Semantics & Universal Design

William Loughborough
Smith-Kettlewell Institute
Some thoughts on the importance of Device Independence to the Semantic Web and Meta-communication

Although most uses in the W3C context of "semantic" are related to the Resource Description Framework and its importance in evolving the Web from its original "radical" implementation of hypertext (which until then was essentially an "ivory tower" concept, discussed in symposia) to its potential to usefully connect everyone to everything, the more general version is what I intend to deal with. Just as its meaning as "meaning" (within a language) implies, "semantic" in our terms has to do with the availability in various forms of the meaning(s) of Web content.

Meta-communication - communication about communication - is what we should address in a Workshop on Device Independent Authoring. It is imperative that we communicate, through whatever techniques available what our various forms of communication are trying to communicate. If, for example there is information conveyed by using a particular color for a particular piece of content, that fact must be communicated. This is why HTML 4 calls for certain elements to communicate what they do (using "EM" or "STRONG") instead of how they look (using "I" or "B").

Film is language. Music is language. ASL is language. Text is language. All of them can be semantically clarified.

Braille is not a language. Media aren't languages. Device Independence and Universal Design are (or ought be) inseparable twins. Although parameters of display are an integral part of presentation markup, they must not rule content.

In a paper on the "Semantic Web" Tim Berners-Lee says: "The principles of universality of access irrespective of hardware or software platform, network infrastructure, language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental impairment are core values in Web design..."

Exclusion should not be an option. Just as blind people should be informed as to the presence (and in most cases the content/semantics) of a purely "visual" item, so should the user of a PDA or WebPhone be able to obtain usable output from Web content. Universal Design concepts make this a central issue.

The same considerations that would enable Helen Keller to access a text or graphical document apply to allowing Beethoven to have some experience of his own music or a Cell Phone user to get the arrival time of the next train.

Many arguments for Device Independence are not centered on accessibility issues, but on general usability concerns. There will always be new presentational methods as well as their use to inform as well as attract/amuse. In many cases these efforts will result in obsolescence of previous methods and the frustrations associated with learning new techniques and further hurdles to jump over (or hoops to jump through) for the beleaguered user who just wants to find out where to have dinner.

The semantics of presentation and structure must be made clear at the primary design level. Retrofitting is a nightmare and any severance of display methodologies into a separate design category will inevitably lead to flawed interoperability and exclusion with its resultant: inevitable demands for horrific redesign expenses.

As Jakob Nielsen points out: "Many of the same features should be delivered on each platform, even though some features may be elided or pushed into the background on devices where they make less sense or are harder to deliver with decent usability. These considerations force emphasis on the semantics and not on the representation."

As we consider Device Independence we must, while having sympathy with the author (who must keep in mind the numerous browsers, display devices, translation probabilities and other not-yet-imagined variables to which her creation will be subjected), emphasize the attention that should always be focused on the semantics involved. Attend to what you mean and allow the user to extract that meaning with whatever device must be used.

From the call for position papers for this workshop:

The topics to be covered in a position paper:

Use simulators of various platforms to provide appropriate sub-categorizations of content.
Use authoring tools that are conformant to ATAG.
Make creative use of the accesskey attribute.
Encourage user style sheets tailored to target devices rather than force fruitless attempt to use author's vision of display.
WCAG and ATAG as well as the voice browser, mobile, TVWeb, CC/PP groups' outputs.
This question is too theoretical to be addressed here. Perhaps another workshop might explore it. Under the now conditions we have made a choice to try for device independence via markup languages.
Try CC/PP.

Why Me?

Although my technical qualifications in these matters are quite limited the main attribute that qualifies me to participate in this workshop is my extensive cognizant sentience: I am old. As you will all discover, this helps and matters.

last updated: 31 July, 2000 Send comments to author.

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