The presentation was for this:
Category 2. The Ultimate Open Web Presentation
We’re looking for the ultimate presentation that explains the open web and why it matters. You’ve got 5 minutes — describe the open web in a way that will excite and illuminate.
My presentation lasted less than 5 minutes, but it took me many hours to prepare – coming up with different ideas, weighing the different ideas, testing out ideas with different people, and finally sitting down and working on the slides.
I decided to take a somewhat poetic approach (someone called it an “ode”) to resonate with the emotions more than the intellect. It was a risk, since I would be presenting to a primarily geek audience. But I took it anyway.
And it paid off, since the judges liked it, and declared mine the “best presentation”.
A big thank you to those who gave me feedback on my ideas before they were fully formed, including Lucian and Preetam! Bernard Leong too, for encouraging me to present, and Mark Surman for organizing this. And finally my colleagues at Digital Boomerang for their support, including letting me present to them so I could record the audio for the slideshare presentation.
The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) has a reply on today’s Straits Times forum (“More accessibility soon for e-govt sites“) recognizing the need for more accessibility on government websites.
This is a small but positive development for me, as I’ve been advocating website accessibility for years, particularly for government websites.
What is website accessibility
For those who are not familiar with web accessibility, it’s simply about making a website accessible or usable or “viewable” by different web browsers and devices, and thus accessible by the widest possible audience, including those with disabilities.
For instance, an accessible website would be usable by a screen reader, a special software that reads aloud what’s on the screen and browser, thus enabling a blind person to access that website.
Website accessibility is thus often associated with making a website accessible to users with disabilities, particularly the blind.
Conversely, if a blind user cannot access certain information on a website using a screen reader, that website is considered not accessible.
The accessibility of Singapore Government websites
When you surf around Singapore Government websites on a non-Internet Explorer browser, you sometimes encounter a message telling you that you can’t continue unless you’re using Internet Explorer.
That’s not an accessible website.
Whole populations of Singaporeans are being excluded from such online government services simply because they use a Mac instead of a PC, or because they don’t wish to use (the technically inferior) Internet Explorer.
And we’re not even talking about access by small screen devices like mobile phones, or access by disabled users. The situation is far worse for them.
There are a number of causes for the general lack of accessibility of Singapore Government websites, which I shall explore in the following sections.
People don’t know about web accessibility
The basic problem is that there’s simply a general lack of awareness of website accessibility, not just in the general population of web users, but among people who should know better. More on this below.
Singapore’s horrific web education
My use of “horrific” is not hyperbole. Almost all the web design courses I’ve encountered on web design has little or no coverage on web accessibility, even though it is one of the core issues in web development. It’s like studying to be a doctor without learning about the skeletal system, or learning to drive without learning the road signs.
Put simply, you’re not a competent web person if you don’t know web accessibility.
This situation began because we hired teachers who were not web competent in the first place. Guess what? Their students turn out incompetent too.
We now have a whole ecosystem of incompetent web people. But we don’t know it because nobody dies from an incompetent web developer, unlike doctors or drivers.
It’s not a Singapore Government-wide requirement
As mentioned in the forum reply, IDA introduced the Web interface standards (WIS) in 2004 for government wide implementation.
In the WIS (I’m quite familiar with it), IDA does recommend that government websites be accessible, but does not require it. In reality, these recommendations are usually ignored. Including those on web accessibility.
Government agencies don’t demand it
Almost all Singapore Government websites are built by external web vendors, not in-house by the government agency themselves. When a government agency wants a new website, they would lay down the specifications for the vendor to follow.
One of the usual specs would be to follow the WIS. But since accessibility isn’t a requirement in the WIS, the vendors generally don’t pay attention to it.
Of course, the agency can always make accessibility a requirement for their website. But that rarely happens. Largely due to the lack of awareness and poor web education.
Web vendors and developers don’t do it (well)
Even if a government agency does ask for their website to be accessible, many web vendors don’t do it properly.
Quite simply, many web developers in Singapore are simply not competent. While the horrific web education is to blame, the ultimate responsibility lies with the web developers themselves.
