Interview with Brenda Huettner

What Every Technical Communicator Should Know About Accessibility

Brenda Huettner is currently a technical writer and webmaster for Microwaves101.com, owner and president of P-N Designs, Inc., a senior member of IEEE, and an STC Fellow. She has a variety of experience including usability, accessibility, and web design.

accessibility via international symolsFor technical communicators, accessibility is a topic that appeals to the principles of professionalism, quality, and legality. In a storied career that includes web design, technical writing, usability and accessibility consulting, Brenda Huettner constantly focuses on a central tenet—advocating for the user. Her experience in usability and accessibility gives her a unique perspective on developing content for users. In this interview, we hope to clarify myths and misconceptions technical communicators often hold about accessibility guidelines.

A Short Introduction to Accessibility for Technical Communicators

Brenda Huettner is primarily a technical writer, and, as a technical writer, she has always been an advocate for users. “The minute you try to use something,” Brenda says, “you are experiencing usability!” In her world, usability, accessibility, and web design pretty much encompass everything.

Surprisingly, 65% of the population has some sort of disability that may influence how they interact with documentation or interfaces. For example, it’s easy to identify a large number of people who have trouble reading fine print. Brenda believes keeping the user in mind is important for many business reasons, such as the potential implications of accessibility strategy to the organization’s sales/marketing and legal departments.

Implications of Accessibility

According to Brenda, the organization’s strategy for accessibility has sales implications. “From a business standpoint, why would you want to exclude any percentage of your potential audience? If I can sell even a small percentage more widgets by making my product accessible, the ROI is easy to calculate.” Designing for accessibility helps technical communicators include more potential audience and increase profits.

Increasingly, a strategy for accessibility also has legal implications. “From a legal standpoint, we have ADA regulations. The biggest example, of course is the Target case, where their refusal to make their site accessible to the blind landed them in court (and they lost).” Ensuring e-commerce websites are accessible will help prevent companies from being subject to expensive legal actions.

The Target case that Brenda cites occurred in 2006, when the National Federation of the Blind filed a class action lawsuit against the Target Corporation. The claim that blind people could not purchase items from Target’s website independently and that that fact violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was upheld by the courts. This case set a precedent for the ADA regulations applying to e-commerce websites.

Accessibility Guidelines

Technical communicators should have and follow accessibility guidelines. However, contrary to what many technical writers may believe, the idea that accessibility guidelines increase usability for everyone is an overgeneralization. “Accessibility guidelines alone do not increase usability, but compliance with guidelines often does,” Brenda explains.

To further illustrate the concept of compliance with versus mere presence of guidelines, Brenda comments on the top things to remember about accessibility guidelines. “First, there are lots of types of disabilities – including temporary ones like loss of mobility due to, say, a broken bone. Or situational things like working on a factory floor where there is too much noise to hear a laptop tone, or in a place with too little light or too much glare that can impact visual issues.

“Secondly, accessible content tends to be easier to translate, and even if not translated, it tends to be easier for non-native speakers to understand and use.” In other words, making content accessible to people with disabilities may make content easier to understand overall, whether or not it is translated.

Brenda cautions, “be careful with blanket statements like ‘increasing usability for everyone.’ Sometimes increasing usability for one group actually reduces usability for another. It is always a balancing act.”

accessibility guidelines and content developmentIn fact, the accessibility balancing act has been around for many years, getting some of its impetus from the 1998 Section 508 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Brenda believes that Section 508 is pretty straightforward, and serves as a good set of guidelines. However, “the thing that most people don’t realize is that the law does NOT say that everyone must comply with 508.” The law actually states that “the U.S. government won’t purchase technologies that aren’t compliant.” Therefore, only organizations that sell to the US government must comply with Section 508.

Brenda encourages people in technical communication to apply more recent guidelines such as Web Accessibility Initiative – Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) is another set of guidelines, and as Brenda states “more people need to use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).” She makes this recommendation because “WCAG has been through several passes of international review, and is currently released as a technical standard version 2.0 (whereas ARIA is still in draft form).”

