Friday, September 24, 2004

Reading :: Maximum Accessibility

Originally posted: Fri, 24 Sep 2004 20:12:55

Maximum Accessibility: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone

by John M. Slatin, Sharron Rush

I've been coding websites since 1994, and I've always been concerned about simplicity and elegance. Where others used graphics, I used none; where others used GIFs for spot color, I used colored tables. My pages loaded quickly, scaled well, and were primarily text. So when I taught my first usability course at UT in fall 2002, I was confident that my stripped-down course site would pass muster in terms of accessibility. Then I read this book.

It's not often that a book is a life-changing experience. But this one changed forever the way I see websites and web development. And as I quickly, frantically began to recode my own site to better comply with accessibility guidelines (you can see that first effort at accessible design here), I also began to understand the uneasy relationship between structural markup and visual presentation -- and how vital it is to get down exactly how to mediate that relationship.

Before we get into exactly why this book is life-changing, let me note that John Slatin is my colleague and sometimes collaborator, and Sharron Rush is someone with whom I've discussed research. Both are great people, and perhaps that fact colors this review. But even if it weren't true, this book is really quite strong. The first half offers narrative accounts of different common problems that disabled users have with website features: graphics, tables, text rendering, plug-ins, pop-up windows, frames, and forms. The second half offers best practices for dealing with these issues. Both halves describe accessibility guidelines in a way that's easy to understand, and emphasize that the best solution is a single design that is entirely accessible while still being attractive and usable for those who are not disabled. Separate but equal, Slatin and Rush emphasize, wasn't a good solution in 1963 and isn't a good one now.

And that's really the crux of the book. More than offering an understanding of accessibility challenges, more than offering how-tos, the book makes a compelling argument that accessibility is a civil rights issue and that we must attend to it morally and ethically, not just in terms of regulations (although regulations are also a concern). Just as we provide curb cuts and ramps in our buildings, we should provide accessibility measures on our websites. And, the authors are quick to point out, such measures benefit everyone: just as curb cuts serve anyone who has to use a wheeled device (from wheelchairs to hand trucks), accessible sites serve anyone who has to use a website (from those with screen readers to those using text-only browsers to those using handheld devices and news aggregators). This book, and my continued discussions with Slatin, are what have led me to emphasizing accessibility in the CWRL and to explore its possibilities in my own development work. (My current website is a testbed for accessibility measures, among other things.)

To enact this civil rights focus, Slatin and Rush provide really remarkable insights, examples, and suggestions for redesign. The book is easy to read and follow, even for those without much HTML experience -- like my current students, who have just finished reading it for my accessibility and usability class. I'm happy to report that the book serves as a good textbook as well as provoking interesting class discussions -- discussions that mirror the ones you'll have with yourself as you read the book and imagine what it's like to use adaptive technologies.

Blogged with Flock

Reading :: Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory

Originally posted: Fri, 24 Sep 2004 19:04:06

Basics of Qualitative Research : Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory

by Anselm Strauss, Juliet M. Corbin

The title of this book is somewhat misleading, but it's corrected by the subtitle. This book is a grad-level introduction to grounded theory in particular, not qualitative research in general: competing qualitative research traditions such as participatory action research, ethnography, and case studies are not discussed. Granted, they often have much in common with grounded theory, but there are also a lot of differences. Unfortunately they're often simply lumped together.

That was certainly the case in the research methods courses I took in my PhD program, several years ago. I'm sure that was out of necessity, but I'd like to more strongly differentiate them in the course I'll be teaching this spring -- and to get them straight in my own mind. Similar terminologies, similar methods, and similar aims tend to introduce a lot of slippage into discussions of qualitative research. And I should add that there's sometimes a frustrating lack of detail about exactly how to deploy them, a lack of detail that I think points to the depth of experience and the level of practice it takes to do qualitative research well. Diana Forsythe's last article, on how ethnography is something done by people with PhDs in anthropology (as opposed to something one can learn in a three-day contextual design course), resonates more strongly with me every time I read one of these books.

A little background: Anselm Strauss developed grounded theory along with Barney Glaser. They deployed it in several studies and wrote several books on it. This one is meant for grad students, which probably explains why so much of it involves expressing empathy for the reader's struggles, discusses ways of managing one's emotions about one's project, and dispenses general advice. Unfortunately a lot of that advice seems obvious and not terribly helpful. Here's a sample from the last chapter, on writing up studies:

Our best counsel is to choose if possible a supportive yet critical advisor, and to write as good a manuscript as possible. If you produce solid research you are likely to earn your degree, unless none of the committee members can counternance qualitative research. If that is a possibility, then you should strive to keep the number of such potentially adverse critics on your committee to a minimum. (p.237)

Frustratingly, much of the book is taken up with similar text. (I suddenly realize that this text reminds me of another book I've reviewed.) That's unfortunate, because there's a lot of really good stuff in here -- if you're willing to dig.