As web professionals, web developers should know that the field has moved on since they’ve finished school, so they need to keep themselves abreast of developments.
But most have not done so, resulting in incompetent web developers and vendors.
I’ve even seen vendors that claim to be able to make a website accessible, or even claim to specialize in it. Most of them don’t live up to their claims.
Unfortunately because of the widespread incompetence, most agencies aren’t able to properly evaluate the work of the vendors, so they don’t know how (in)accessible the sites really are.
The exceptions – competent web vendors and developers
There are exceptions, thankfully.
I’ve met many web developers who love their craft, keep themselves updated, and of course are completely competent. A good place to find them is through the Web Standards Group Singapore.
I’ve also encountered web vendors that are competent and believe in web accessibility. These are vendors that will make a website accessible for their client whether the client asks for it or not.
It’s just the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, exceptions are still exceptions. The average web vendor will not care about web accessibility unless they have to, since it’s a lot more effort for them given their incompetence. (However it’s not much more effort for the competent web professional.)
Government-wide web accessibility can only be achieved if it’s mandatory. Thus I hope that the next review of the WIS will make accessibility a requirement, not just a toothless recommendation.
From the non-committal tone of IDA’s forum reply, I’m pessimistic that this would happen, but I’d love to be proven wrong.
Accessible government websites are already a legal requirement in most developed countries for years. Singapore is way, way behind in this.
It’s time to boldly step forward.
* * *
Here’s a copy of IDA’s reply on the Straits Times forum, published June 30, 2009 Tuesday:
More accessibility soon for e-govt sites
I REFER to Ms Chia Woon Yee’s letter last Wednesday, ‘Ensure e-govt websites are disabled-friendly’.
Since 2004, the Government has introduced a set of Web interface standards (WIS) to make government websites easier to use and provide a more consistent experience of navigating across different government websites. Under the WIS, government agencies are required to adopt a set of mandatory standards and recommended guidelines for designing their websites and online services.
The guidelines include catering to the needs of the disabled by adopting World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0). We recognise the importance of ensuring universal access and will review our WIS against the recently released WCAG 2.0.
We also note Ms Chia’s feedback on the e-government services website. We are in the midst of updating both the http://www.gov.sg and eCitizen portals. As part of the update, we will look into incorporating more Web accessibility features in these portals.
We thank Ms Chia for her feedback.
Ng Sook Fun (Ms)
Director, Corporate and Marketing Communication
Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore
Podcamp Singapore turned out to be quite fun, with some interesting conversations that I hope to blog about soon.
This post is about my thoughts as one of the speakers.
I titled my session “Blogging, Podcasting, or Youtube? Choosing the right medium”.
A more accurate title would have been “Text, audio, or video? Issues to consider in choosing the online medium”, but I would have gotten only half the audience.
I chose this topic because I’ve seen too many people and organizations create a podcast or a video blog without understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the medium.
They may have started a podcast simply because it’s the cool thing to do, not realizing that there are a lot more subtleties involved in creating a good podcast.
It was these subtleties that I wanted to explore during the session.
I was actually a facilitator rather than a speaker. I called the format a “virtual wiki” (a wiki is online, so a virtual wiki is offline) – where the audience gave their input and ideas while I tried to distill their thoughts onto the virtual wiki page (the whiteboard).
The content was audience-constructed, with virtually no contributions from me (although I did lead the discussions in certain directions).
This meant that there were some points that I had in mind that weren’t raised by the audience, but it didn’t matter. What I wanted more was to guide the audience through this thinking process and experience, and I think I was successful in that.
The actual content
Since the actual content wasn’t from me, I don’t have a copy of it. Thankfully some of the audience were busy blogging during the session. Derrick Kwa covered the session live while Claudia covered my session as well as the other sessions live. Unfortunately they didn’t contribute to the discussion because they were too busy blogging about it.
(Update: Shalabh Pandey blogged about the content as well.)
There was also some plurking around in the background by Brian and some others, with one of them wanting to throw cheesecake at me. Thankfully I wrote on the whiteboard before I starting, “NO CAKE-THROWING”.
