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MyDisplay Trial Concludes

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Gareth Ford Williams | 15:40 UK time, Friday, 16 September 2011

Examples of changing web page styling for accessibility.

Examples of BBC web accessibility tools, from the MyDisplay home page

Back in 2005 a small group of BBC Designers, Developers and Accessibility Specialists began to investigate the benefits of in-page customisation.

The main output of their discussion was the realisation that with the right templating system and standards in place, the visual experience of a BBC webpage could be altered to make it more accessible to users with moderate vision impairments and people with cognitive disorders such as visual dyslexia.

This significant project has changed hands and names over the years; Cornerstone, ATK and ending up with the title MyDisplay, but the aim remained consistent, to know more about how BBC digital content could be made more accessible to these significant and often overlooked groups.

Today sees the closure of the latest user trial of MyDisplay and as a result we enter the usual period of analysis and reflection on the history, objectives, insights and outcomes.

MyDisplay was a customisation engine, the third such server side engine built by the BBC. Each advanced our understanding of the breadth of the variables and the issues, shortcomings as well as possibilities.

To take a step back, the story begins with BETSIE. Launched in 1999 this server side project was the first dedicated online accessibility project for the BBC.

At the time all BBC pages were static and used a tables based templating systems. Tables were recognised as being far from optimal for users of the screen reader technologies available at that time so BETSIE was designed to remove the layout rendering every page as a text only linear experience.

This worked quite well but many screen reader users felt ghettoised.

Other BETSIE users included people who needed larger text and BETSIE proved to be less than optimal for these users as it not only removed the layout but it removed everything else including images and plugins. Users who simply required larger text lost this content and as a result user experiences were compromised.

Despite this BETSIE was adopted by many other websites as their “text only” solution and BETSIE survived well into 2008 when increasing weight and complexity of the average BBC webpage proved too much for the software and after a succession of failures BETSIE was finally shut down.

This wasn’t an overnight decision and since 2006 the iPlayer v1 and Accessibility teams had been working closely together developing a combination of accessibility projects; the Barlesque templating system, the BBC Accessibility Standards and Guidelines and the project that finally ended up being called MyDisplay.

These projects had several aims. Firstly the BBC’s incumbent templating systems were causing accessibility problems for screen reader users and a text only alternative was no longer an acceptable solution. It was also recognised that it was no longer necessary to provide a text only solution to provide access for screen reader users as gracefully degrading pages, a better set of accessibility standards and good semantic mark-up based on the requirements of screen reader would provide a much better solution. Barlesque was also built by Fraser Pearce’s team to enable the in-page customisation the incumbent Barley templating system couldn’t.

BETSIE also had a second trick up her sleeve in that it did have some simple colour options that could enhance the user experience for some people with vision impairments or visual dyslexia however it was a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

More advanced customisation was possible in contemporary browsers, however it was often buried, did not have the right selection of options and if it was surfaced via an add-on, the user experience was often complex and confusing.

We knew we had to investigate this so the ATK project was born to explore what customisation could be, how it could meet specific audience needs and what was the best technical way of achieving it.

We quickly established that customisation came in 3 flavours;

  1. Optimising the experience for assistive technology users which could only be achieved through specific user experience enhancements. We knew this through for example the development of switch games and the switch newsreader.
  2. Optimising the visual user experience from a cognitive or sensory perspective rather than informational and aesthetic. This was about the choice of colours as well as the visual complexity, movement and layout.
  3. Graceful degradation not only of the layout but of the experience, but never dumb down the content. As my colleague Richard Northover once stated to me, “content is content, there is no alternative.”

The Accessibility Team explored what the user settings, especially for the visual user experience, would need to be to deliver the right number of options and we kept asking questions about the statistical probability of there being someone with, for example, visual dyslexia who was colour blind and has age related macular degeneration. This type of questioning back up by user research enabled the development of a colour set that covered all forms of visual cognitive disorder, whilst being WCAG2 compliant and colour blindness friendly.

This research is on-going and BBC R&D is continuing to research into the readability and legibility of screen fonts and the different user experiences necessary to access a common set of data, for example from an EPG.

Since the proliferation of mobile and IPTV platforms that can support a web browser, applications and connectivity, we have a new and unexpected complexity. The reality is that people are accessing BBC content delivered by IP on multiple platforms and the challenges are the same for each. If accessibility customisation settings are becoming more commonplace across platforms within browsers or operating systems the challenge is no longer about access to bbc.co.uk but more about giving users the right choice of settings, enabling them to move freely and seamlessly across BBC and non-BBC services on the same or cross-platform.

Since this project started operating systems and browsers have continued to deliver more and more customisation features.

Emergent research projects such as Cloud4all are also focusing on how we can create a common language for user settings.

All of this changes the game and the right balance between client side technologies and the cloud present more opportunities to come up with a bigger solution. As such it is imperative that the BBC is part of this conversation as the BBC is not just on the web anymore, with more linking and social networking it is part of the web.

Content is no longer just about static webpages but the move web products that are database driven, have live feeds, rich interactions and increasingly based on more than one screen. They are also no longer confined to the browser with more content being delivered by applications.

Acknowledging these changes are key to realising an approach to personalisation that is extensible which is why MyDisplay has both advanced our understanding of user need and helped us understand we should taking a more holistic view than just bbc.co.uk.

This is the point we’d like to publicly thank the 300 trialists for their time and feedback as well as the various organisations for their input and help is recruiting and for their input; Royal National Institute for the Blind, British Computer Association of the Blind, Adult Dyslexia Organisation, British Dyslexia Association, Dyslexia Action, Volunteer Reading Help, Learning and Skills Improvement Service, National Autistic Society, Neuro-Diversity International, Treehouse Trust and the Open University.

So what happens next?

As a user of personal presentation assistive technologies and one of the original team behind the ATK (Display Options and MyDisplay) I am pleased that the case has been proven even if the solution used trials has proven not to be flexible or scaleable enough to cope with the growth, technical diversity and ambition of the BBC’s digital services.

In conclusion, a combination of; advances in customisation support in database driven services, features built into operating systems and browsers, the second screen control and the potential to migrating settings between platforms will hold the key.

 “The future’s bright…” and it could be any colour you like.

Gareth Ford Williams is Accessibilty Lead for BBC Future Media


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Sort of: Never mind the content just make the colours flash brighter and faster!

    The previous wunderkind experiment on the blogs is still annoying most of your blog contributors as well as encouraging extremism.

    If the BBC is trying to be all things to all people would it not be more sensible to allow customised profiles to collect they genre of stories that interested the web site visitor, fro example sport or business news and economics. Just allowing web site visitors to make the text larger or to change its colour maintains the BBC editorial view I grant you but why can't we have the same kind of customisation as Google News for example.

    I would very much prefer a 5000 charter limit for the economics, politics and business blogs as it is very difficult, verging on the impossible, to even accurately name many of the financial instruments that have crippled the financial World let alone talk about their intricacies in 400 characters. This prevents effective discussion and this is a choice of the BBC to directly censor the blogs in favour of the establishment. When it was this establishment that brought the system and the country to its knees and continues to do so! Remember that when the history of this time is written the editorial choices of the BBC to censor comment will be remembered!


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