Accessiblity and design for smart phones

There is an interesting intersection between the Web Accessibility guidelines and the new paradigms for mobile computing implicit in smart phones, tablets and the new generations of mobile computing devices.

What is clear in these mobile devices is that they express an intuitive and very different paradigm for accessing information – and not only for those “on the move”.

The new WCAG guidelines (see are pretty daunting and from personal experience some WCAG teams have a tendency to become the “computer says no” part of the organisation.     Implemented in an authoritarian manner, WCAG can become a launching board for personal likes/dislikes rather than a framework to encourage accessibility  (for example I was chided by one WCAG team for using PHP as the programming platform – nothing to do with WCAG).

A particular challenge with WCAG is the trade-off between encouraging wide participation in contribution of content and achieving a high level of accessibility.  PDF format is one area where this can be difficult where the PDF documents have been source from different contributors and may  or may not have the associated metadata and formats to make the easily accessible.  Similarly the contribution of images.

For some public organisations it may be essential to be prescriptive in the presentation of sites to the highest level of WCAG compliance.   In some contexts it may be more productive to encourage broader participation in submission of content with use of techniques such as crowd-sourcing to enhance this content progressively.  The discussion on this trade-off (between proscriptive and collaborative) is one that interests me greatly.  Some very great resources would just not get off the ground if the hurdles for submission are so great that they are not worth surmounting.  Equally, many of the requirements for WCAG are simple good sense and good design.     In a information-economic sense you can see a tension between the “free market” of the wildly undisciplined Internet with the needs for a disciplined approach to encouraging universality of access to informationThere is an interesting challenge here: how to harmonise issues of accessibility with those of improved usability expressed in the mobile devices.

Designing systems for smart phones is especially challenging.   I nice interface on a smart phone has to pare down the presentation to a practical minimum while focusing on the most immediately useful information.   This makes for some challenging discussions for those who manage library intranets – brim-full with information and difficult to express succinctly in the small territory available on the smart phone.

The IT section is working with the Library and Research Services for Parliaments section on a session at the Helsinki conference on this topic –

This is a great opportunity to discuss many of these new paradigms of interface presentation and how they affect your library systems.


Edmund Balnaves
Information Officer, IFLA Information Technology Section





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