Forced Visual Encumbrance Adds Visual Clutter

Visual Clutter

A recurring constraint through the majority of use cases is that forcing a visual encumbrance on sighted users by adding long description text in-page or adding a visual link indicator in-page to a long description adds visual clutter for sighted users.

Jonas Sicking publicly acknowledged and accepted that this constraint is valid in his change proposal saying that,

page designers often have quite strict requirements on the visual appearance of the page and it would likely negatively impact the level of accessibility support if contents specifically for for example screen readers had to be provided within those requirements.

A forced visual encumbrance is a critical and significant constraint for designers, visual artists, and marketers because of usability and aesthetics.

Clutter is an important phenomenon in our lives, and an important consideration in the design of user interfaces and information visualizations. Many existing visualization systems are designed to reduce clutter by filtering what objects or information the user sees... Tips for designing web pages, maps, and other visualizations often focus on techniques for displaying a large amount of information while keeping clutter to a minimum through careful choices... [Rosenholtz et al., Feature Congestion: A Measure of Display Clutter (PDF)]

For sighted users, the consequences of adding a redundant visual text description is information overload which wastes time and taxes attention at the content's peril. It would be akin to having the value of the alt attribute visible by default or providing visible indicators of it. Making such features visible by default would cause needless work for designers to hide them or frustration to the majority of sighted users if designers didn't hide them.

Removing such visual clutter increases understanding and actual time-on-task for the majority of sighted users. This is where visual design plays an increasingly important role. It is well known that reducing clutter improves usability.

The statement from cartoonist Kyle Weems provides first-hand author testimony that a default visual indicator on-screen is unacceptable due to this constraint. As Kyle explained, designers object to being told to use visible links. In this use case it is illogical and redundant to recreate the dialog of a series of cartoon speech bubbles directly after the cartoon from a visual design perspective. In these types of cases the aesthetic principle of the artist will always trump 'data' requirements when those requirements become onerous. Aesthetic principles restrict the way a solution can be provided. Ignoring such author constraints is ignoring reality.

Natively Free from a Visual Encumbrance Solves a Problem

A longdesc's is natively free from a visual encumbrance. It solves a problem as it allows accommodation, customization, and personalization of content in accordance with a target audience's needs and capabilities.

As Suzanne Taylor and Ed McCoyd, Esq., of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) testified to the HTML working group,

The longdesc attribute does not impact the visual design. So, authors do not have to worry about how the text might impact the visual user experience. Authors can, therefore, focus on the experience of students and instructors with visual impairment while they write text alternatives. This focus on the primary audience helps authors create text that is well-suited for its purpose.

AbilityNet discuses how hiding content from view optimizes browsing experiences for two user groups,

Hiding content from view but enabling it to be read out by screen readers enables the web developer to provide additional information that is helpful for the screen reader user. This would enable the screen reader user to understand the content of the web page or the way the web page is constructed without compromising on design. This is particularly useful for elements and areas where there is not enough text describing the area or element ...Hiding content from view can enhance the usability of the website for screen reader users without compromising on design. Visual users will have no indication that these design elements are present resulting in visual and non-visual users having the optimum browsing experience.

This constraint has been amply evidenced with the documentation of over eighteen hundred real world images that do not force a visual encumbrance for a long description by using longdesc. As this compelling pattern evidences, circumstances do indeed exist where page authors need, desire, and utilize longdesc due to this constraint.

Allowing for Discoverability Serves Other Use Cases

Scott Berkun has explained the myth of discoverability,

The myth of discoverability, in concise form: The belief that all good user interfaces make all things in the website or product utterly and extremely discoverable, and any design that makes an element (button, link, etc.) less than extremely discoverable, can't possibly be very good, and should be thrown away, to the embarrassment of the designer...All things can not be easily discoverable because everything is limited.


The fact is that, some people may want or need to consume or access long description content that doesn't force a visual encumbrance but do not use assistive technology (AT). The following sighted people may be aided by access to a longdesc:

Existing longdesc Discoverability Tools Fulfill These Use Cases

No discoverability tools exist for proposed solutions such as hidden.

Discoverability tools exist for longdesc. These tools are used by sighted authors and others. On March 11, 2011, professional content producers at the Digital Image and Graphic Resources for Accessible Materials Center (DIAGRAM) addressed longdesc support for other users. Their testimony states:

features developed to help people with specific disabilities also assist other users, and this is true for long image descriptions. Today, for example, Firefox and Opera allow the user to open a context menu over an image and choose to see the long description on the screen, if @longdesc is included with the image. This is an excellent tool for assisting sighted students with learning disabilities who need textual reinforcement when deciphering the contents of a complicated image.

The Include longdesc in HTML5 change proposal provides a solution to the forced visual encumbrance constraint while specifying discoverability functionality for all who want access to the description. The claim that longdesc isn't exposed to some users is outweighed by the concrete examples of it being exposed in accessible ways and is as ludicrous as suggesting that the <img> element should be removed from HTML5 because its graphic contents cannot be disclosed to users who elect to use Lynx or similar.

Incentive for More Discoverability Tools

On May 5, 2012, HTML Co-Chair, Maciej Stachowiak stated,

if a UA can give a better experience i think they should be encouraged to try

To help browser vendors in this effort in the future, new text has been specified for the 10.6.1 rendering section. which illustrates how longdesc can be made discoverable. It will encouraged to them to improve support. As Anne van Kesteren has said, examples in the specification serve as an incentive to vendors:

It's an incentive to get the software fixed.