A research report from June 2005, entitled “Information now! Enhancing digital access to learning materials for Canadians with perceptual disabilities” and available in several unfriendly formats, covered a trial of a DAISY electronic-talking-book player with 56 “adult learners,” most of them blind.

(DAISY is a structured talking-book format based on XML, and I’d give you a better reference for it if I knew of one that made any sense whatsoever. The online documentation is terrible. DAISY allows you to mark up your original text in structural ways that will be familiar to any standardista. You can optionally link to voice recordings.)

The most surprising part of the study? Many users could not understand the concept of navigating by headings.

Although tasks, such as placing bookmarks or the “Go to page” commands, were rated as fairly simple and helpful, results did show that the more complex navigation options, such as navigating through headings, were more difficult to execute. In particular, participants had trouble distinguishing whether they were navigating by phrase or by heading. […] “Navigation by heading level” proved to be the most time-consuming task for all three groups of participants.

Visually-impaired people took more time to navigate by heading on a hardware DAISY player, while blind people needed more time on a software player (which had a habit of talking at the same time their screen reader did).

Terminology used for describing heading levels

Participants indicated that the tasks which seemed to take the longest to complete, for all disability types and levels of technological skill set, were those which fall under the Navigation of Book category…. [S]ome participants had difficulty grasping the concept of how a book is structured into levels comprised of chapter headings, subsections, paragraphs, and phrases…. Part of the confusion on behalf of users with the navigation structure may rest with the terms or words used to describe the levels. One participant commented on this during her test: “Language is too confusing – e.g., ‘element,’ ‘levels,’ etc.”

I don’t understand this at all. How is the concept of “headings” difficult? Braille and large-print readers will be familiar with it, as will advanced screen-reader users who have used standards-compliant Web sites. In fact, we are continually reminded that Windows screen readers allow you to navigate by heading, that people use those features frequently, and that, as a result, WCAG 2 should require heading elements that make sense when removed and remixed.

Are headings a problem or not?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2005.10.03 14:40. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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