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What all of this amounts to is simply this: For the programmer, usability actually refers to the completeness of the application. This is the reason why this chapter discusses usability in terms of polishing a finished application. You may have all of your navigation working perfectly for mouse and click control, but that does not mean the application is complete. Much of usability is just common sense, and the issues that arise are generally things that developers know they could add to enhance the application. The lesson to learn is this: Until you do add these enhancements, your application is not complete.
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The more frequently an application is used, the more likely it is that users will expect to shortcut past mouse and click control. This usually means tab navigation, arrow key navigation, paging up and down through lists, scroll wheel functionality, and control key shortcuts. Most of us are guilty of ignoring these types of navigation and leaving these keys to perform their default behavior, which is either undesirable or nonexistent. As you start creating applications intended for frequent use, you should also start paying much more attention to keyboard navigation in particular. The problem with custom experiences is usually that they are incomplete. Most users will appreciate a creative and attractive custom experience, but that appreciation will quickly wane if they cannot use the keyboard to quickly navigate around. You can achieve versatility, or the ability to do a given task in multiple ways, through keyboard shortcuts like Ctrl+key combinations, by enabling alternate mouse behaviors such as the scroll wheel or right-clicks, or by enabling different sections to link to each other in multiple ways. The usefulness of alternate keys and controls is pretty apparent, but linking between sections may not be. To use an example, suppose you have a database application for a small business with a table of products and a nice editor to add and change that table. Once all of the products are stored, the application has a number of tools that leverage this table, such as lists of current inventory or lists of orders placed by customers. Anywhere that the data from the list of products appears, you should consider putting a link back to the product editor, so that users can update prices or correct errors with the least amount of effort.
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It goes without saying that localization, the ability to support multiple languages, greatly expands your potential user base. Still, such support is often neglected, usually because translation services seem too expensive, or because it isn t until you finish an application that you really know what text you need to have translated. The solution to both of these problems is to select translators that you can afford, so that you don t feel like you need to wait until the last minute to get everything translated at once. It is much less difficult than you may think to find a bilingual person willing to do some quick translations for small fee, especially if you leverage online resources.
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Building an Application
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Accessibility refers to making an application more usable for visually impaired, mobility impaired, and cognitively impaired users. Generally, the focus of accessibility is enabling screen readers to function properly, as these steps also address a wide range of accessibility issues. Many clients, particularly government organizations, demand accessible applications because they are often required by law to make their services accessible. Even if accessibility isn t legally mandated, it is well worth the effort. Accessibility increases your potential user base into an extremely underserved market of users. To use a screen reader, users navigate using only the keyboard. Keyboard navigation is also a must for many users with mobility impairments. Color-blind users will not be able to distinguish contrasts between certain colors, and users with low vision may not be able to distinguish subtle contrasts. The first step for developers is to ensure that all navigation in the application can be performed using the basic keyboard navigation keys: Tab, Space, Enter, the arrow keys, and modifier keys like Control and Shift. This is usually the most difficult part for developers, and it often requires a great deal of planning to be sure that every element on the screen can be reached in a logical way using directional and tab navigation. For experimental or unusual Flash interfaces, this can be a particular challenge. For any AIR application, it is not difficult technically to listen for keys and use those keys to manage the focus. It can be quite a bit of work, but for a well-architected application it should not be difficult. However, it can be a significant logical challenge to make sure that you build an interface that can be navigated entirely with the keyboard. The second step for developers is making sure that for each item that can be focused, there is a caption that can be read by a screen reader. The Flex and Flash frameworks provide a wide array of components capable of providing that functionality, and have been tested against popular screen reading software, particularly JAWS for Windows. HTML generally supports such functionality very naturally, and the caption options on HTML forms and images are standard. Whether you use Flex, Flash, or HTML in your AIR application, the only way to ensure that you have built an accessible application is through testing. If you are not able to obtain your own copy of JAWS, you might want to consider seeking out a local user group for the blind and visually impaired. If you stop and really think about how difficult it must be to use a computer with only keyboard navigation, especially if you could not see the screen, it becomes apparent why these users are likely to form user groups. It also becomes apparent why these users would be happy to help you improve that situation.
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