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Where Overzealous Design Can Cause Your Web Pages to Fail

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Advanced Web technologies can make your site attractive and show your dedication to the cutting edge. However, if they're used improperly, these technologies can remove people from your constituency of potential viewers. Finding the right balance between the two is one of the most difficult jobs you may have. Kyle Cassidy offers some tips for creating accessible Web pages for the broadest field of viewers.

Several years ago, I was on the Web looking for the universal remote code for my VCR, the three digit number that enables a universal remote control to send commands to video equipment such as my tape player. It should have taken seconds to find, but the company that made my VCR got clever and had a huge graphic on its site that looked like a remote control image mapped to links.

To make things more exciting, when I moused over the button, a Java script window popped up the name of the link (Downloads, News, Products) in a little window on a graphic of a television screen. Alas, at the time I didn't have a Java-compatible browser, and a quick glance at the source code clued me in on the fact that I needed it. So, at 9600 baud, I updated my Web browser, set up Java, and then reloaded the Web page. Then each time I moused over a button, I had to wait for the TV screen graphic to download before I could continue.

Needless to say, this turned what should have been a five-minute operation into a multihour operation that left me angry and frustrated at the manufacturer of my equipment. You would think that now, in the future, this wouldn't happen anymore. But, alas, it does—and all too frequently.

If You Can't Say It in Lynx, What Are You Really Trying to Say?

Boil your Web page down to its core components. What do you need to say? Then consider whether you're saying it in too complex a manner. When your users come to your Web page, are they getting information about your company, or are they getting messages like, "This page provides potentially unsafe information to an Active X control. Your current security settings prohibit running controls in this manner. As a result, the page may not display correctly." or "You are not authorized to use this code." or "This parameter is incorrect."?

Let's take a look at an attractive Web page (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Here's a nice, ordinary Web page.

On its face, this page may seem perfectly simple and easily navigable. But let's see how some people view it (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 Same page, different browser.

This is the same Web page in Lynx, a popular text-only Web browser. The page will look like this to people who have graphics turned off for bandwidth reasons, to people who have graphics-incapable browsers, and to blind people using Braille navigators or speech synthesizers. What this page needed to say was very simple: The title of the document ("The Media in Peril") and then links for Home, Introduction, Danger Signs, Examples of Reporting, and Recommendations. The graphics version says all this, but it takes 200K to do it and the site fails at even simple navigation for anyone not using a certain set of tools.

Even worse, if your Web site relies upon tools such as Flash, your viewers could very well be seeing nothing but an error message (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 Viewers without the necessary browser requirements might not see your page at all.

ActiveX controls are programs that execute on your computer, the same as running an .exe file. Of course, the problem with allowing an unknown computer to run code on your computer is the potential for maliciousness. ActiveX controls can delete files if they feel like it. For this reason, there are two basic types of ActiveX controls: signed and unsigned. Signed ActiveX controls have a certificate of authenticity from a place such as VeriSign that basically says, "This person wrote this control." For example, signed controls allow you to trust ActiveX controls authored by Microsoft or other vendors you know.

Unsigned controls, however, have no certificate of authenticity. They can be anything. Normally, on a Web page, the ActiveX control is performing some innocuous graphical functionality, such as an animation. However, there's nothing stopping an unsigned ActiveX control from doing something evil. For this reason, Internet Explorer ships with security set to Medium, which limits the running of unsigned ActiveX. System administrators may also set security to High, which prohibits it completely.

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