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RE: Navigation lists and headers - best practise?

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From: Philip Kiff
Date: Aug 24, 2006 11:10PM


ph O'Connor wrote:
> Philip Kiff wrote:
>> I think it can be handy for some users if navigation menu lists are
>> preceded by headings, and I have begun to think that adding them is
>> a generally good idea, but I don't think it makes sense in all
>> circumstances. And it certainly would not make sense to specify h2
>> as the particular heading level to use.
>
> Phil,
>
> I concur that it is useful "for some users" to precede navigation
> menu lists with headings, but am not sure why H2 would not be used
> and moreover feel that it is useful for all users. Is there research
> or are there WCAG 1.0 guidelines against this practice?

I am not aware of any specific research into this. I mention one
contentious guideline interpretation below. But just to be clear, I do
think that this use of headings can be useful, and I think that using h2 may
be the best choice on many sites, and generally I think this practice
supports and complements WCAG 1.0 and other web accessibility guidelines for
the reasons suggested by Jon.

My comments were not meant to suggest that one should not use h2 heading
elements. All I'm trying to get at is that I am not sure that naming h2 as
the specific level to use is something that one should view as a generally
accepted "best practice".

>From my unscientific observations, I would say that the use of a heading to
mark up "off-left" text to introduce an unordered list used as a navigation
menu is something that many accessible designers may be inclined towards and
some are putting into practice, but it does not yet have the status of a
widely accepted "best practice". Maybe my observations are wrong on this
latter point, though this seems to be where I am tending myself. But
assuming one accepts the idea of using headings in this way, my question is
whether one should specify using h2 level heading elements or if it might
not be better just to leave it at a recommendation to use "an appropriate"
heading element.

I think one will find that there are legitimate, and possibly
irreconcilable, differences of opinion about the correct use of heading
elements generally. For instance, some people advocate the use of just a
single h1 heading element on each page, while others see that as a waste of
a heading level, especially when creating large documents which actually
make use of all 6 heading levels on some pages. Some people suggest that
the h1 should more or less duplicate the information in the title element
from the html head section. Others suggest that the h1 element should mark
up the top banner of each page, thereby ensuring that the site/brand
identity is part of every page structure: the h2 would then be used as the
first page-specific content heading, and if you follow the previous method,
then the h2 might therefore contain more or less a duplicate of the title
element from the html head section. I personally haven't yet seen a
convincing argument that one or the other of these positions is clearly
better (more accessible, more usable, more standards-compliant) than the
other. If that's the case, then it is difficult to say that h2 should
always be the heading used since on two almost identical pages the relative
level of h1 and h2 elements may be interchanged.

Also, according to the WCAG 1.0, you are not supposed to skip headings:
"Since some users skim through a document by navigating its headings, it is
important to use them appropriately to convey document structure. Users
should order heading elements properly. For example, in HTML, H2 elements
should follow H1 elements, H3 elements should follow H2 elements, etc.
Content developers should not "skip" levels (e.g., H1 directly to H3). Do
not use headings to create font effects; use style sheets to change font
styles for example."
(HTML Techniques, 1.2.1 Section headings,
<http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10-HTML-TECHS/#document-headers>;)

This will not affect all sites, but you can see that in a case where the
navigation menu appears before anything else on the page, then it will be
technically incorrect to apply an h2 heading level to it, since an h2 should
only appear _after_ an h1 has already appeared. Now there are differences
of opinion I think about whether or not this is actually an accessibility
issue, despite what it states in the WCAG Guidelines. And I am not clear on
whether this would actually present any real accessibility issue for anyone.
But it would still make more sense to me in such cases to use an h1 there.
And once you've done that, then you could use another h1 for your page
title. Your h1 headings would then act as a link to your navigation menu
and your main contents. This seems defensible to me as a method of coding.

> but am not sure why H2 would not be used
> and moreover feel that it is useful for all users.

I think again it depends on the design and coding of the site. For
instance, on a site where the nav menu is the first thing that appears on a
page (before a logo, before a title, before anything), then I don't really
see these inserted headings (h2 or h1 or whatever) as particularly useful
for any user. The navigation menu is the first thing that any browser is
going to get (visual or aural). If the user wants to go to the navigation
menu, they will not enter into a headings reading mode, they will just start
to read again at the top of the page or jump to the top of the page. The
addition of a heading in such a case is just slowing down a screen reader's
access to your menu since they have to listen to the heading before they get
to listen to your menu. I can even imagine a case where a user wants to
jump to the page content by using some kind of heading reading mode, and
that user would have to repeatedly listen to the menu heading when what they
really wanted was to use the headings specifically to skip the navigation
menu. That's not saying that the content becomes inaccessible, but in terms
of a streamlined interface (i.e. best practices in terms of "usability"), I
can imagine particular cases where using the h2 in this way is not useful
for all users, and hence why I'm not sure about identifying it as a "best
practice".

Phil.