It’s the headings, stupid!!!

My recent adventure in naming the times of day was so much fun that I lost track of the original purpose of the exercise, which was to improve accessibility for sight-impaired users.

When I interpersed time-of-day labels into each day’s event listing, I used HTML DIV tags. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Those labels are structural elements, and as my accessibility consultant Susan Gerhart gently reminded me, screen readers depend on HTML headings to find and announce them. The labels should have been second-level headings — i.e., HTML H2 tags.

It gets worse. When Susan prompted me to take another look at what I’d done, I found that the date labels were inexplicably tagged as paragraphs (P) instead of the top-level headers (H1) that they logically are.

Oh. Right. Of course. Duh. Fixed. Sorry.

What was I thinking? How could somebody like me, who has preached about the attention-focusing power of heads, decks, and leads, screw up something so basic as this?

Easily, as it turns out, in the absence of feedback. If you yourself don’t depend on a design feature, there is a natural tendency to forget why it matters to others.

Coincidentally (or not) Susan recently wrote an essay, and published a companion audio recording, that will help me — and I hope others — not to forget again. Entitled Hear Me Stumble Around White House, Recovery, and Data GOV web sites, it’s a blow-by-blow account of her efforts to navigate those sites with a screen reader.

In this recording you can hear Susan and her screen reader trying to make sense of whitehouse.gov. If you’ve never heard a screen reader in action, it’s worth listening for that alone. You’ll get a very clear sense of how these tools depend on the hierarchy of the page.

Simultaneously you’ll hear Susan narrate her intention — to read an article about cybersecurity — and her frustration. For example:

I was thrown off by the slide show at the top of the page. Once I hit the cybersecurity story, the next time I traverse this section the story was about the Supreme Court nominee.

Despite this randomness, the page does at least identify the top stories with H1 tags. And Signed Legislation is an H2. But none of the headlines under Signed Legislation are H3s, they’re Ps.

Over at recovery.gov and data.gov Susan finds none at all, and reacts to their omissions less gently she did to mine:

It’s the headings, stupid!!!

Thanks. I will try not to forget that again.


PS: In a follow-up to her blog essay, Susan links to detailed reports by accessibility pioneer Jim Thatcher on the issues he found with data.gov and recovery.gov.

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