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Supporting Accessibility: Betsie, Text Only, and the Semantic Web

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Gareth Ford Williams | 12:00 UK time, Friday, 3 February 2012

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


  • Comment number 1.

    Thanks for that fulsome and frank reply, Gareth. To be fair, my initial comment was not made in the spirit of a criticism, merely one of historical enquiry. Your references to the range of vision-assisting technologies is commendable and comprehensive. Having said that, and without wanting to re-open the front page debate, it does strike me that the BBC's headstrong rush towards a 'visual first' presentation is not always the optimum strategy across all of BBC Online. Specifically, radio users, which I guess will cover many of your visually-impaired users, do not need and are not likely to be impressed by large pictures or flashy flavour-of-the-month graphical interfaces. I make this point (again) somewhat in the despairing knowledge that I have probably lost the argument, my only saving grace being my deep scepticism about the credibility of BBC Online's notorious 'audience research'.

    Offtopic? Yeah, ok, a little bit, but only a little bit.


  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Russ,

    The BBC's standards and guidelines do say that pictures - large and small - need to have alternative text.

  • Comment number 3.

    (Speaking personally, rather than for my esteemed national broadcaster-shaped employer, and without wishing to step on Gareth’s toes at all…)

    For what it’s worth, the BBC does take accessibility very seriously, and this doesn’t just cover “supporting screen-readers” and “having subtitles”, and there’s lots of internal training available to support this.

    If there are actual accessibility or usability issues with parts of bbc.co.uk, whether it’s something causing you problems personally, or causing problems to somebody you know, then please do shout about it. Obviously issues around stylistic preference are a slightly different matter…

    Logically, I struggle to see why visually impaired users wouldn't appreciate large pictures as a navigational aid (they tending to be easier to get the gist of than smaller images or even smaller heading), but I might be missing the point there!

  • Comment number 4.

    The BBC's standards and guidelines do say that pictures - large and small - need to have alternative text.

    That's taken for granted, Ian, because pages would fail any XHTML Strict doctype conformance if alt tags were left empty. (Btw, this page fails its validation in plenty of other ways.) Back on topic, Microsoft seems to have turned off alt description displays as and from IE8, and I understand any browser using the webkit engine, e.g. Chrome, may have unresolved issues in this area as well unless a specific alt display plugin is used. Basically, I'm getting the message that manufacturers of modern browsers have left the display of alt contents to the specialist/geek market.

    I take Mo's point about the neutrality of image size when it comes to accessibility for visually-impaired users, but, if, as I'm trying to do, is take 'accessibility' in a broader ergonomic 'usability' sense for visually-normal users then that notion must encompass efficiency. I accept the visual-first big-picture less-content-per-page approach is perhaps suitable for News and Sports (although I see the debate is still raging about the latter); all I'm saying is that approach has been taken to a level that is unnecessary for Radio, where I feel the priority for bandwidth and website investment should be on the sound and editorial content rather than an excessively-graphical (not to mention costly) treatment for the navigational elements. Irrespective of visual acuity, you can't beat a textual link for speed and efficiency, and the more space you use for images (alt="Yet another episode of the Archers"), the less space there is for informative editorial content ("Why is Brian being such a prat? etc etc"). Just look at how much quality editorial content the Radio Times packs into its two pages per radio day.

    Here's two pages with an intended identical coverage of editorial information. Imagine you're a visually-impaired user and you're trying to find a programme: which one do you think is navigationally easier?


  • Comment number 5.

    (Very!) minor nitpick: it's perfectly valid and conforming to specify the alt attribute as an empty string if there’s no reasonable alternative text (primary use-case for this being decorative images — although I’d tend to argue that these should probably be implemented via CSS background-image in general); what you can’t do is omit the attribute entirely. If it weren’t for user-agents using the image filename in place of the alternative text when it’s omitted then there’s a very good chance that it would be completely optional — but that ship long since sailed.

  • Comment number 6.

    RUSS: those two Radio 4 pages don't have "an intended identical coverage of editorial information". The first, as I have said on the BBC Internet blog (https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2012/02/radio_and_music_update_persona.html%29, is an experimental view of a stations' most recent or most popular programmes, the second is a manually curated aggregation aiming to show the breadth of all Radio 4 programmes.

    The feedback we have received from users suggest that the former does not solve any user problems, and in fact some users find it confusing. As a result, we will be moving away from this design and interaction pattern over the coming months.

  • Comment number 7.

    As a result, we will be moving away from this design and interaction pattern over the coming months.

    That's interesting news, Chris. It begs a lot of questions about the future of manually-curated listings from the stations versus automatic listings, but perhaps those questions should be left to explore in your main blog (you had a superfluous closing bracket in the url, btw).

  • Comment number 8.

    Textise works with most BBC web pages: www.textise.net

  • Comment number 9.

    As you've shut down the comments on the blog - re: the site re-design - I'll post them here.

    Then you can delete this in true StalinesqueBBC style.

    The new sports page is a total shambles.

    There are at least 15 design errors which make navigating/using the page all but impossible except for ipad users and under 12's.

    Please stop fobbing beta-versions off onto the public.

    After all WE PAY YOUR WAGES. And YOU are supposed to be public SERVANTS.

  • Comment number 10.

    The Midland 20 - I am leaving your comment up to show to other users that the BBC's approach to hosting and moderation is not "Stalinesque".

    However it is clearly off topic and further comments in this vein will be removed.

    If you wish to complain about the BBC Sport refresh please use the BBC's complaints process.



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