After reading a good deal of favorable press about Microsoft Expression Web (EW), I decided to give it a look. Although Microsoft has made several improvements over FrontPage 2003, almost nothing has been done to improve accessibility, and the improvements that have been made offer little to get excited about.
Note: This is not a guide to Microsoft Expression Web, but some of my opinions how Microsoft should have improved Expression Web. If you would like to learn more about using this tool, read the WebAIM article on using MS Expression Web.
Let’s start with the concessions:
- EW does create cleaner, more compliant code and has much better CSS support. This is no small thing, and for this they should be congratulated.
- I spent most of my time evaluating the tool for ease of creating accessible content, and I undoubtedly skipped over several wonderful new features that are not related to accessibility.
- I am a Dreamweaver user, so I am never as comfortable using Microsoft’s web design tools.
Images: Fine if you understand alt text
Probably the most significant improvement in Expression Web is the addition of a dialog box that prompts you to enter alt text for every new image. I am glad to see that this feature is available by default, but it could be handled even better:
- The image is not visible until after you enter alt text. That may make it difficult to describe alt text for an image if you do not remember exactly what image you’re inserting.
- If the user simply hits Enter when this prompt appears, Expression Web automatically enters empty alt text (alt=""). I don’t think this should be the default behavior. I can see developers unfamiliar with this prompt creating a page where every image has null alt text. In EW’s defense, Dreamweaver does this too.
- The dialog box also includes an option to link to a long description. Again, in my opinion, this option should not be available by default. A developer who understands the proper (and more often improper) use of the longdesc attribute should easily be able to link to a long description in the code. Someone who does not, probably should not be using
But it has an accessibility checker!
Most of the ads or information for Expression Web highlight the "Accessibility checker" as proof of Microsoft’s commitment to accessibility.
First, this feature isn’t even new; it was introduced in FrontPage 2003. Second, if you have followed WebAIM for a while, then you probably know that we feel that automated accessibility validators are of limited value, especially for page-by-page evaluation. This is one of the reasons we have been devoted to the development of WAVE. Validators like this Accessibility checker are of limited value if you do not understand accessibility, and you probably won’t bother using them if you do. Still, there is nothing wrong with creating an accessibility report, as long as you recognize that it is not a substitute for creating inaccessible content.
Still layout table-centric
Even though CSS is at the heart of this new tool (I don’t know if that specific claim was ever made, but that seemed to be the general rhetoric) it is clear that Microsoft still has a special place for layout tables. As a matter of fact, you can create/edit layout tables using an icon in the main toolbar, a Table subheading in the main menu, and an additional (although hidden by default) toolbar dedicated to layout tables.
But what if you want to create a data table? It’s a simple matter of creating a header-less table, selecting the cells that should be headers, choosing Cell Properties, selecting the Header cell checkbox, and manually assigning scope to the headers. I would like to have seen something similar to Dreamweaver’s approach to adding tables.
I expected more
This is Microsoft’s replacement for FrontPage, so it will be the tool that countless developers will use to create web content for the next couple of years. That is why I am a disappointed that EW doesn’t make it easier to create accessible content. Although it is possible to add alt text, table headers and form labels, these tasks should be much easier. On the other hand, it does create cleaner, more standards-compliant code, so a user who is not afraid to get into the code should be able to add accessibility features with minimal difficulty.