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It goes without saying that we’re in the middle of a huge shift in the way digital media is incorporated into everyday life. However, not everyone has realized how much the building blocks of digital space — particularly websites — will fundamentally change in the next few years.
Two of the hottest issues in the technology industry right now — 508 compliance for websites and screenless search — are pointing toward a future in which users have a radically different relationship with their devices. Today’s Internet was built on a set of assumptions that tomorrow’s Internet will make obsolete. The growing movement to improve digital media accessibility for users with disability is the first step toward that future.
“508 compliance” refers to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and was updated in 1998 to include digital media.
The notion that physical public spaces should include accommodations for those with disabilities has been generally accepted for decades. People expect to see buildings with wheelchair ramps; “talking crosswalks” that use sound in addition to visual cues for guiding pedestrians are becoming more common.
We often take these accommodations for granted in our physical space, but this logic has only just started being widely applied to virtual spaces.
Most fully-abled users will be reading this post on a device with a screen, with a visual interface translating data into words. Their browser will feature buttons with symbols representing different functions; obviously, these aren’t physical buttons, but graphical representations with spatial organization — all of which are very difficult to navigate for people with disabilities.
Until very recently, visual cues for computing — “graphical interface” — was the standard approach to designing digital media. Graphical interface was a major step forward in the early days of computing. Layering a graphical interface over an operating system gave users visual cues and shortcuts to use in place of typing out complicated command strings; program icons, multitasking desktops, and data illustrations made computing more accessible for non-experts. As the World Wide Web began to take off, this reliance on graphical interface (in the form of websites) became the standard way to access information.
Generally, Old Web design assumed that the primary user of a website would be a fully-abled human — and we’re getting to a point where that assumption is being undone.
508 compliance for websites means that digital media must be structured so users can access them with adaptive devices. This generally means that a complete reliance on graphical interface isn’t enough: the information itself has to be structured so that a non-human device can access it directly and meet WCAG ( Web Content Accessibility Guidelines ). Websites can’t just look pretty. The data behind the website needs to be signposted for access with a non-graphical interface.
While the move toward non-graphical interface is a huge benefit for users with disabilities, it’s also the direction in which technology for fully-abled users is heading as well.
Graphical interface has always been a work-around — a substitute for interacting directly with data. Graphical interfaces, along with screens and keyboards, were developed as a way of giving commands to computers in a language they could understand. Limited technology meant people couldn’t talk directly to computers. Computers couldn’t talk to one another without people.
That’s all changing, quickly.
The next era of the Internet could be one designed primarily for machines. Smart-home devices like the Amazon Echo relate to information in a similar way to the adaptive reading devices made for users with disabilities. In both cases, the device has no use for the visual representations used to make data appealing to human users: the device is looking beneath the pictures we would see on a screen to read and interpret the raw data. The device then translates the information to the user, either through something like a Braille embosser or a voice like Siri or Alexa. No need for a screen: the machine will tell you everything you need to know.
Google is already pushing enthusiastically toward artificial intelligence that would allow users to talk directly to their computers. While current virtual assistants are limited by their ability to understand complex requests, the technology is improving every day. We may only be a few years away from a truly intuitive personal assistant that makes graphical interface obsolete.
This means that virtual assistants will need to understand website data in much the same way that adaptive devices currently work for users with disabilities. Graphical interface might not be made entirely obsolete by screenless devices — but it will no longer be the standard. Web designers and website owners will need to think very differently about who (or what) is accessing their information online.
Regardless of how far we are from having personal Star Trek-style voice computers, we’ve already reached a point where graphical interface can no longer be the status quo. Computers and the Internet have become such a fundamental part of society that they can no longer be designed for a small group of fully-abled users. The Internet should be universally accessible — which means being more flexible and imaginative in the way information is presented for users.
A number of initiatives are already underway to broaden accessibility for online search. Users with disabilities are winning class-action lawsuits against companies with poorly-designed websites that limit accessibility. The combination of pressure from human users and the demands of artificial intelligence is forcing web designers to do more than make data look pretty. The future of search means that “websites” as we know them, spangled with photo carousels and animated dancing robots, will fade away. More and more, digital information will need to be read by devices. We can improve accessibility for human users now, and also prepare for the future of search, if we start thinking beyond websites.
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