Hello. I've thought of writing something like this for a long time. Some of you who have known me for a while here know that I am totally blind since birth, and that I use my computer with the aid of a software program called a screen reader. Now and then I have mentioned some difficulty or other I have faced with last.fm and other sites. When I first came to last.fm last year I found it one of the most accessible sites on the Internet. Yes it had some odd ideosyncracies, but I could basically do anything here that any other user could without too many problems or headaches. The player software has never been accessible, but there are other third party alternatives for that. So now I've decided to just sit down and write a bit about how I navigate the web, and the problems I've experienced with this new incarnation of last.fm, now that several months have past, and most of the furror of complaints from the general user base has died down.
First let's explain how I and others navigate a webpage. My screen reader sees
the page in a linear sense, just in the order it's coded. If you select a page and
copy it to notepad you'll get some idea of how I see the page, although minus the
information about controls and elements, i.e. which bit is a link and which bit is a button, which is a list box and which is just text. If you were to watch the screen as I read down through a webpage you'll see the cursor jumping all over the place, seemingly at random. Sometimes my mother still tries to help me by telling me that what I want is just to the right
, and gets annoyed when I hit the down arrow and jump to an entirely different part of the screen. That's how the programmer wrote the page though. A followed by B followed by C, but a is not in the same neighborhood of B or C on the screen. Not that I do not use the mouse, the mouse is pretty useless. Everything I do is with the keyboard. I do have what's called a mouse emulator function where I can use the number pad to move the mouse pointer around some, but it doesn't solve everything and is not perfect nor ideal for many things we want to do. A lot of the things you do with the mouse are beyond me because they're based on manipulating graphics. Most things websites tell you you can drag and drop won't drag nor drop for me. The mouse emulator can be useful at times but unfortunately most users don't even learn how to use this feature at all.
One thing you'll notice when looking at a notepad document of a copied webpage is, no images or flash movies. Anything embedded in one of these, no matter how textual it may look to you on the screen, is absolutely indecypherable to any machine. It's just as indecypherable as your handwriting would be to a computer Text is encoded as such, but an image, even one that contains text, is coded as an image and it is not simple to reclaim the raw text from that image. Unfortunately screen readers don't yet incorporate OCR technology, and even if they did the result would be often eroneous, and in the case of animated graphics, downright useless. In fact web designers take advantage of this very inability when they ask you to type the characters that appear in the fuzzy image in order to insure that a real live human with two working eyes is trying to access their material. I will note that One thing last.fm has still done right is the audio CAPTCHA for creating a new user account. It's not for people with learning disabilities or hearing problems or short attention spans, but it works for me. It's basically several people taking turns saying the numbers at a rate of one per 10 seconds through a haze of backwords babble. It's an imperfect replacement for the visual CAPTCHA because it leaves out those with multiple disabilities such as a blind person with hearing loss or maybe dyslexia, but it's what we've got.
There are lots of controls and elements on a webpage, links, radio
buttons, check boxes, combo boxes, list boxes, edit boxes, paragraphs, headings at six levels, etc. etc.
My screen reader has the ability to hop from like element to like element. For instance I hit the letter C to get down to my shoutbox in three taps, first comes the big search box, then the submit button for that, then the shoutbox. Although now sometimes I have to go past another box for some third party site that will show your music taste in color. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not. I can jump to the beginning of a table with t
, a list with s
, etc. I also can use a
find command to find a word or phrase I know to be on the page. If I want to find
the link to tag something for instance, I open the find box with control+shift+f
and type tag
and hit enter. It finds the tags
link first, so I hit insert+f to find more instances of that. Sometimes I don't, so I have to go to the tags
link and bring up that page, where I'm sure to find the link I want as long as it's an artist I want to tag. If I'm tagging a track or album I have to try and find a link that says more
. If I click on that, it'll drop down a box, usually at the very bottom of the linear page, with the option to add tags. If more
is not there, then I close the page and try reopening it again. One case where this is particularly stubborn is album tagging. It's like pulling teeth to get the more
link or the tag
link to appear, opening and reloading the page 9 different ways from Sunday. Clicking tags
takes you to the artist tagging page, not the album or track tagging page, STUPID!!!
Oh did I mention that's really really dumb? But I just figured out a trick that works! Just add /+tags
to the end of the URL of the album or track, and hit enter to load the page! These pages exist, these track and album pages, but last.fm gives you no link to access them! More mages and mazes style tricks they play on us poor users.