Knowing that people tend to be reluctant about giving negative feedback, I asked a lot of people “what are the 3 things you liked and 3 things you disliked about the session” (later reduced to 2 things because most people had a hard time coming up with 3).
Most enjoyed the discussions. With very smart and knowledgeable individuals in the room, you can never go wrong letting go and giving them the freedom to converse.
However, not everyone was used to the lack of structure. During the discussions, there wasn’t always a clear direction, and the discussions often digressed. It was disorienting for some.
Furthermore, when the session ended, there were more questions than answers. Not everyone liked the lack of closure.
What I would have done differently
First, I would have framed the issue more clearly. I had some assumptions which weren’t shared by everyone, so the scope of the discussion went too broad at some points.
I should have also prepared the audience better for the lack of structure and closure.
Many of us are too used to the comfort of structure and guidance and we want to be given the correct or model answer. While I wanted to raise questions more than to give answers, it would have worked better if the audience was expecting it.
Despite all the flaws, I’m generally satisfied with how it turned out. I hope others will also be encouraged to try out a similarly participatory or even constructivistic session in the future.
I was at the Singapore Digital Media Festival 2008 pre-event dinner just today, where we had a pretty interesting discussion about user generated content.
I won’t go into all that we discussed, but I’ll highlight some interesting points.
What’s “user generated content”?
They even have an acronym for it – UGC. When we talk about user generated content, we tend to think of content on sites like YouTube. It’s amateurish, it costs little to produce, and it’s produced by some unknown individual (before they get famous).
But what if it’s a professional-quality video on YouTube that costs thousands to produce? And produced by some large corporation? Is it still considered user generated?
Or what if it’s amateurish, costs little to produce, on YouTube, but created or funded by some large company? Is that video considered user generated content?
I’m being a little pedantic about definitions here, but I found that some of the discussion wasn’t too productive because everyone was using the same term but with different definitions in mind.
The inability to properly define user generated content may lead to unprofitable discussions; the inability to understand its appeal leads to unprofitable endeavors – which is far more costly.
The appeal of amateurism?
Ben Koe made the observation during the discussion that user generated content tends to be amateurish, and there is some appeal in that.
But many a large media company has made the unfortunate mistake of thinking that producing something amateur-looking would make it appealing the way a funny home video on YouTube is.
The funny home video on YouTube appeals not because it’s amateurish, but because it’s authentic.
We’re forgiving of the shaky camera handling of the amateur because we know it’s done by someone who can’t do any better. It’s real.
But amateurish-looking videos produced by Big media don’t have the same appeal because we see them as professionals pretending to be amateur (I’m thinking of RazorTV). They aren’t authentic.
Those that still manage to be successful are successful because they have very good content, or they are good enough for the viewer to suspend judgment, despite being inauthentic.
In other words, they still have to be really good.
Thus, Big media should do what they’re good at and have the resources to do – produce top-quality content that is beyond the capabilities of grandma. There are too many grandmas and grandpas and moms and dads and everyone else out there producing content – don’t compete with them. Don’t compete with everyone.
The cheapening of content?
During the discussion, Daniel Goh observed that people are less willing to pay for content, and in many areas, content is expected to be free. I completely agree.
People love music, but kids these days don’t believe in paying for them. The same goes for video content, which is why BitTorrent is using up a significant amount of internet bandwidth – people are using it to music and videos for free.
While people are paying less for content, they will pay for experience.
While kids can download movies over BitTorrent, they still pay to watch the movie in a cinema. Many bands are coming to terms with this trend, realizing that they actually make more money through their concerts and events, and not through CD sales.
Or more recently in Singapore, people were willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money (in my opinion) to watch the Formula 1 race at the track, having to endure crowds and other hassles and getting their eardrums hurt, when they could have watched it live in the comfort of their own homes. Crazier are those who flew over here from Europe or the US just to experience the race.
But the overwhelming reaction from those who were there was that it was worth every cent. Hearing the deafening roar of the race cars blasting away the eardrums was an exhilarating experience, even for those who weren’t F1 fans.
Companies are missing out on these trends at their own peril.
Many are still clinging on to their content-for-sale model, while others that realize the need for change jump onto the amateurish track instead of the authentic one.