In considering how to create technical content that is accessible to the widest range of potential users, it’s worth noting this quote from Mark Boulton, a UK-based designer, publisher, and speaker. “Design has been viewed as being aesthetic. Design equals How Something Looks. You see this attitude to design in every part of society …. I think design covers so much more than the aesthetic. Design is fundamentally more. Design is usability. It is Information Architecture. It is Accessibility. This is all design.”

Recommended Accessibility Resources

Websites:

Books:

  • Henry, Shawn Lawton. Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design. ET\Lawton, 2007. (highly recommended)
  • Rutter, Richard et al. Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance. friendsofED, 2006. (especially the Understanding Web Accessibility chapter)
  • Thatcher, Jim et al. Constructing Accessible Web Sites. Apress, 2003.
  • Stephanidis, Constantine, editor. User Interfaces for All: Concepts, Methods, and Tools (Human Factors and Ergonomics). CRC Press, 2000. (especially the Everyone Interfaces chapter)
  • Paciello, Mike. Accessibility for the Web. CRC Press, 2000.

Author’s Note: I’d like to thank Brenda Huettner for taking the time to answer my questions. I’ve learned a lot from this interview. Accessibility is a fundamental part of technical communication. As we design our documents, web pages, and other media, technical communication professionals have a responsibility to consider how to create content that is accessible to as many users as possible.

Originally published on January 7, 2013, at Tech Writer Today Magazine (http://techwhirl.com/technical-communication-accessibility-brenda-huettner-interview/).

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Spring 2013 Textbooks

Media Studies (TC 211)
Media Essentials

Professional Writing Workshop (TC 421)
Grant Seeking In Electronic Age

Spanish (SPAN 113)
Dimelo Tu!
Dimelo Tu! Workbook

Why are textbooks so expensive?!?

1/15/2013:
Web Design (TC 351)
Digital Design for Print and Web

A Technical Communication Student’s Letter to Santa

Dear Santa,

Santa gets cookies and cocoa from technical communication studentMy name is Samantha and I am a technical communication student. This year, I have been very, very good. I’ve been going to class and doing my homework. All my hard work must have paid off because I got straight “A”s this semester! Also, I’ve been eating my vegetables.

This year for Christmas, I’d like:

  1. Adobe Creative Suite 6
  2. A subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style Online
  3. The Copyeditor’s Handbook, by Amy Einsohn
  4. Conversation and Community — The Social Web for Documentation, by Anne Gentle
  5. The Secret Life of Word, by Robert Delwood

These will be great for the upcoming semester and when I get that first job.  If you can see your way clear, an endless supply of chocolate and caffeine would be good too, at least that’s what all the professionals in technical communication tell me.

Santa, I also want to tell you to keep warm and drink plenty of hot chocolate with Mrs. Claus. I’ll leave some treats out for you and some carrots for the reindeer. Say hi to the elves for me.

Sincerely,

Samantha
Technical Communication Student

Originally published on December 23, 2012, at Tech Writer Today Magazine (http://techwhirl.com/technical-communication-student-letter-santa/).

Shattered FX Silicone Mask Website Redesign

Shattered FX Welcome SignI’m interested in web design, and a web developer I know was working on updating a silicone mask website. I don’t know much about silicone masks, but I do know about color and typography–I did earn an A in Visual Communication. Since the web developer, Derick Hess, has a lot of experience programming and is more concerned with functionality, we thought teaming up so I could consult on aesthetics would be a brilliant idea.

I made the banner at the top of this post using Photoshop. That’s the software we used to edit photos to give them transparent backgrounds for the thumbnails on the Silicone Masks and Silicone Half Masks pages. Also in Photoshop, I designed the border (from an existing image of barbed wire) that appears around masks when you mouse over them.

For the colors used throughout the website, I took a sample of colors from the images used for the border of each page using Kuler. We’re still tweaking the fonts, but before we get too fancy, we want to make sure the content is still readable. I found a few appropriate fonts that we’re still testing.

I worked on the web pages themselves in Dreamweaver. While Derick worked on coding and other pages, I worked on keeping the layout of individual mask pages consistent. Together, my partner and I edited over 400 files this weekend.

