Last week I attended the W3C symposium on Text Customization for Readability. That's a mouthful... We explored ways that a reader can change the way text looks, to make it easier to read.
If you have low vision, how do you read online?
David Sloan says people like himself with low vision can have great difficulty reading text with subpixel rendering, e.g. ClearType which is no longer configurable in Internet Explorer 9.
Eileen Rivera enlarges text significantly in order to read it. Her wish list item is to allow all text to wrap so she does not have to scroll horizontally. She added that content authors should watch the "gymnastics" that low vision readers go through, which should inspire content authors to work on improving the experience.
Suzette is dealing with the effects of cataract surgery. For her, increased font size is necessary, but makes it difficult to skim. Increased line spacing makes reading more comfortable for her.
Anthony Lee says web browers need to make adjustments very easy. Easy like adjusting volume on your TV, or pinching and zooming on a tablet.
What have we learned from research?
Shawn Henry studied people who customize their CSS. The most popular changes were: font size, font family, colors such as background color and text color, and line height. Less common CSS customizations were text decoration, text alignment, font weight, and margin.
Whitney worked at an online university, and researched what default text styles would be most usable for a broad audience. Specific audiences were teenagers, older adults, people with reading disabilities, people with low literacy, and English learners. It turns out these varied groups had some common needs: larger text size, meaningful images, plain language, and "breaking up walls of words" e.g. clear headings, short paragraphs, and lists. Things that allow people to find the key points.
Luz Rello, studying people with dyslexia, found that personal preference for text presentation was important but not optimal. Authors presented solutions that the readers had not tried, and reading performance improved measurably. The conclusion is that we should base our standards and designs on both kinds of research.
When adapting text, is it better in general to preserve layout or allow reflow? This question came in the context of dyslexia research. Wayne Dick pointed out that we are already creating a reasonable linear reading order for screen readers, so reflowing text looks like a winning strategy.
Tools for readability
Wayne Dick is a researcher who has low vision. He is designing an interactive tool to help each reader find their own best customizations.
Olaf Drümmer and Vasile Topac discussed PDFs. They evaluated tools which convert tagged PDFs to HTML, so that greater customization is possible.
Olaf also commented that mobile is "our best friend" because mobile platforms often require responsive design and customizable text for all users, not just for people with disabilities.
Ideas for the future
Some emails allow reflow, others do not. Will email clients become web authoring tools?
Will we build machines that can analyze a visual layout to infer semantics?
Can research tools become tools for customers, to make customization easier?
Do innovations in e-readers help us design a better web?
In web accessibility standards, text customization should be an important checkpoint.
A common theme is "one size fits one." We need to build things so readers can adjust their text.