Position Paper for the W3C/NIST Quality Assurance Workshop
Washington, DC; April 3 & 4, 2001

Table of Contents
Participant Information
1. The Elusive Nature of Quality
2. Why is a Quality Assurance Activity Necessary at the W3C?
3. What a Quality Assurance Activity Can (& Must) Accomplish
4. Quality Assurance Must Begin and End With the User

Participant Information
Name: Gregory J. Rosmaita
6 Hampton Court, Apt. #1
Jersey City, New Jersey
07302-3505 (USA)
Email: <oedipus@hicom.net>
Phone: +1 201 621 0527
Organization: Visually Impaired Computer Users' Group of New York City
Status: Invited Expert, Web Accessibility Initiative; IG Member-at Large, WAI Coordination Group

1. The Elusive Nature of Quality

There are few things as indefinable as "quality". Like art and accessibility, quality can best be defined in terms of what it isn't rather than what it is, for the basis of quality is the eyes, ears, and/or fingers of the beholder. How, then, can any organization or individual "assure" another of the quality of a product? The answer is quite simple--quality assurance is contingent upon several related factors:

But, on the web, in whom should one trust?

2. Why is a Quality Assurance Activity Necessary at the W3C?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), by virtue of its vendor-neutral approach to the development of web-based technologies, is the ideal forum for a Quality Assurance activity. As an organization, the W3C has already made strong commitments to interoperability, internationalization, and accessibility--all of which are sub-sets of usability. The next logical step is the full and irrevocable integration of these activities into the warp and woof of the W3C.

3. What a Quality Assurance Activity Can (& Must) Accomplish

  1. Quality assurance is an integral aspect of the promulgation of standards. Conformance claims of any nature need a baseline against which they can be verified. Technical Reports provide the blueprints out of which can--and must--be developed test suites, guidelines; and test implementations, made available for testing to users through a variety of methods, including proxy servers, so that the end result of a test implementation, if deemed successful, remains publicly available to those whose technology isn't capable of natively supporting the implemented solution;

  2. Internationalization and accessibility concerns need to be "mainstreamed"--that is, integrated into the warp and woof of all web-related activities, instead of being ghettoized into discrete activities. There is, already--due in no small part to the work of the W3C--an ever-growing awareness that accessibility and internationalization are integral components of ensuring that the web works for all, and not just for those with the economic, technological, and linguistic capacity to take advantage of the most recent technological developments.

  3. One of the most important roles that the Quality Assurance activity will play is in the debunking of myths and the eradication of ignorance as an excuse for the production of technologies. applications, and documents that perpetuate inaccessibility through device-, platform-, language and/or modality dependence or single-modality design.

  4. Evaluation: Quality can only be assured if:

    1. standards are developed whereby documents, web sites, web-based applications, user agents, etc. can be evaluated against a standardized, publicly available, set of criteria;

    2. the creator of the object of any such evaluation is given a discrete amount of time to review, comment upon, and/or correct factual errors contained in an evaluation before it is made available in publicly accessible web space;

    3. upon receipt of comments from the creator of the object of the evaluation, or upon the expiration of the feedback period, any factual errors will be corrected, and any additional information, feedback, or rebuttal provided by the creator of the object of the evaluation will be included in discrete section the body of the evaluation;

  5. Certification: When a guidelines document is released as a Technical Report, it is incumbent upon the W3C to provide a curriculum, a training program, and a formal mechanism through which individuals can be trained--and issued certification upon satisfactory completion of the training program--to assure adherence to a guideline (the quality of the object of a guideline);

  6. Maintenance of a "Gallery of Quality Assured Sites": sites/pages that implement (a) according to a spec; (b) are interoperable; (c) W3C promulgated guidelines, including WCAG 1.0; (d) provide a blueprint/examples of Quality Assured design/implementation

  7. The acquisition of knowledge: Foreknowledge is essential to users with disabilities, especially for those whose functional limitations preclude them from obtaining a gestalt view of a document or application. For such users foreknowledge is often the only means of learning how an application or interactive document is intended to work without running the risk of irreparably harming one's equipment or the integrity of one's data. The reason most users choose automatic installation when it is offered to them is that they trust the installation software to do what it is supposed to do--for example, to install a new browser. Unfortunately, when one leaves the installation of an application to an automated installation process, one all too often finds, once the installation program has terminated, that configurations and settings on one's system have changed without one's knowledge or consent. The result of such as situation can be catastrophic, causing one's adaptive equipment to either function incorrectly or not at all.

  8. The provision of tools whereby an individual user can assure him or herself of the quality, compatibility, interoperability, flexibility, and accessibility of an application or technology will provide individual users with the impetus to upgrade:

4. Quality Assurance Must Begin and End With the User
(or, Configuration: The Cascade Order Incarnate)

No one can presume to know what is best for another individual. No one knows the needs or desires of an individual better than that individual, him- or herself. The ability to configure an application or document to meet one's particular needs is nothing more than the establishment of a cascade order, in which the end user must, at all times, retain the !important. Therefore, the user must always be at the forefront of all Quality Assurance activities, for the very idea of quality assurance begins and ends with the user.

What do users want and need? First, a measuring stick against which to test the technology at their disposal. This includes: test suites; usability studies, which include users with disabilities, as well as individuals for whom English is not their first language; as well as adherence to publicly promulgated standards.

As an invited expert to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) since 1997, I have often heard the complaint that the WAI is continually seeking to "raise the bar" which developers and content maintainers must clear in order for their products to earn the right to display a WAI compliance logo. My response has always been that it isn't a question of raising the bar, but, rather, restoring the bar to its "proper" height--namely by insisting that developers adhere to guidelines and specifications that have been drafted by technological experts and have been reviewed, enhanced, and approved by experts in the fields of access to information by disabled individuals, interoperability, and internationalization. An integral aspect of this effort is the definition of base functionality, which, in the case of a user agent, for example, begins by addressing two basic questions:

  1. what is the minimum functionality required for obtaining information?
  2. what is the minimum functionality required for communicating that information either directly to the user or to other programs?

By drafting guidelines, the WAI is merely seeking to firmly place the bar back where it belongs. A Quality Assurance activity, must do the same for all users. A Quality Assurance activity would remove the artificial distinctions between usability, accessibility, and internationalization that have hitherto hamstrung every effort at ensuring that full minimum functionality is assured every and any user of a product that claims to conform to a W3C technical report.

Guidelines without practical guidance, or a means whereby individual users can autonomously measure the conformance level of a product or document--both objectively and subjectively--are meaningless. By initiating a Quality Assurance activity, the W3C is refocusing upon the fulcrum of the world wide web--the user. The web begins and ends with users. The point of a web presence is either to communicate an idea or to sell a product or service. Without end users, there would be no reason for the web to exist, save as a passive means of receiving content which has been pre-selected for the recipient, not on the basis of the recipients wants, needs, or desires, but on the basis of questionable demographics and extrapolated assumptions and presumptions. A user can only exercise three options over such an inflexible and non-interactive content delivery mechanism: shut up and watch; change the channel, in the hopes of finding something more suitable, or turn off the set.

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This document created March 16, 2001
Contents last modified March 17, 2001
Markup last modified March 21, 2001