletter? Is it available to the general public?

Laura: The Web Design Update is a plain text email digest dedicated to disseminating news and information about web design. It typically goes out once a week as an adjunct to the Web Design Reference site. The purpose of the newsletter is to announce new web site content. Whenever new articles are linked to the Web Design Reference site, a Web Design Update newsletter message is sent to the listserv.

Yes, all web designers and developers are invited to join the webdev listserv and receive the Web Design Update newsletter. The number of subscribers is over 1000.

The idea for the newsletter was sparked by UMD's Information Technology Systems and Services, Web Team's revival of its webdev listserv. Previously I had shared my research and web site updates solely with the ITSS Web Team via private email. With the revival of the webdev listserv, the web team asked me to send updates to the list.

In July of 2002 I founded the newsletter. I research relevant topics, write, and edit, produce, and send the weekly email. As of June 30th, I have published 208 issues (52 issues x 4 years).

I have a basic template for the newsletter. As a navigation aid for screen readers I try to conform to the accessible Text Email Newsletter (TEN) guidelines.

The newsletter is distributed via listserv. Last year we converted our mailing lists from a ListProc server to a new Mailman server. There are some advantages, including automatic archiving of posts.

[9] Russ: I've heard you provide training. Who are your main audiences and what do your courses focus on?

Laura: Our training is only for University of Minnesota Duluth faculty, staff, and students. Courses focus on web development and accessibility.

Most recently I have been teaching an eight-week online course in web accessibility. Instead of the regular face-2-face workshop format, we use Web Crossing technology. We teach actual accessibility techniques as well as accessibility theory. Extremely high quality learning occurs outside of the traditional classroom with this approach.

[10] Russ: Finally, What excites you about the web right now?

Laura: What excites me about the web right now is the same as what excited me ten years ago, namely its potential for information and knowledge exchange and its and wide ranging possibilities for education. There is little doubt that the web is the most phenomenally successful educational vehicle to have appeared in a long time. Its application in distance education is unquestioned. I believe that it can help achieve excellence in teaching and learning.

The future of the web offers new opportunities for the imagination. I hope people dive in with their dreams and ideas to do important work, and have some fun in the process.

Russ: Thank you for the interview!
Laura: You're welcome, Russ. It has been a honor and a pleasure.

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