The owner of Shattered FX is very creative and had a lot of input on what he wanted out of the redesign. He provided us with all the content and original images. We were going for something spooky, industrial, and modern. There’s still more work to do; however, we’re all very pleased with the results so far.

Online Teaching Portfolio Design

teaching portfolio thumbnail

After reading Road to Teaching, I got the idea to get my teaching portfolio together. In the book, Hougan suggests aspiring teachers include: cover letter, belief and philosophy statement, observation reflections, resume, professional reflections, and an annotated reading list. I already had most of the content from a year of teaching and two years of taking teaching classes online. Over the past week, I’ve been compiling, rewriting, and working on formatting.

Design restraints include limiting myself to free WordPress themes, but even though there’s not much you can customize, there’s a lot you can do with widgets and knowledge of HTML. I looked for examples of what to include in online teaching portfolios and clean designs. The theme I chose was Skeptical by WooThemes. I liked the simple design and default color scheme, the space in the sidebar and four footers for widgets was a bonus. My only criticism of the theme is that the difference between regular text (gray) and links (black) was too subtle, but I made the difference more apparent with underlining.

One widget that I discovered but didn’t use was the one that lets you include an image, I ended up only including a personal photo in my about page, as you can see above.  I also included a search and pages widget in the sidebar. I played around with how to include an image gallery to showcase my classroom photos. Since they’re not all square and the same size, columns of thumbnails didn’t work for me, so I chose the slide show. I also figured out how to embed PDFs using Scribd. Some of the formatting from Word didn’t transfer to these pages well; consequently, I wanted to embed PDFs so the formatting would be intact.

Blogger Code of Ethics

Yesterday, on lynda.com’s Facebook page, Morten Rand-Hendriksen did a live Q&A session about WordPress. He already answered one of my questions on his blog, so I explored his blog further and was pleased to find ethical guidelines for bloggers. The short version of the Blogger Code of Ethics is re-posted below.

Short Version

1. It is your right to voice your opinion. Freedom of Speech, Information, Publication and Expression are basic elements of a democracy. As a Content Creator it is your obligation to use and protect these rights at all times.

2. Be critical of everything, even your self. As a Content Creator you are part of the creation of free knowledge creation and discussion. It is your obligation to shed critical light on what goes on in society as well as how Content Creators, including your self, are presenting these events.

3. Use your power to protect. As a Content Creator you can shine a light on injustices and neglect perpetrated on individuals and groups. Use this power wisely.

4. Tell the truth at all times. With great power comes great responsibility. Words and images are powerful weapons that should be used with the utmost care. When publishing content, present the facts as they are, even if you disagree with them.

5. Present your opinion as your opinion. Your opinion and interpretation of events is important and should be shared but must never be confused with hard facts or data. When voicing your own or someone else’s opinion or interpretation, always state it as such. Never present opinion, interpretation or conjecture as fact.

6. State your allegiances to stay independent. To preserve your own trustworthiness and integrity as a Content Creator, always state any relation, financial, personal, political or otherwise, to the subject or topic you are presenting. Bias, even if it is only perceived as such, immediately discredits your account unless you warn of it first. In simple terms; if you have a political affiliation that colours your judgment, say so; if you are employed by or received money from the subject you are covering, say so; if you were given gifts or preferential treatment in return for a positive review or commentary, say so. By stating these facts of allegiance your opinions gain informational value that would otherwise be lost in suspicion of bias.

7. Reveal your sources unless doing so can harm your sources. Always reveal your sources to ensure transparency unless doing so may put the source in harms way. In ensuring transparency you lend credibility to your own content as well as provide others to further pursue the facts of the matter.

8. Be critical of your sources and seek independent verification. Even if you are ethical and unbiased there is no guarantee your sources are. Before presenting information as fact, always check your source’s credibility and seek independent verification of these facts. If none can be found, state so clearly.

9. Always give credit where credit is due. Give proper attribution when using, quoting or basing your content on the work of others. In other words present quotes as quotes, link to original articles, give photo and illustration credit to the original creator etc.

10. Always preserve the intended meaning of a given statement. When quoting or paraphrasing a statement always ensure that the intended meaning is communicated. Never edit or change a statement in such a way that the intended meaning is changed.

