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You are here: Home 1997 Vol. 29 No. 3, July 1997 Columns Standards: Standards for Multimedia, Accessibility, and the Information Infrastructure
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Standards: Standards for Multimedia, Accessibility, and the Information Infrastructure

Harry E. Blanchard

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In my first column I gave a broad overview of standards agencies, then in my next two I began going into greater detail on the activities of specific committees, beginning with ISO TC159/SC4 and then ANSI/HFES 200. I will continue with covering each agency so that, eventually, I will have covered each committee with some degree of comprehensiveness. However, this month I will take a break from that pattern and report some recent news on new activities in interesting areas. Specifically, the areas are multimedia, accessibility of computers to disabled users, and the so-called "information infrastructure".

Multimedia Standards

In my second column several months ago, I reported on ISO 14915, a standard on Multimedia which is in currently under development by ISO TC159/SC4/WG5. This is the ISO committee on "software ergonomics" for work with visual display terminals. Multimedia is a recent work item with this committee, as work on ISO 9241 winds down. (ISO 9241 is a large, multipart standard for "office work with visual display terminals" covering hardware and human computer interaction design for work with computers.)

Last time I reported on 14915, its sections were little more than outlines and beginning drafts. Now, following the Working Group 5 meeting in Atlanta, GA, USA, on March 19--21, three of the four sections of ISO 14915 are in Working Draft (WD) status, and are expected to be delivered as Committee drafts (CD) before the end of this year. In ISO, the WD stage is the initial drafting of the document which is circulated only within the committee itself, and the CD stage is the first stage at which a document is circulated for comments and voting among the various constituent national bodies participating in ISO.

The four parts of ISO 14915 are

  • Part 1: Introduction and Framework
  • Part 2: General Design Issues for Multimedia Controls and Navigation
  • Part 3: Media Combination and Specific Multimedia Requirements for Individual Media
  • Part 4: Domain Specific Multimedia Aspects

CDs for Parts 1 and 2 are currently expected in June, Part 3 in December, and Part 4 next year. Part 1 of 14915 is an overview without requirements or recommendations. Part 2 provides recommendations for the design of multimedia controls and navigation and Part 3 will provide recommendations on specific media and media combinations.

Part 4 has recently been outlined, but a working draft is unlikely to be available until at least the second half of this year. The outline is ambitious, so it is certainly possible that the scope and contents of this section will change as the document develops. The current outline includes four sections:

  • General design principles
  • Input devices: covering remote controls
  • Dialog techniques: menus, forms and hypertext
  • Presentation techniques: TV handling, program guides, shopping, education, and web

The next meeting of ISO TC159/SC4/WG5 takes place in Sydney, Australia on July 21--23. For further information about the meetings and schedule of Working Group 5, you may contact Norbert Butz of DIN in Germany (DIN is the Secretariat for ISO TC159/SC4.) He may be reached at +49 30 2601-2395 and by fax at +49 30 2601-1231. For those who might consider attending a meeting of Working Group 5, you must also contact Mr. Butz, and it is equally important to contact your local national representative body to ISO (often a Technical Advisory Group, or TAG), even if you are only thinking of attending as an observer.

Meanwhile, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) has been planning its own work on Multimedia User Interfaces. The IEC is an international standards body which creates consensus-based voluntary standards in the fields of electricity and electronics. Although the bulk of IEC standards are on such topics as the generation and transmission of electric current, for example, their charter in electronics includes information technology standards. To avoid duplication of work with ISO in the areas of computer and information technology, the Joint Technical Committee on Information Technology was formed (JTC1). However, despite this effort to avoid conflict, it does happen.

IEC Technical Committee 100 is titled "Audio, Video, and Multimedia Systems and Equipment". TC100 received a New Work Item (NWI) proposal last September for "Guidelines for the User Interface in Multimedia Equipment for General Purposed Use". The committee assigned a task force to study the scope of this work in light of existing standards and need for the work, and to develop a plan and schedule. A report from this task force will be produced by the time this column appears.

IEC's rationale for this work in light of other obviously similar work in the international arena appears to be one of scope. This new work item on multimedia in IEC TC100 will cover the whole scope of multimedia systems well beyond personal computers. According to a report filed by the task force leader, the scope of an IEC multimedia standard could cover televisions and video players, telephones, copy and fax machines, air conditioners, lighting, heaters, washing machines, and other household "multimedia" devices. In addition, the scope covers both home and public environments and users of any age without any special training. This is in contrast to the ISO multimedia standards, which are limited to computer interfaces in office environments. This work, of course, is still at the definition stage, and has yet to be fully reconciled with other standards activities. I will report on its development as I become aware of its progress.

Accessibility

As I will use the term here, accessibility in user interface design refers to adaptation of a design for "universal" use, to wit, to allow use (and be easy to use) by persons with and without disabilities. Standards committees have begun to show a keen interest in creating standards and guidelines for accessibility in human-computer interaction.

