Supporting Accessibility: Betsie, Text Only, and the Semantic Web
On the Autumn open post, Russ asked:
When did the BBC drop the 'Text only' option for the homepage?
Whether or not to provide a Text Only version of a webpage is an interesting Accessibility question. I established the Accessibility Team for public facing BBC digital services back in 2005, and we have been discussing that question since then.
At the time the BBC had two Text Only solutions which enabled users of early screen reader technologies and mobile browsers better access to BBC content. These were necessary because they were the days when BBC content was almost exclusively published in tables based page layouts.
Times have changed and neither screen readers nor mobile technologies depend on text only versions of pages.
The beginning of the end of Text Only started in 2006 when we, in an effort to improve the user experience for screen reader users, developed a new templating system called Barlesque.
This is now used on all BBC online content and in 2006 we launched the BBC Accessibility Standards and BBC Semantic Mark-up Standards which were developed to improve navigation for screen reader users.
To ensure support of legacy assistive technologies and mobile devices, we kept a Text Only service live. However our solution, BBC Betsie, removed all plug-in content and images. This meant our users could not access the increasing amount of AV content available.
It’s worth noting that removing the layout in the browser now creates a similar linear experience to Betsie but without the loss of either images or AV content.
Lots of the other customisation features offered by our text only services can be replicated in the browser, which is a better place for customisation to happen.
When online our users do not limit themselves to just accessing bbc.co.uk, so supporting a BBC only customisation tool does not reflect that the BBC is part of the internet and not an island. Customisation in general needs to move with the user so tools built into the browser or plug-ins have the potential to provide a better user experience.
With these reasons in mind it no longer seemed reasonable to continue the provision of a Text Only tool.
Betsie was a great piece of technology and played an important role the story of bbc.co.uk and accessibility in general.
We did continue the support of Betsie up until 2010 to ensure legacy assistive technology users’ access, however richer and more immersive services meant the weight and sophistication of the average BBC webpage finally go too much for her.
She became unreliable and was therefore de-commissioned.
The customisation question itself has not gone away, but instead is evolving as we ask ourselves how connected second screen experiences could open up less accessible platforms by connecting them to accessible ones.
Gareth Ford Williams is the Accessibility Lead, Future Media