I’m planning to attend the Singapore Digital Media Festival (was invited), and I hope to see some enlightened companies there.
In my last post, I talked about the Ribbon interface in Microsoft Office – a good solution with limited screen estate, without the usability problems of the cascading menu.
Now what if the Ribbon was used on a webpage?
My only encounter with it so far is on Singapore’s Ministry of Education homepage, which was launched only a couple of weeks back.
It only occupies a row of space (above) before it slides and expands downwards to reveal more (below).
I liked the idea the moment I saw it. As an information architect, I’m always on a lookout for ideas to navigate lots of information, so this was something quite new to me, and most of all, it works. It works so much better than the typical drop-down menu you often see on bad websites.
It’s certainly not perfect – the space could be better utilized, rather than occupying just the left column. But I see that the web Ribbon has a lot more potential to be further explored and exploited, and I expect to see more websites using the Ribbon interface in the near future.
I asked Lucian, the designer of the site where he got the Ribbon idea from. He told me he just “expanded on the idea” of a normal drop-down menu. He had that idea in 2006, way before he encountered the Ribbon in the Office software.
Whether implemented on a desktop app or on a web page, the Ribbon is definitely a good innovation, a step in the right direction, giving designers and developers an additional tool to improve the user’s experience.
Lucian has started a blog detailing the development of the Ministry of Education website – Webdev at MOE.
Some time ago, I argued that the future internet will not be virtual 3D worlds. So a number of people have asked me what I thought the future internet will be like.
The answer: the Semantic Web.
It’s an abstract concept, and definitely not as sexy as a 3D virtual world.
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, talks about it in an interview, The future of the Web as seen by its creator.
So, for example, if you are looking at a Web page, you find a talk that you want to take, an event that you want to go to. The event has a place and has a time and it has some people associated with it. But you have to read the Web page and separately open your calendar to put the information on it. And if you want to find the page on the Web you have to type the address again until the page turns back. If you want the corporate details about people, you have to cut and paste the information from a Web page into your address book, because your address book file and your original data files are not integrated together. And they are not integrated with the data on the Web. So the Semantic Web is about data integration.
When you use an application, you should be able to put data there so that you could configure that data. I should be able to inform my computer: “I’m going to that event.” And when I say that, the machine will understand the data. The Semantic Web is about putting data files on the Web. It’s not just a Web of documents but also of data. The Semantic Web of data would have many applications to connect together. For the first time there is a common data format for all applications, for databases and Web pages.
(This is a continuation from “the Future of Internet Is Virtual Worlds. Or Is It?”, and part 2).
A lot of people think that the Matrix is inevitable. I take a contrarian view.
But first – what do I mean by “the Matrix”? It’s just a scenario where our brains connect to the internet directly (not necessarily all the time), without the need for screens or keyboards, where we basically can live inside a shared virtual world, communicating, controlling, and sensing everything in our minds.
Is that inevitable?
Let’s first assume that the materialistic worldview is correct, meaning that human consciousness and thought is nothing more than neurons firing, and that there are no disembodied conscious entities like ghosts or spirits. If the sum total of humanity is no more than physics, then the Matrix is theoretically possible.
Let’s also assume that we’ll be able to find a way to interface the computer or internet to the changing and highly complex neural structure of our brains, without adverse effects.
And let’s just assume that technological advances will eventually make the Matrix possible – all you have to do, is recline and plug yourself in (assuming it’s not wireless). Other than a small minority of people diving into it, will the rest of us follow?
If things become ideal, the Matrix will be incredibly compelling. Since computer data will have direct access to the brain, virtual environments with incredible sensations can be created and experienced, such that phycial roller coaster rides, reverse bungee jumping, and skydiving become sluggish in comparison. Imagine a heroin-induced high on steroids (assuming you’ve tried both heroin and steroids), only better. I’ll be the first to get addicted.
But that’s only if things become ideal. Of course, things will never be ideal.
Assuming that the internet remains decentralized, we can expect there to be rogue sites or virtual environments, created by naughty boys and girls. Imagine entering a rogue environment, designed specifically to harm visitors. The damage done will potentially be more than what a very bad drug trip can do, much worse than a serious case of paranoid schizophrenia. A horror nightmare on steroids?
