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Accessibility Trumps Design


Wed Oct 17 2012


In my book Learning on Demand, I talk about designing materials for a web that needs to understand the content of your materials and not just the packaging around it (for example: tags). In a recent conversation on the #chat2lrn tweet chat, Dr. Allison Rossett highlights why doing so is becoming more and more important.

Some highlights from the discussion


First, let me summarize the brief exchange with the distinguished Dr. Rossett (a hero of mine since being an MA student). The discussion was centered around mobile learning, and I asserted that information accessibility trumps design. (I’m not saying design is not important, though). I also stated the opinion that simply providing access to existing materials (legacy content) is often enough for a “mobile learner.”

Rossett’s point back was that folks accessing content via mobile often prefer a more condensed version of existing content and, therefore, legacy content just doesn’t fit the bill. In other words, content needs to be redesigned to appeal to the mobile circumstance and well-documented browsing patterns of mobile users (which show briefer, more punctuated access to the web) all support use of the web on the go.

My response to everyone on the tweet chat was that while well-designed content might be just that—designed well—if you can’t access it, who cares?

Why the web wants to understand what it is being feed

Let me now turn to what I mean by the web needs to understand what it is being fed (one of the principles of the “Web’s Will” discussed in Learning on Demand).


The growth rate, the volume, the speed at which the Internet operates is truly mind-boggling. Imagine the expanding girth of the web being managed by your corporate intranet to make sense of all the content available. Seriously; take two seconds to wrap your head around that. Just try to imagine the file folders.

Think of it this way: Is your corporate Intranet useful to you? If so, why? If not, why? If you can’t find things on the Internet, would it be useful? Now consider a web that gets increasingly engaging; when the Internet seems to know you and recommend content to you.

I’m going to venture to say that for most of us, if we couldn’t actively seek out and find what we needed through some service or portal like Google, then the chaos that is the web would simply be akin to a very large, poorly designed corporate Intranet. The web really wants to understand what you’re feeding it because then it can deliver your content, your service, your ad to the right people at the right time.

How the web understands what it is being fed

One of the ways the web understands what it is being fed is in the intentional design of content that lets web programming languages read into  and parse content  through the context of the design itself (example: Twitter hashtag).


The other way is the creation of programming that scours through “unstructured” content and makes educated guesses to define and categorize it. The algorithms of Google search is one example of programming that filters, computes, and parses through content to create a “best guess” on what the content is. This technology improves all the time. Here are a few examples:

Back to the conversation on #chat2lrn

She is right, of course, that content should be “mobilized.” But I’m not sure the focus on brief and truncated is the right vision. I contend that content should be mobilized by first making it understood by mobile devices and, therefore, useful by the mechanisms and technology of mobile (examples: geolocation, augmented reality, and so on).

Mobile content in many cases should be embedded into existing technological infrastructures by designing it to be understood by mobile-specific technologies. The point: We should design content so that it is always being optimized when delivered through mobile, as opposed to designing something specific for mobile (there is a difference).

When properly designed, the same content has the ability to be understood in other contexts, as well as optimized in those contexts at run time. To design content in this way is to let the web “understand” your content—since what you’re really doing is providing context around content that gives web programming (mobile or otherwise) enough information to optimize the experience at run time. I’m not talking simple single sourcing here, folks.

In my not-so-humble opinion, our challenge in instructional design is to ensure that people can access what they need with the least amount of hurdles in their way—regardless of the platform they use (courses or otherwise). That means that designing one thing for regular browsers and another thing for mobile browsers is no longer tenable given the pace and rate of change businesses experience.

So for mobile, it is true that we need to be short, brief, and to the point. But that’s not the priority. The priority is creating content that is malleable to the context it is being delivered in and accessible to the person needing it in the way they want it. That, simply explained, is a question of access. And the best way to do that is to let the web resolve those issues for itself, as opposed to designing a digital artifact that isn’t “plugged in” to the rest of the network.

In Learning on Demand, I have several pages dedicated to content modeling, which is the process of structuring your content in a way that web technologies can understand. My ultimate concern with the attention paid to “design for mobile” in the way that Rossett and others describe is the constant creation of artifacts that clutter the network—and ultimately become obstacles to getting what we need. (Visions of your corporate intranet should be coming up about now).

Let’s look at an example everyone will know

When you use Google Maps on your computer (versus Google maps on your mobile), do you imagine that there is a separate data store of content for mobile versus regular browsers? How is it that the mobile version makes use of geolocation? Is it different content? It’s not. It’s the same content being optimized by having the content structured in a way that lets mobile technologies take advantage of certain pieces of content that regular browsers ignore.  

As an instructional designer you may think this is technology that is beyond your capabilities. But the real technology in all of this is the content modeling (data). Content modeling is—or should be—our bread and butter. True: Google Maps is not a course, but it couldn’t be a better example of how we’re getting value out of our mobile devices. Actually, Google Maps is a great example of getting value from the web—regardless of the device or platform being used.

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