11. Give your opponent a chance to respond. The very foundation of an open discussion is to give either side an opportunity to voice their opinion. Always provide an opportunity for your opponent to present the case of the opposing side.

12. Admit and correct your mistakes immediately. When an inaccuracy or error in your content is discovered by you or someone else, correct it immediately and announce that you have done so to ensure that those who base their opinions and other content creation on the incorrect information have a chance to make corrections as well. It is your duty to uphold the truth and present fact even if that means admitting you were wrong.

I wish I had found this code before class discussions at the beginning of the semester. To see the original post that includes the longer version, go to the Design Is Philosophy Code of Ethics page. What code of ethics do write and live by?

Spring 2013 Course Schedule

For next semester, I look forward to taking:

  • Directed Teaching (EDUC 411)
  • Elementary Spanish (SPAN 113)
  • Community Service (TC 100)
  • Media Studies (TC 211)
  • Professional Writing Workshop (TC 421)
  • Web Design (TC 351)
  • Intro to Photoshop
  • Pilates Matwork

1-11-2013: I’m developing my Photoshop skills with practice, reading, and tutorials so I decided to take Comic Drawing instead.

My First Attempt at Creating a Website Mockup

home page mockup

click image to enlarge

contact page mockup

click image to enlarge

Here are the two pages I completed. We discussed our concept as a group, made a rough sketch of the layout in Paint, and then I made master templates at www.mockflow.com. Consistency issues came up switching between the online tool, PowerPoint, GIMP, and Paint. Also, I had to use kuler.adobe.com to get the hex code for the beige we used so it would match other documents we created, but that color didn’t look very good in print. If we had more time, I would alter the navigation to be less redundant and more specific.

Top 5 Test Prep Tips for Finals

It’s final exam week at my university, so I thought now would be an appropriate time to share some useful study tips to help students prepare for finals.

  1. S P A C E your study sessions. Ninety percent of students who space out their study sessions perform better on tests than those who don’t.
  2. Exercise. Getting blood flowing to your brain helps you focus on mental activities and absorb information.
  3. Sleep. When you get some sleep after studying, you’ll remember more.
  4. Eat a healthy breakfast. Your brain needs food to function properly and help you perform your best.
  5. Drink water. Your brain also needs an adequate amount water to function optimally. So sip some water before you feel thirsty.

Example:
Studying for 30 minutes per day for 6 days will be much more helpful to me than trying to study for three hours in one night. I’ve been getting some physical recreation throughout the semester, but I could also do a minute of jumping jacks or take a brisk walk right before my final exam. Naps help me recharge after studying dense material and all that exercise will help ensure I get a good night’s rest. My favorite breakfast is two eggs, hash browns with ketchup, and wheat toast with jam. If I’m in a rush, the least I can do is eat a serving of raisins on my way to my test. I’ll be sure to drink a glass of water too.

Resources:
How the Brain Learns
The Exam Cram: Why Stress Can Hurt Your Test Scores

Christmas Wish List

Gift Ideas for New Teachers

  1. Road to Teaching: A Guide to Teacher Training, Student Teaching, and Finding a Job 
  2. The Wonder of Words, An Introduction to Language
  3. The Ten Students You’ll Meet in Your Classroom: Classroom Management Tips for Middle and High School Teachers 
  4. Fred Jones Tools for Teaching: Discipline, Instruction, Motivation 
  5. Stand and Deliver: How to Become a Masterful Communicator and Public Speaker
  6. Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom 
  7. The Job-Hunter’s Survival Guide: How to Find a Rewarding Job Even When “There Are No Jobs” 
  8. New Mexico Assessment of Teacher Competency- Elementary & Secondary (03/04) Flashcard Study System: NMTA Test Practice Questions & Exam Review for the New Mexico Teacher Assessments 
  9. The Everything New Teacher Book: A Survival Guide for the First Year and Beyond (Everything Series) 
  10. The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-To-Use Strategies, Tools & Activities for Meeting the Challenges of Each School Day (Jossey-Bass Survival Guides) 

Click on the link to see the item on Amazon.