alphaWorks’ aDesigner

I just gave aDesigner a test run. Simply put, I am damn impressed. Let me organise my thoughts:

What is aDesigner?
IBM has an emerging technologies initiative called alphaWorks. Here they develop, showcase & distribute new ‘alpha-code’ technologies till they are licensed or integrated into IBM products. (Read more)

aDesigner is a disability simulator. It lets web designers, or rather web page engineers (as I sometimes like to call this breed) to test, analyse and view for themselves whether their pages (online or offline) are accessible and usable by the visually impared.

What is my opinion about aDesigner?
The interface is split into 5 panes. One quick look tells me immediately where the action is.

Pane 1: Browser view
This pane shows the page as it is displayed to a regular-vision user using a normal browser. There are navigation buttons and an address bar to help me navigate back and forth between pages and quickly load up online/offline pages.

Pane 2: Simulator view
This tabbed pane visualises the page for blind users and simulates the page as it would appear to a person with low vision. Using the mouse over the simulation provides me with some important information like how long does it take the user to reach a particular information on the page, etc.

Pane 3: Error totals
Lists total number of Essential and User Check errors. Clicking on either filters out the rest in Pane 4.

Pane 4: Error list
Lists the type, line-number, guidelines for which the error is (WCAG, Section 508, JIS and IBM Guidelines), and the actual languagge from the guidelines.

Pane 5: Overall rating
This shows a graphic and lists the overall rating of the page for accessibility and usability.

I did not RTFM before starting with the software. It took me about a minute to grasp how to use it and in the next 8-10 minutes I spent on it, I knew exactly what to do to get what I wanted. That speaks a lot about this software’s UI. I have not tested it yet or compared its results with that of Bobby but they appeared to be alright from the few pages I did simulate. I will look into this software much deeply over the next few days and let’s see how that pans out.

Overall, like I said in my opening, I’m damn impressed.

What accessibility checks can aDesigner perform? (From the product FAQ)
First, it checks regulations and guidelines such as Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act, the W3C WAI Web Contents Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), JIS (Japan Industrial Standard), and IBM’s checklist.

Second, it checks usability problems faced by people with visual impairments, going beyond compliance. An author can experience how low vision users see the Web pages by using “low vision simulation” modes, and an author can also understand how blind users listen to and navigate through the pages by using “blind visualization.

Who should use it?
For one, this should be in the inventory of all web designers. When we are coding pages, we frequently render pages and then validate the code. Browsers and our eyes handle the former, and there are quite a few tools out there that validate the markup. There aren’t many tools that help with WCAG/Section 508 compliance though. Though Bobby is the most popular service yet, comparing the two is like comparing Ford Model-T with a modern car. Agreed the former was a pioneer and has since been retrofitted, the experience and ease of use provided by aDesigner is phenomenal. The biggest advantage of aDesigner is that it’s a standalone desktop application (Yes, I know Bobby is available on a CD but that’s paid).

QA teams in web-development teams will love this. Though testing is generally done by those who code the pages, in a production environment, the responsibility lies with the QA team to stamp it OK. For the reasons quite similar to the ones I’ve listed for Web designers, these people will love this application.

Web Standards advocates also finally have a tool that will help show the non-believers solid data based on a common index. Call it emperical data if you will.

How much does it cost?
Currently, alphaWorks is making aDesigner available to everybody for free to get feedback and improve the product. But like other emerging technologies, it will eventually be either a licensed product or be integrated into another product.

aDesigner requires Windows 2000 or XP with Java Run-time Environment (JRE) 1.4.1 or higher installed. It does not support any other platforms currently.

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