Besides rogue sites, there will also be (black hat) hackers. Sure, if our brains are connected directly to the internet, there will be very serious security measures in place to prevent our minds from getting hacked. But because the payoffs of a successful hack is so high, where the hacker can potentially gain control over your mind, or let you hear their voice whenever they want, or rewrite your memories, or eventually possess you, there eventually will be a hacker smart and patient enough to break past your firewall.
That firewall is your final protection against the your loss of control over the only thing in the world that really matters – your mind.
Would you risk the ultimate loss so that you can enjoy the ultimate experience?
I don’t think so.
(Note: this post is much longer and more complicated than the previous one. You can jump straight to the easier part 3, “Why the Matrix Will Not Happen“.)
In part 1 of “the Future of Internet Is Virtual Worlds. Or Is It?”, I explained why an immersive 3D internet will not take over the 2D one.
My whole argument really hinges on the assumption that the internet will remain largely informational, and not be surpassed by the experiential.
If my assumption is wrong, meaning that the internet will become largely an experiential one, then it’s easy to believe that the internet will also mostly be in 3D.
So why would the internet remain largely informational, and not experiential? Wouldn’t the Matrix-like scenario be inevitable?
Let’s hold our proverbial horses for now and not go as far as the Matrix yet, since that would probably be a very long way off, if it ever happens. I’ll address that in a later post.
For now, the internet is still mostly informational. People use the internet mostly for the informational. However, there is a small and growing proportion of users who spend more time in the experiential.
The majority of these would be the game
addicts enthusiasts. For them, the time spent in the experiential has replaced most of their informational time, as well as their real-life time.
Fragging monsters in World of Warcraft is more compelling than much of their real lives, such as sleeping or bathing.
Computer games and simulations are compelling because they offer opportunities that are otherwise impossible or very costly in real life. Most of us will never encounter monsters in real life, let alone experience the thrill of fragging them (or the danger of getting eaten). Nor do we really want to corner our cars at 300km/h in real life, either because our cars can’t (assuming we even have cars), or we’re not sufficiently inebriated.
A main attraction of online immersive 3D games like Second Life (which some insist isn’t a game) is the ability to meet and chat with others in that virtual world. But the reason why Second Life isn’t exactly taking over the internet by storm (despite the hype) is simply because the experience in Second Life for most people is not superior or more compelling than that in real life.
Thus for the rest of us well-adjusted people who lead normal lives, much of real life is still more compelling compared to the current experiential online offerings. (Something compelling need not be positive – screaming kids, for example, can also be rather compelling.)
So, for the internet to be more experiential than informational, the experiential would have to be more compelling than (much of) real life.
Which leads us to the next question: when will the experiential be more compelling for the rest of us well-adjusted normal people? When or how would 3D immersive environments surpass real life in terms of richness of experience?
This can happen only when certain technologies advance to a certain level – specifically visual, audio, and haptic interface technology (I’m ignoring bandwidth and computing power here).
The visual interface is definitely the most important. The current quality 3d renderings virtual worlds are very poor, compared to what we see in real life. To have a really gratifying and compelling experience, the 3D environment has to be photo-realisic, with a wide field of view (not the tunnel-vision views we’re used to on your computer screens). Think Omnimax.
To make things even more compelling, throw in realistic sound and haptic feedback. Good quality sound, even with a feeling of 3D space, is within technical reach. But realistic haptic interfaces, due to the complex nature of how our sense of touch works, is almost impossible outside of a Matrix-like scenario. Imagine wearing a special suit to receive haptic feedback. How does the suit convey a light touch? (Easy.) How about a punch? (Not that easy.) How about a cold wind that flows around different parts of your body? (Very hard!) Or the sickening sensation of bouncing on a bungee cord? (Close to impossible.) You get the drift.
But, even if I don’t get very realistic haptic feedback, if I could move around in a photorealistic 3D world with a wide field of view and good sound, it’ll be quite an experience. Instead of looking at nice photos of the Grand Canyon, I get to fly around in the canyons? I’ll be the next addict.
