I Am Finley


Accessibility and Flipboard


When you build a website with traditional standard DOM techniques, you get accessibility “for free” more or less, and this is without question a good thing. I’ve been a proponent of accessibility for as long as I can remember. It does not follow, however, that what Flipboard chose to do is wrong.

It is true that Flipboard’s engineering decisions prioritize animation and scrolling performance above accessibility. That’s no secret — the title of their how-we-build-this post was “60 FPS on the Mobile Web”. It does not mean they don’t care about accessibility. My understanding is that accessibility is coming — they’re working on it, but it isn’t ready yet.

When titans clash. I love that we are, as a web community, getting back to writing instead of quick messages on Twitter. The thought that both Faruk Ateş and John Gruber have put down in words is great and the conversation is what makes the web such a great platform.

Last week, I shared a blog post from Flipboard’s engineering team about their new, mind-blowing website. Not only did they create a great desktop version of their service, but they built a stunning, Canvas-driven mobile version. Their whole reason for not using the DOM (HTML and CSS) was for the sake of visual performance and user experience. 60 frames per second. In iOS, we call this butter. It isn’t something iOS developers sacrifice. It’s the expected norm. In fact, it is by and large why HTML5-driven, app-wrapped apps are so bad. With the web stack, smooth animation doesn’t happen. When a scroll view doesn’t scroll like butter, it looks jumpy. Jumpy looks cheap. Facebook suffered from this. So they went native. Basecamp suffered from this, so they are slowly going native. My bank suffers from this but they continue using Phone Gap and it is the worst app that I am forced to use.

As Gruber points out:

Blinded by ideology, oblivious to the practical concerns of 60-FPS-or-bust-minded developers and designers, the W3C has allowed standard DOM development to fall into seemingly permanent second-class status.

The DOM was never built for what we are doing with the web today. But Faruk is right about the DOM:

[The DOM makes] content easily accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime, using any device

This is what is difficult. If you want to build a great product, some sacrifices must be made. Gruber says so perfectly that “shipping is a feature.” Ship early, ship frequently is oft the motto of web companies, and one I agree with. Flipboard chose to use new technology that fits their product and by doing so increased the amount of effort needed to pull it off. If Gruber is right, that Flipboard is working hard on accessibility for their new web service, then I don’t see much of a problem here. Before last week, Flipboard was only available as an app. Last week that changed. Those that need accessibility will have to wait a bit longer.

But like Gruber and Faruk, I care highly for accessibility. This is why I took the opportunity with Ashes a couple years ago to involve a blind man in testing the app. With his help, most of the app is fully accessible through VoiceOver. Subsequently, Ashes was featured on a number of podcasts because of it’s accessibility. Making it accessible was an afterthought. Design and, as Faruk says, flashiness were crucial to making the app what it was. The design sold it. But accessibility came soon too.

I think in a year we’ll look back at the amazing, open-source library that Flipboard will have released for making Canvas accessible and forget that for a few months we had a beautiful, cool app that was inaccessible. But in the meantime, the conversation will continue.