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
Update – press coverage:
Tap civil servants’ views on policy: Panel (Straits Times, 3rd Dec 2008) – Lee Siew Hua mentions us and quotes me in her report.
* * *
The Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS) has released the AIMS report earlier today. They didn’t announce this over the AIMS blog so I didn’t know about it until someone from the media called to ask for my comments.
I was asked for comments because a few of us sent in some feedback to the AIMS committee some time ago.
Since then, some of us have been flooded with calls and requests for comments. Since many of us are not available to be interviewed, I’m putting a response on behalf of the group, in a Q&A format.
What group is this?
In the report, we’re referred to as a “group of academics and government employees”. We normally call ourselves the “media socialists”. See our previous FAQ for a further explanation (no we’re not political).
What are your comments on the AIMS report?
We appreciate that AIMS has taken our feedback and added it to their recommendations. Our feedback is available here: Beyond the Govt / Citizen Dichotomy: Our Response to AIMS.
How far do you think the government will go in implementing the recommendations of the report?
We prefer not to speculate.
Any other comments?
Not really. Most of what we have to say is already in our feedback itself (Beyond the Govt / Citizen Dichotomy: Our Response to AIMS) and in the FAQ (Social media “activists” response to AIMS – frequently asked questions).
Update – press coverage:
- Free public servants to engage online (WEEKEND TODAY, 20th Sept 2008) – Alicia Wong features us in her article.
- Rules for political films still a hot potato (Straits Times, 20th Sept 2008) – Lynn Lee covers the forum and mentions us.
- How Should We Expand Political Space on the Web? Public Opinion Split (ZaoBao, 21st Sept 2008) – ZaoBao covers the forum. English translation in the comments.
* * *
I was in the public forum today discussing the “Consultation Paper by the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS)”.
Near the start of the event, the chairman Mr Cheong Yip Seng mentioned that some “social media activists” gave some “thoughtful” and “constructive” feedback 3 days ago to the AIMS committee.
He was referring to the response given by 9 bloggers, including myself.
I won’t go into the forum itself, but when the forum ended, it turned out that the (mainstream) media and other attendees had many questions regarding our response.
Here are some of the frequently asked questions:
Are you the Bloggers 13?
No, we’re another group of bloggers.
Who are you then? The “social media activists”?
We call ourselves the “media socialists“, but we normally don’t use that name because it gives people the wrong idea – we’re not socialists. We’re a group of academics, civil servants, consultants and designers who are passionate and actively involved in social media, or what many people call “new media”.
This means we’re not quite activists as well. Let us know if you can think of a better name for us.
Why did you send this collective response to AIMS?
Being passionate about social media, we have regular discussions on the subject, so when the AIMS paper came out, we naturally started discussing it. Eventually, one of us had the idea of compiling our responses together and sending it to AIMS, as it was a good opportunity for us to contribute to our society.
Your collective response seems to focus more on e-engagement, as opposed to online political content, protection of minors, and immunity for intermediaries. Why is that?
We see a lot more potential in how the government can engage citizens more deeply through social media, potential that we’re currently not harnessing.
As for the other areas, we support the recommendations on protecting minors and immunity for online intermediaries, and have nothing much to add there. And none of us are political bloggers, so online political content isn’t really our domain.
You had an interesting suggestion to have an online Hong Lim Park.
That was wrongly attributed to us.
A website that I’ve been working on for over half a year has finally been launched.
The website iPrepNS is for guys who are about to enter National Service in Singapore. It aims to prepare them for their 2 years of National Service.
The website covers 3 main phases –
- pre-enlistment, where there are a whole slew of activities that need to be done even before a boy enters National Service;
- the enlistment day itself, the big day when the boy enters National Service;
- and life as a recruit, the first few months in service.
Probably the most attractive part of the site is the pixel art banner, which unveils some of the memorable moments covered by the website.
Like when a recruit gets his crew cut.
It adds a touch of humor, which is quite unexpected from an official website by the Singapore’s Ministry of Defence.
Another of my favorites is the interactive on learning the basic foot drill commands.
Besides drawing lots of chuckles from people who’ve tried it, it serves a very real and common need mentioned by recruits we interviewed during our research phase.
Many recruits were unsure of the foot drill commands during their first couple of weeks, which added to their stress caused by all the adjustments they had to make. So this interactive was designed to help them learn the bare basics, without overwhelming them with the more advanced commands.
Similar is the interactive on identifying ranks. We decided on putting only 7 ranks that was most likely to be encountered by a recruit. Anything more would be overwhelming.
What I appreciate most is not the flashy stuff, but the move towards honesty and transparency in the content, especially in the section on recruit training.
Boys who haven’t gone into National Service would have heard stories on training from those who have gone before them. What they have heard may not always be accurate, since human memory is malleable, or simply because the training itself may have changed. It was thus important to include training information that is current and accurate.
We presented the information like how an informed older brother would – informing and advising, being honest about the difficulties to be expected, yet encouraging and being positive about it.
For example, in page on field camp, under “what is it like”:
The 6 days of field camp are tough, but you will definitely remember these days as they are packed with new and interesting experiences.
Mosquitoes: They’ll always be there, buzzing around when you’re training or trying to sleep, and giving you a bite or two in the process. You’ll be issued with insect repellent, so don’t forget to bring it along.
This honesty about the negative side of training is important for the credibility of the content.
You may have noticed that we even have a section on “safety concerns” on every training page. We found this section important after interviewing parents, especially mothers who were worried about their sons’ safety.
It’s been months of hard work, traveling to different camps and even Pulau Tekong numerous times, doing numerous interviews, taking countless photographs and video footage.
It was thus quite gratifying that the project won the first prize within the Ministry for Defence, and so was launched officially by the Minister of Defence Teo Chee Hean yesterday:
Here’s the official news release from the Ministry of Defence.
My colleague Maish also blogged about this project.
Update: The project went on to win the Gold award for the National IQC Convention 2008.
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.
(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.
I suspect that this workshop will be quite a hit, since Ajax is a buzzword these days. This suspicion was confirmed when we found that we already had a signup soon after we posted the announcement on the company homepage – even before we started spamming anyone!
P.S. Chris has done a sample screencast on DOM essentials here. Good way to know if you can understand his German accent.