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RE: "Greater Than" symbols used for other things


From: Jukka Korpela
Date: Sep 26, 2002 11:53PM

Carol Foster wrote:

> Just wondering about opinions on using the ">" symbol for
> things like crumb separators and so forth.

Short answer: I'm against that.

> I notice the WebAIM site uses them, e.g. on
> http://www.webaim.org/howto/captions/

We might try to figure out how well the string
Home > How-To > Captions
works, when the words are links and the content is read aloud by a speech
synthesizer. Then we would have to ask how the character ">" should be
treated in speech synthesis in general and whether it is feasible to expect
different treatment in different contexts. In the original and still common
meaning of the character, in mathematical expressions like x > 42, the
appropriate reading in English would be "is greater than". But since the
character has so many uses, such as the use in HTML and XML tag delimiters
and otherwise in lieu of angle brackets, something more neutral and
context-independent is needed, unless some sophisticated contextual analysis
is performed each time the character is encountered. Mere "greater" could
easily be misunderstood, so "greater than" or even "greater than sign"
should apparently be used.

It has been mentioned in the discussion that some software ignores ">" or
the double ">>". Can that really be possible? How do they read text
containing simple mathematical expressions then?

One might use a small image instead, and then we could write an alt text
that says how it should be read. But what would that be? We could even use
different alt texts for the different occurrences, but it's hard to tell
what words would convey the idea of hierarchy. How would the following sound
like? "(link) Home, section (link) How-To, current topic: Captions". When
there are several hierarchy levels, you could use "section" as alt text for
the first occurrence of the symbol, "subsection" for the second, and maybe
"subsubsection" for the third.

But let's consider it in a different way. Suppose you would like to inform
the user that the current page has the short name "Captions" and it belongs
to a section named "How-To" and you would like to have a link to the latter
as well as the main page of the site. How would you do that if speech were
the only mode of communication? Would you write
[link] Home > [link] How-To > Captions
and just consider whether the separator character ">" will be read in an
understandable way?

No, I don't think you would. You would probably say something like
"This page belongs to the (link) How-To section of the (link) WebAIM site."
And I would say that this is roughly what you should write too. (It id
redundant to write "Captions" in our current example, since it's just a
short name for the page, and the page should have a descriptive title
element and a good heading anyway, so repeating that in abbreviated form is
rather redundant.) That would be understandable to almost anyone who knows
English, wouldn't it? The breadcrumb paradigm isn't as obvious as it seems.

I have toyed with the idea of recommending Web page authors to start with
designing the auditive appearance of a page. Since it is difficult to keep
structure, content and presentation as separate as we should, people want to
work with all aspects simultaneous. This is why we currently have the
situation that I call the tyranny of the normal PC screen in Web site
design. If you have to design structure and content together with
presentation, it's better to work with auditive presentation for several
reasons. Most people easily realize that they need to consider visual
apperance too, at some later moment. But one of the reasons for primarily
auditive design is that you can't play with symbols and abbreviations so

> We are working on a site where this symbol is used to point
> to the current heading in the left nav. JAWS says "greater",
> which could be pretty confusing. Should we go to the trouble of
> making a graphic version, as I have heard suggested, with alt text
> something like "the current topic is:"?

Maybe. Not as a separate graphic version, but as a modification to the
existing one. This would let you use a better symbol, such as an arrow, in
the visual presentation. You might make the alt text more concise, for
example "Current:" or even "Now at". Or maybe you could simply use the words
"Now at" as such.

Jukka Korpela, senior adviser
TIEKE Finnish Information Society Development Centre
Diffuse Business Guide to Web Accessibility and Design for All:

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