Accessible Twitter: how it should have been done to start with

One day the next big thing on the web that has everyone all worked up will be accessible and built to web standards from day one. Until that day, we have people like Dennis Lembree (the man behind Web Axe) to thank for making what many take for granted freely available to an even wider audience. With the help of some friends, and the Twitter API, Dennis has created an accessible version of Twitter called, unsurprisingly, Accessible Twitter.

Features of Accessible Twitter

Accessible Twitter is essentially an alternative to using the main Twitter site. You go along to the homepage, log in with your usual Twitter account details, and use it in exactly the same way as you would the regular site. All the functionality that you’d expect is there – the Tweet roll, your status, mentions & messages, plus access to search, trending topics and popular links.

In addition, Accessible Twitter is:

  • Fully keyboard accessible;
  • Marked up semantically with headings optimised for screen reader users, and;
  • Fully functional with javascript disabled.

There are also some really nice touches that go the extra mile, such as audio cues when the tweet character limit is almost reached (as well as the visual counter), and feedback after Ajax actions so unsighted users know what’s happened. See the full list of Accessible Twitter features.

I’m a novice JAWS user, but after just a short test even I could tell how much the user experience is improved through Accessible Twitter when compared to the regular site.

Shouldn’t Twitter itself work like this?

Of course it should, and in an ideal world the cycle of development and testing that went into Accessible Twitter would have been an integral part of Twitter’s development too – it’s not ideal to have a website that also requires a separate accessible version.

Matthew Smith, one of the developers who contributed to the application, sums it up best on the Smiffytech blog:

In a way, Twitter actually gains accessibility points through offering the API which Accessible Twitter and numerous other alternative interfaces operate – if one looks at the Big Picture. (My more cynical side looks at the API as a cop-out on the part of Twitter: Don’t like the interface? Here, go build your own.)

I agree – it is a cop-out, and as long as the likes of Twitter continue to ‘delegate’ the responsibility for making the interface accessible to other people (namely those who care enough to give their time and skills to do something about it), accessibility will not become a core consideration when building those applications and interfaces in the first place.

As it stands, I hope Accessible Twitter gets good coverage and a higher profile, because it is an excellent example of what is possible.

Accessible Twitter’s design

If there’s one area where I think there’s room for improvement then it’s the site design. I understand, given the users the site is aimed at – and the negative impact a strong visual design can have on accessibility – that Accessible Twitter was deliberately designed to be clean and simple (it’s listed as one of the features). But I also think that it’s time we started to demonstrate to web designers that accessible design can also be visually appealing.

There’s always been this view in the web design community (and by that I mean the Smashing Magazine-fed community) who think all accessible websites are boring and must by law look something like Jacob Nielsen’s. As accessible designers we want to prove that it doesn’t have to be that way, but how much evidence do we have to point at?

For as long as accessible websites look like Accessible Twitter, I can’t see the web designers who don’t have accessibility foremost in their minds getting turned on to the idea of making their work accessible – and as far as I’m concerned that’s where we need to get to, because these are the people churning sites and site templates out day after day after day for mass consumption. Show them examples of how it can be accessible and look sweet too, and the idea might catch on.

I’m not suggesting it gets pulled through a grunge-mangle, or distressed to within an inch of its life, just… beautified. Because it’s an excellent application and I’d love to see it succeed – not only for end users, but as an example to the people who make websites too.

Anyway, give it a try for yourself at www.accessibletwitter.com, and spread the good word too.

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7 thoughts on “Accessible Twitter: how it should have been done to start with

  1. As a blind screen reader user, I really appreciate Accessible Twitter. I am very pleased with the work results of Dennis and his friends. They make my Twitter experience much more comfortable. Many thanks!

  2. Very valid points here. Thanks for writing this.

    As a sighted person, I still love the clean look of AccessibleTwitter. I have become addicted to the Readability browser add-on for the same reason: just give me the content and take away the “noise”. There’s something about cognition here. In our busy lives, you want to “get at” info quickly and not waste time wading through what to you is unnecessary info. I want to scan quickly so I don’t stress myself.

    I do love quality eye-candy – I am not of the useit school of thought. I agree that accessible can include beautiful design. I hope we get more designers who are fully aware of accessibility, usability, and design and incorporate them into something that pleases all and adds value to the visit.

  3. although i agree that some aspects of accessible twitter are better, some are worse, i do not like the “portrait”, i want to see how people present themselves so i have to go back to twitter to find people. furthermore, reading so much about access for the disabled, i have problems with my eye and like to use big letters, but the little box is as bad as sith twitter. i would prefer 5 lines with big letters, so that i can try out the text first and then shorten it, a very good mental exercise but not, if most of the text remains invisible unless i make the letter so small as to be unable to read without a magnifying glass. it would be lovely to repair that, for us sight-impaired, wouldn’t it now??
    vfb

  4. I can’t agree more about Accessible Twitter being a great alternative to the regular Twitter site or even Twitter’s mobile site at http://m.twitter.com . I just recently started using Accessible Twitter at one of my jobs, and it works beautifully. It does everything I need it to do and more. One feature which I find very handy is the URL shortener. As far as visual design, you can just count me out as I cannot see it anyway. I’m just glad Accessible Twitter exists and is accessible like the name says. No visual-only CAPTCHA’s or even audio ones. Yes, even the audio ones are a pain in the a** for me! But anyway, thank you Dennis and friends for bringing us this wonderful service!

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