What good stuff? Well, the book manages to lay out the basics of grounded theory quite well. We find that grounded theory emphasizes the inductive development of theories, first as substantive (situated in a particular context) and eventually as formal (examined in many such contexts) (p.174). We learn that there are four criteria for judging how well a theory applies to a phenomenon: fit, understanding, generality, and control (p.23). We find that -- just as in participatory design, incidentally -- "the research question in a grounded theory study is a statement that identifies the phenomenon to be studied" (p.38). And over and over we find that grounded theory is all about "integrating detail, procedures, and operational logic" (p.159) -- developing coherent, well integrated, and strongly connected theories through progressive waves of open coding and axial coding.

But then again, we also find that we can't reduce the approach to a set of steps that will necessarily produce a grounded theory study. I don't think this is the fault of the prose; rather, I think Forsythe was right in that these procedures and the judgment behind them must be learned through deep experience. This book outlines the methodological precepts and gives a lot of examples, but ultimately it doesn't seem to pin down the approach with much specificity, and I think that's because the approach doesn't lend itself to that level of operationalization. Which does put us as qualitative researchers in a difficult position: Strauss and Corbin talk often of grounded theory's rigor, but as an inductive method that doesn't and can't provide strong operational guidance, it seems that grounded theory would have difficulty making such a case for itself. I'll have to think about this further as I examine other qualitative methods.

Blogged with Flock

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Reading :: Opening Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices

Originally posted: Sun, 19 Sep 2004 10:04:34

Opening Spaces : Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices

by Patricia Sullivan, James Porter

Reading Yin's classic on case study research last week led me to dig up my copy of Sullivan and Porter's Opening Spaces, a 1997 book from the Computers and Composition series that is perhaps the only computers and writing book to deal primarily with research methodology. I remember having a love-hate relationship with this book when I first read it. And I'm here to report that this relationship is indeed intact.

Let's talk about the love first. Sullivan and Porter do a good job of demystifying research, starting with the unusual and illuminating example of a basketball game: the game can be observed and described in different ways, using different methods, and from different perspectives. I can imagine grad students, and even undergrads, catching quickly onto the basics of research by the end of this chapter. Clearly, Sullivan and Porter understand research as inquiry rather than as a set of steps that will result in transcendent knowledge. This understanding of research is forefronted all the way through the book, resulting in some valuable insights about the design-research-report cycle. Great. Research as praxis -- one of the central themes of the book -- seems like a valuable theme to develop.

But then we get to the problems. Some of these are due to the series, which has low production values and I think has been edited with a rather light hand. Certainly the chapters are uneven, the prose sometimes gets bogged down (more on that in a moment), and the book as a whole doesn't follow the arc set by that strong first chapter. I expected a book on methodology. I got a book on, well, critical research practices.

So what do they mean by critical research practices? Well, there's a disorienting mix of postmodern uncertainty and foundational certainty.

The foundational certainty is in Sullivan and Porter's embrace of liberation theology's precepts (pp.118-128). In their adoption and amplification of Paolo Freire's work in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Sullivan and Porter enthusiastically elaborate on forms of oppression, differentiate between oppression and power, and confidently declare, "Once oppression is identified, there can be only one ethical stance toward it: Oppose it" (p.122). We're not just talking about overt forms of oppression such as genocide in Sudan, but also covert ones such as computer interfaces: "The Macintosh interface may represent a form of oppression (cultural imperialism), but it's certainly better than the old DOS command-line interface" (p.122). They go on to identify the foundational principle, "liberate the poor," and confidently state: "Given conditions of fundamental inequity, or faced with a situation of oppression, this is the only ethical stance to take. It's the chief operational principle in such situations, and it's a principle not present in the U.S. Constitution" (p.123). I find this argument unconvincing because it assumes hierarchical relationships; suggests that conflicts necessarily have a dimension of oppression; and labels oppressors unambiguously as wrong. Do I really need to point out why these factors are problematic?

This litany of absolutist statements is generally confined to Chapter 5, the chapter on politics and ethics. It is sharply contrasted by other parts of the book, in which they give rein to postmodern uncertainty -- the starts and stops, the on-the-other-hands and the that-is-not-to-says -- and this makes for some joyless and tedious reading. This is partially a stylistic problem, I think, as the postmodernists cited by these authors (Foucault; Deleuze & Guattari) tend not to engage in these unending rounds of hedging.

Why they couldn't strike a balance between these two poles is beyond me. But then again, this book really is all about poles. In Chapter 4, they discuss "postmodern mapping," a vague term that essentially involves setting up pairs of binaries in a cartesian grid and eyeballing where different things should be situated in those binaries. As the authors explain in the concluding chapter, multiplying binaries is a way of complicating and questioning them: Western society is so used to binaries that this way is easier than trying to abolish them outright, they say. So we get poles in spades, poles that intersect other poles that intersect others in a grim recursion.

Well, I got a little carried away by the "hate" part of this "love-hate" relationship. Let me conclude with a little more "love": the book really does have some valuable insights and some valuable case studies, and it's a rare methodology book in the subfield of computers and writing. Chapters 1 and 3 are particularly valuable. I'll probably end up copying these chapters for my grad-level qualitative research class next spring.

Blogged with Flock