In the United States, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Human Computer Interaction Standards committee is developing a human computer interaction standard, ANSI/HFES 200. This standard will likely be the earliest in the "official" standards world in terms of information on accessibility specifically in user interfaces. One chapter of this standard will provide guidelines for making computer user interfaces usable by people with disabilities of all different kinds.

The objective of the Accessibility section of ANSI/HFES 200 is to provide guidelines for system designers that will maximize the usability of computer software for people with disabilities. Of note here is the emphasis on usability. The scope of this document is not to just provide requirements for basic accessibility, that is, to specify what simply is needed to allow a disabled user to use a computer system at all. But, rather, once able to use the computer, what, also, will make the computer easier to use for these users.

Typically, adaptation of computer systems to users with disabilities involved specialized software or add-on assistive hardware devices. This document attempts to provide some guidelines for designing systems and software so that they can utilize and integrate with these add-on assistive devices.

However, this document has a second basic goal: to provide guidelines to designers which will promote greater usability in systems without requiring add-on devices. So, for example, a guideline may suggest that software designers build in the ability to change the screen font to a substantial degree. Simply providing some level of customization of this sort will allow a significant component of the population with vision difficulties to use computer systems without assistive devices. This guideline will certainly not obviate the need for magnification technology for some percentage of the population with more extreme vision difficulties or blindness, but it will open a piece of software for more universal use than it might have without this simple feature.

The ANSI document on Accessibility is still undergoing major revisions, but, currently, the areas covered look like this:

  • User Characteristics: specified issues commonly encountered by users with various classes of disabilities
  • General Guidelines: various recommendations for the design of user-computer dialog
  • Keyboard Input Configuration: recommendations on the actions of keyboards and other input devices which replace keyboards.
  • Pointing Devices: recommendations for mouse or trackball button presses and other characteristics (and for other devices)
  • Audio Output: recommendations for parameters and customization of sounds
  • Other areas: Fonts, Graphics, Color, Window System recommendations and User Guidance and Documentation.

ANSI/HFES 200, including its Accessibility section, is expected to be complete and ready for canvass before the end of this year. The ANSI/HFES 200 standard is being developed under the ANSI canvass method, where after the development organization, HFES, produces a draft standard, that standard is circulated for comment among a canvass committee which includes entities in the U.S. which have a material interest in the standard. If you have any possible material interest in this standard or its accessibility section, then you should consider applying to be on the canvass committee, which is being formed now. Contact Lynn Strother at HFES at PO Box 1369, Santa Monica, CA 90406, USA or Lynn_Strother@compuserve.com.

However, accessibility has bubbled up to the top of the new work lists for the other active HCI standards development entities. At their March meeting this year, ISO TC159/SC4/WG5 (Software Ergonomics) voted to begin work on an accessibility standards document in addition to their current multimedia work. An exchange of information has already been initiated between this committee and ANSI/HFES 200, given the latter committee's work in progress in this domain.

I only just referred to the IEC TC100 committee's new work item on "Audio, Video, and Multimedia Systems and Equipment" earlier in this column. Among the broad scope of this intended work, there is a placeholder for guidelines on "providing for the disabled". Again, at this writing, this very work is still being defined, writing has not yet begun, so its scope and contents are quite likely to change. But we may well see the IEC covering accessibility in their coming works.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an organization which has been designing standards for the world Internet somewhat outside the operation of the more established traditional standards agencies like ISO and IEC. W3C is responsible, for example, for the definition of the HTML hypertext formatting language for the World Wide Web. This April, the consortium met, and among its committees was a new one devoted to making the web more accessible to people with disabilities.

Similarly, I will discuss below the work of the IISP in the U.S., an ANSI committee studying standards for the "information superhighway". Among that committee's contributions, a request for standards work on accessibility was submitted in the first quarter of this year.

The Global Information Infrastructure

According to their web page, the Information Infrastructure Standards Panel (IISP) in the United States was established under ANSI to accelerate the development of standards which will be crucial to the building of the National Information Infrastructure (NII) and the Global Information Infrastructure (GII). This panel was established several years ago, when the phrase "national information superhighway" was over-prevalent in the news media.

What is the "National Information Infrastructure"? It includes but is more than just the World Wide Web and the global Internet. It's all possible methods of getting information into the home. In particular, it includes cable television lines and the use of television set top boxes to provide customized information services and video (the contemporary version of videotext). The work in IISP and the industry participation heavily reflects this cable and interactive television component.

Like ANSI itself, the IISP does not develop standards but manages the standards development process, as done by other agencies and societies. Its principle goal is to identify what is needed in terms of standards to promote the development of the National and Global Information Infrastructure. Once the needs have been identified, IISP will locate what standards exist, what standards are currently in development by various committees. And, most important, the gaps will be identified. Then IISP will solicit agencies to develop those standards which are missing but needed for the NII and GII. In addition, the result of this process should minimize the overlap and redundancy among standards developers.

