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Text resize controls - on the page or only in the browser?


From: Mark Magennis
Date: Feb 24, 2005 4:15AM

Chris Price wrote:
> I wouldn't consider putting a control in the web page to
> change the text size. I want to put control in the hands of
> the user.
> The end user is best served by encouraging them to make best
> use of their browser instead of dumbing it down and reducing
> it to a mere place holder.
> Its down to standards, the right tools for the job,
> intelligent designers and switched on users.

In theory this all sounds great, but observing practice makes me not so
sure. In the user tests we run at CFIT, people with low vision often
comment favourably when they find font size and colour switchers built
into websites. They generally think these controls are a great addition
to any website. There are different reasons for this. Many of these
users are people who do not know how to alter their font sizes and
colours using the built in browser controls. They are not, in Chris's
words, 'switched on users'. It would, of course, be better if they did
know, because then they could change them for every site, rather than
just the ones that provide their own controls. Chris makes this point
when he says the end user is best served by encouraging them to make
best use of their browser. But how do we do that effectively? How do you
switch users on? It has been suggested that information can be provided
on web pages about how to use your browser to change this and that. User
tests reveal that users almost never read that kind of information. In
fact, years and years of user testing for general usability has taught
me that users almost never read anything that looks like instructions or
help. I conclude that this approach will not work. So what else can we
do? Perhaps if we wait long enough, all users will have learned the
controls offered by browsers to change the presentation, like text size
and colours. I believe that day may well come, at least for most users,
as the issue of personalised presentation becomes more widely recognised
and easier to achieve. But does this mean we should wait and let them
suffer in the meantime? Or is it best to provide interim help via
site-specific controls until such time as users are able to learn to
make the right changes themselves? It's one to ponder. Also worth
pondering are the questions of whether giving site-specific assistance
will make users less likely to learn the general facilities themselves
and whether browser controls currently offer an adequate universal
solution anyway.

There are other sides to this though. In our user tests, even those
users that know how to use the browser controls to alter text size,
colours, etc. sometimes prefer to use the controls provided on a Web
page. That's an interesting one isn't it. But think about it for a while
and it's not so ridiculous. The fact is, users are idiosyncratic. We all
have funny foibles and preferences that often we cannot explain. We
often prefer particular methods over others because they just feel
better for us. For example, I never use the Back to Top links on a page.
I don't know why. I know they are there and what they do and that they
do it very well. But I just prefer using my mouse wheel to scroll, even
if it takes five times as long and I know it's going to take five times
as long. I just feel more comfortable with it. When observing user
tests, it is often difficult to figure out exactly what is going on and
why. And users are often unable to satisfactorily explain why they do
certain things either. But I get the feeling that many users just feel
more comfortable using controls provided on the page than they do using
the browser's in-built controls. Why this is, I don't know. Maybe it
subtly gives them a feeling that they are being thought of, included.
Maybe they just trust Web pages more than they trust their browser,
trust local action more than global action (often with good reasons).
But whatever the reasons, it points to a general rule - it's good to
provide redundancy. It's good to provide more than one way of doing the
same thing, leaving the choice to user preferences. Operating systems
are full of this type of redundancy. Take the simple act of scrolling a
window for example. Some people like to use the mouse wheel. Some like
to grab and hold the scroll bar to shift it. Some like to press the auto
scroll arrows. Some like to use the cursor keys to go up and down the
text, forcing the page to scroll. There are multiple redundant methods
of doing the same thing.

This is an interesting topic and provides much food for thought. I am
undecided on whether it is good for a page to provide controls that
emulate browser controls. I am swayed towards it though. But I am
convinced that taking real use and real users into account, however
idiosyncratic or ignorant of how to use their tools, is as important as
thinking theoretically about where functionality 'ought' to sit
according to some rational concept of ideal use. To go back to Chris's
original statement "I wouldn't consider putting a control in the web
page to change the text size. I want to put control in the hands of the
user". Many users would consider you forcing them to use the browser
controls by not providing other methods as taking control AWAY from
them. I'd say 'switched on' users account for maybe 20% of all users at
the moment.


Dr. Mark Magennis
Director of the Centre for Inclusive Technology (CFIT)
National Council for the Blind of Ireland
Whitworth Road, Dublin 9, Republic of Ireland

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