Working together for standards The Web Standards Project


Thanks to Sebastian Snopek from the International Liaison Group (WaSP ILG), this post is also available in Polish: Wtórny hAccessibility?.

Fanning the fires of the ABBR pattern debate, the developers at BBC Radio Labs announced today that they’ll be removing the hCalendar microformat from their programmes listing pages, pending further accessibility testing or the establishment of a more accessible alternative.

Unfortunately there have been a number of concerns over hCalendar’s use of the abbreviation design pattern. [...] Until these issues are resolved the BBC semantic markup standards have been updated to prevent the use of non-human-readable text in abbreviations.

As with the debate over a year ago, the concerns raised are not about microformats as a whole being inaccessible. They’re not even strictly about the hCalendar microformat itself. The concerns are purely centred around the (mis)use of the ABBR design pattern.

Call me naive, but — for me at least — the problem seems to boil down to a few simple points:

  • microformats are extremely useful, and, if implemented in an accessible way, can yield massive usability improvements for all users
  • the ABBR design pattern is demonstrably broken — no ifs, no buts, no “it’s an edge case”, no playing the numbers
  • a handful of alternatives to the use of the ABBR pattern already exist — for instance, the BBC could quite happily carry on using hCalendar, avoid ABBR altogether, and instead opt to have machine-readable information present in the page as a piece of invisible supplementary data; however, this seems to be a rather inelegant (and not well publicised) implementation
  • further alternatives to ABBR have been discussed at length (such as proposals to put machine-readable data inside the class attribute), but no real consensus has yet been reached — meaning that current microformat-consuming tools and services are unlikely to support them.

In many discussions, the problem of microformats and accessibility is often miscast as an either/or proposition. Retorts of “if you have accessibility concerns, don’t use microformats” or “if you don’t want to mark up dates in a machine readable format, don’t use microformats” are a classic reductio ad absurdum, and do nothing to move the issue forward. Why should the desire to provide machine-readable data for tools necessarily be antithetical to the desire not to thrust the gibberish of something like the full ISO 8601 date/time in the face of end-users (as expanded ABBR title that’s read out by screen readers under certain conditions, visually presented as a tooltip to sighted mouse users, or clearly present as clear text in the markup when CSS is unavailable)?

Here’s hoping that high-profile announcements like the BBC’s (and those less public, but nonetheless significant ones) will help create some momentum and a concerted effort to find a robust substitute for ABBR. And, once that’s happened, can we finally take this flawed design pattern out of circulation, educate the early adopters of microformats about the new and improved pattern(s), and move on to bigger and better things?

Your Replies

#1 On June 23rd, 2008 7:19 pm