Although IISP started out as a response to the national "information superhighway" initiative in the United States, it has shown increasing interest, by necessity, to approach the perspective of the Global Information Infrastructure.

IISP is made up of seven working groups:

  • WG1: Common principles of understanding
  • WG2: Standards Framework Management
  • WG3: Standards Development and Tracking System
  • WG4: User/Content Provider Standards Requirements
  • WG5: International Aspects of the NII/GII
  • WG6: Cross Industry Understanding and Cooperation
  • WG7: Role of Government

Of particular interest for user interface professionals is WG4, which studies standards needs from the "user and content provider" perspective. WG4's function is to identify standards requirements from this perspective and submit them to the IISP standards process. This involves writing a document which is referred to as a "Standards Need" which is then the basis for evaluating what work is being done on that need and what work needs to be solicited from standards development organizations. WG4 has formed six task groups to study specific areas. One of those task groups is Human Factors.

To date, four Standards Needs have been filed within IISP in the domain of Human Computer Interface. Standards Needs are officially posted on their web page at http://www.ansi.org/iisp/needcat.html. The four user interface Standards Needs are

  • Need #10: Quality of Service (QOS)
  • Need #23: Constant User Environment
  • Need #51: Remote Control/Mousing
  • Need #84: Human Computer (User) interface Requirement: Functions and Characters of Remote Control Devices

In addition, during the last IISP meeting on March 23--26, a new needs statement on Accessibility was accepted, entitled "Enabling Accessibility for Users with Disabilities". This Need will be officially posted by the time this column appears.

The Quality of Service Need asks for a standard measure of service quality (to help clearly identify differently tariffed grades of service). The QOS could be an engineering measure or a user oriented measure (such as a rating) -- the Need does not specify one or the other.

The Constant User Environment Need results from the assumption of a "nomadic user", one who accesses information from many different locations. This Need sets forth the desire to provide a consistent look and feel of the user interface at home or remotely.

The Need on Remote Control/Mousing calls for a standard set of mouse actions (e.g. mouse clicks) for information service functions. The need to develop consistency between the computer industry and the television industry (with mouse-like actions from a remote control) is especially noted.

The Need on Functions and Characters of Remote Control Devices is broader than these other Needs. It calls for a taxonomy of input devices and a standard set of functions and characters for each category of device identified.

The IISP is still in the process of identifying Needs, but it can be expected that solicitation for covering the user interface needs will happen in the near future. I will continue to give updates on the progress of the IISP, as well as any concurrent activities on the international level for the GII.

What about the World Wide Web and the Internet? Besides the IISP, which includes the Web in its standards needs process, there is the World Wide Web Consortium, cited in my last section. W3C as yet has no official group, committee, or task force devoted to the user interface or human factors of the web. However, its activities certainly impact the user interfaces seen on browsers. Certainly, being responsible for the definition of HTML provides profound constraints on graphics, texts, forms, etc. we see in our browsers. In addition, the ISO and IEC projects on multimedia now both include the World Wide Web within their scope of multimedia standards work. This is an area in which we will see growing activity by standards bodies, and is of great interest to the user interface design community as well. Expect to see more about this in the Bulletin's future standards columns.

For Further Information

The Web turns out to be a fertile place to learn more information about some of the standards agencies mentioned in this issue's column:

IEC: In English:
http://www.iec.ch/home-e.htm
In French:
http://www.iec.ch/home-f.htm

IISP:
http://www.ansi.org/iisp

World Wide Web Consortium:
http://www.w3.org/
W3C Accessibility initiative:
http://www.w3.org/pub/WWW/Press/WAI-Launch.html

Correction

In an earlier column, I referred to the IBM human-computer interaction web site for readers seeking further information about ISO 9241, the Ergonomics committee standard on work with visual display terminals. The URL I gave was for the HCI site top level homepage, not to the specific information to which I referred. The information about the ISO ergonomics committee TC159/SC4/WG5 and ISO 9241 may be found at http://www.ibm.com/IBM/HCI/resources/iso/ergonomics.html on that IBM site. In addition, readers may want to look at http://www.ibm.com/IBM/HCI/resources/iso/introduction.html which gives a more general overview and pointers to other international standards activity (and IBM's participation in same).

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Eric Bergman, Elizabeth Buie, Scott Isensee, Leonard Kasday, and Jim Williams for kindly providing information which was included in this column.

Any opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily constitute the opinions of ACM, ACM SIGCHI, or AT&T.

To provide comments or corrections, to the information presented in this column, or reports on standards activities, please contact Harry Blanchard by phone at +1 908 949-9745 or by Internet at heb@acm.org.

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