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Making an online multimedia encyclopedia accessible: by trial & error or by design?

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Neil Minkley

Director, Products Division - Hachette Multimédia  

As a publisher of a multimedia encyclopedia on CD-ROM, aware of the need to prepare for the transition to Internet-based applications and services, Hachette Multimédia created, in 1998, a Web site dedicated to encyclopedic knowledge.

The site was tested by BrailleNet and declared "accessible".

This not only came as a good surprise for Hachette Multimédia but also materialized in the form of an award that BrailleNet honoured us with in the Summer of 2000.

This event marked the beginning of a fruitful relationship between Hachette Multimédia and BrailleNet.

In the Spring of 2000, before the above-mentioned event, we had undertaken the development of an online version of our encyclopedia.

As of September 2000, our encyclopedia went online on a number of French-language Web portals, namely, in chronological order of appearance: Club-Internet, Wanadoo, Voila, Yahoo! and AOL.

We had indeed signed commercial contracts with the major Web portal operators in France.

We had also transformed our own "encyclopedic knowledge" site, incorporating a text-only version of our online encyclopedia.

In the course of 2001, BrailleNet again volunteered to carry out an accessibility test campaign, which resulted in the following conclusion: the implementation of our encyclopedia on Yahoo! Was the most accessible, paradoxically even more so than our own site, despite the fact we had applied some of BrailleNet's initial recommendations!

The situation at that stage was the following...

a) there were as many user-interfaces on the Web as implementations of our online encyclopedia, and for good reasons, because each version had to match the design style and guidelines of each specific portal;

b) none of the user-interfaces had been designed in conformity with the full set of guidelines of the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative), for a bad reason, namely lack of awareness and/or time;

c) the observed degree of accessibility was reached more by chance than by design;

d) the cost of making the various interfaces more accessible was an issue, but lack of accessibility was not, as far as operators were concerned!

By that time, we had undertaken the development of yet another version of our online encyclopedia, named "Encyclopédie Hachette Multimédia Pro", specifically designed for the Education market.

The online encyclopedia on general-public portals was indeed considered to be inadequate for Education.

In particular, on general-public portals, there are banners and pop-ups of all kinds with advertisements that are more disruptive than useful.

Furthermore, general-public applications are usually designed to maximize the number of pages displayed in order to boost statistics (which in turn contributes to more ads being served to the user...).

One major design goal of the "Pro" version of our online encyclopedia was ease and comfort of use.

For example, users don't need to repeatedly click on "Next" to read a full list of results or an entire article: all they have to do is scroll down the list or the article.

This feature satisfies all users, in particular those who are visually challenged, since it avoids any disruption in the vocal or Braille transcription process.

Another feature of the "Pro" online encyclopedia is the method used to implement hypertext.

So far, in all implementations of our encyclopedia, whether offline or online, hypertext was triggered by a single click on any word in any article.

This was generally found to be really great until BrailleNet demonstrated the major legibility problems caused by tags when words were put through vocal and Braille transcription software.

So, for the sake of making the "Pro" more accessible, we decided to drop tagging each word and, instead, we implemented "double-click hypertext". In doing so, however, we ran into compatibility problems with some browsers, but it was the price to pay for a more accessible online encyclopedia.

The most recent tests conducted by BrailleNet and users in the ETAPE (Environnement technologique adapté pour l'enseignement aux élèves et étudiants handicapés visuels) network led to the conclusion that accessibility of the "Encyclopédie Hachette Multimédia Pro" is globally satisfactory.

However, the test report pinpointed a number of modifications that should be made in order for our encyclopedia to reach the "gold level" of accessibility.

The software engineers who developed our "Pro" encyclopedia concluded from their analysis of the report that some of the required modifications are feasible and easy to implement (and they are now working on them), while others are complex and even dangerous in that the modifications may cause "collateral damage" and should therefore be avoided.

So despite our efforts to make our online encyclopedia fully accessible, we are not yet quite there!

We have reached the current status of accessibility ("globally satisfactory") by trial and error and we now know that "full accessibility" can only be achieved by design.

A proof of the fact is the text-only version of our online encyclopedia which was specifically designed and developed for visually-challenged users by a talented Software Engineering student.

The project was funded by BrailleNet, while data, documentation and technical support were provided by Hachette Multimédia.

This version of our encyclopedia was demonstrated in 2002.

It might have been widely used if the issue of distribution had been resolved.

Instead, it has remained at the experimental stage, mainly because both BrailleNet and Hachette Multimédia believe it makes more sense to have a single, full-featured version of our online multimedia encyclopedia, designed "for all" (therefore fully accessible) and made available through standard distribution channels for all markets.

So this is the objective we have now set for the next version of Hachette Multimédia's online encyclopedia: accessible by design!

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