So, does that mean that the experiential would then overtake the informational, given good-enough technology?
Even with serious improvements in technology, there will be things holding us back. And unfortunately, these would be mundane things holding us back.
First of all is work. I would think that the informational would remain much more important than the experiential during work. Sure, with good-enough technology, we will probably have more virtual meetings with clients, but most of us don’t do that full-time, and never will. Of course, I may be wildly wrong in this case, since the nature of work might change drastically, such that the experiential becomes more important. But I doubt.
The other thing that would limit the extent of the experiential, even with good-enough technology, is our real, offline lives. (Let’s not argue about what is real and not for now.) Sure, the experiential internet will eat into our real lives, but this will be limited by real life commitments. Yup – screaming kids, nagging spouse – the usual (some things don’t change). (Speaking of the nagging spouse – if the spouse starts nagging online as well, the time one spends online would be further limited, because of the drastic drop in experiential quality.)
Sure, this is an anti-climax – the future of the internet in 3D virtual worlds getting limited by mundane issues like work and screaming kids. But one reason why the speculation of futurists often fail – they forget the mundane issues. Reminds me of the many books from the 1980’s that predicted what the year 2000 would be like – they always have flying cars.
It’s 2007, and I don’t see flying cars coming anytime soon. I don’t see a 3D internet taking over either.
So, how about the Matrix, where your brain interfaces directly to the Net? I’ll try to explore that in a later post.
Here’s the next post, part 3: “Why the Matrix Will Not Happen“.
“The future of internet is virtual worlds. Or is it?”
That was the topic of discussion in one of the sessions at the recent Web 2.0 Unconference.
The discussion leader Douglas Abrams defined a virtual world as a fully-immersive 3D environment that is shared by everyone and used for interactions in areas like entertainment, communication, and commerce.
Basically, the internet will become primarily 3D, instead of 2D as it is today.
He believed that the internet will eventually become a 3D virtual world (or worlds), simply because of the richness of information that 3D is able to communicate, as compared to textual, visual, or video information.
His is a common mistake – the same mistake that people years ago made when they predicted that TV would kill radio.
But I’m running ahead of myself.
The internet as we know it now is mostly what I would call “informational” – where people access content. This could be for knowledge (reading up a wikipedia article or my blog *ahem*) or for entertainment (reading my blog *AHEM*).
Currently, while the content is mostly in the form of text (like wikipedia and my blog again), there are other forms of content, including audio (podcasts, webradio), still visuals (photos, illustrations), and moving visuals (video, Flash animations).
Besides the informational, the internet also has a large experiential element. These are interactive elements or environments, where the interactive experience is the goal itself, and not a means to an end. These would include Flash games, simulations, and so on.
What do we get when web designers fail to distinguish the informational from the experiential? Flash-based websites that are a pain to navigate. Sure, surfing Flash-based informational websites is certainly a “richer” experience, thanks to pretty animations and sound effects, but when the information I want is best represented by text, don’t give me any animations along with it. Let alone a 3D experience.
Here’s another example – RSS feeds. I can go to a news site or a blog to read the informational content, and experience the look and feel of that site as well. But why do many people eventually move to reading the same content from RSS aggregators? Yes, the convenience, but many of us are eventually only interested in the informational content, not the experiential.
Virtual 3D worlds are better suited for the experiential, much like Flash. Because they are experiential in nature, they are great for the user to experience something, like exploring a new environment, playing an immersive game, or having social interactions with others. Thus 3D worlds are certainly here to stay, since they are best for certain types of the expriential.
Now if a user wants the informational rather than the experiential, and a 3D environment is given, it may not be pretty, especially when the novelty of 3D wears off. Remember those horrific Flash sites you tried to navigate through? The horrificity of 3D will be worse in an order of magnitude, thanks to the additional third dimension.
So are virtual worlds the future of the internet?
No, it won’t. Unless…
Only unless the experiential overtakes the informational on the internet in the future.
Will that ever happen? I hope to explore this in a later post.
Kevin posted a video of the discussion. The quality of the discussion wasn’t great, so it may not be worth watching.