There are lots of little tricks I've found, and since I know the layout very well I know exactly how to get where I want to go without reading a bunch of stuff in between that I needn't bother with. Just imagine if you had to read a webpage line by line to find what you want. If I know the layout of a page and what is where, I can fly through it like an airline pilot flying by landmarks, or to use another analogy it's like when you're driving. You don't look at every house number on every street you're on, no, you only watch the street signs.
It did take me a while to learn the new last.fm, and also the new site
isn't entirely accessible like the old one was. I can no longer bring up the tag
box and remove a bunch of tags from it. Those x
's that you can click are completely useless and invisible to me. This, as I understand it, is the result of a web designer getting cute and embedding controls inside other controls. This control is the child of that one which is the grandchild of that one, well my screen reader is designed to recognize good old HTML controls and totally misses the boat with these fancy doodads they've stuck us with. Unfortunately more and more sites are moving away from accessibility and good old HTML in favor of flash and flashiness, pun intended.
This also means that I can't remove a tag from the box even before I've clicked the button to send the tags to the server. As soon as you type a tag in the box and hit comma, like magic the tag disappears from the box. You may be able to still se it there in the box, but that's not where it is for me anymore. It becomes a useless link
above the edit box
. The x
's are embedded inside this where I have no access. Therefore if I made a typing mistake I must reload the whole page and start again, going through my process to bring down the drop-down and everything.
I do things differently now however. Now what I do, whether it's tagging, or writing names of friends I want to share a track, artist, or group with (the control works exactly the same way)
, is that I open up a notepad document. I type all the names or tags in there separated by commas, then I make sure I made no typing mistakes, and then I copy the contents of that document and paste them in the box. This method is also much quicker, because just as it is for some of you, writing in those boxes is molasses slow. I can write a word of about 10 letters, and then I will have to set there for 20 seconds as the letters slowly inhabit the box. My screen reader is frozen during this process. It's much quicker to just paste a bunch of stuff in there. I know some folks have super fast machines and don't have this problem, but I've seen it mentioned in many forums by individuals who definitely do not use screen reading software.
Also I have recently discovered that featured tracks
is actually still a feature of last.fm, I just haven't been able to see them since July. I just assumed that last.fm had gotten rid of this until I started my artist page. I'm no Ray Charles
or Stevie Wonder
, but I do have a small hobby project called Facial Vision
I have 3 tracks up there as featured tracks, and a sighted friend says they're there, but they must be imbedded in an image or flash movie because they're invisible to me. If I find a new artist and want to play his/her music I must find streamable tracks in the charts. If the artist has no plays, and thus no charts, or the streamable tracks aren't in the charts then I must load the albums page and find an album with streamable tracks. For everything that used to take one keystroke, two or three are needed now. Another item about the music manager, if I want to see how many plays are from radio plays, full length previews, or on demand, I'm out of luck. These are only displayed as graphs, which are pictorial by nature. This information does not exist anywhere in machine-readable textual form. It may be the only data on the site that is so completely hidden.
I've also discovered that youtube links are invisible to screen readers. I mean the youtube links that are bracketed by the youtube BBCode tag that you get when you click the youtube button in a forum. There's simply nothing there, not even the indication that there is something there at all. Again, it's a flash movie of some sort. I had no idea about this before, I had never tried the Youtube code myself because I had never seen it done and couldn't see the use of it anyway, unlike many other links you can create here with BBCode that are extremely useful. If it's a forum post at least I can click quote and then copy the link from the quote to my clipboard. If it's in some group's description or somebody's profile I'm out of luck and wouldn't have even known it was there if the writer didn't say there was a youtube link there.
But back to picking featured tracks for your artist page. From a blind artist's point of view, the drop-down to select the album and tracks isn't entirely accessible. There are only accessible links below the first three albums, and if I click one of them, the drop-down that comes down only has one track and no way for me to change it. For all I can tell, the track is mere text. Some programmer thought they'd be cute and make a new class of nifty control, but it's non-standard and unrecognized. What ever happened to the good old list box? By the way, these links to drop the inaccessible boxes down have no alternative text, so when my screen reader reads them it only reads some gibberish probably from the URL or a line of code somewhere.
So, now I have the featured tracks on my page that I have
not because those are the ones I want to feature, but because I want to at least
have some featured tracks on the page and those were the ones that happened to be in the boxes.
One other little annoyance I have is the difference between what I can do in Firefox 2 (3 refuses to run on my system and crashes on startup), and IE7. The most glaring issue is that if I wish to edit an artist, track or tag wiki I must open IE7 because in Firefox the wiki edit box is hidden. The summary and sources boxes are there, just the wiki box is gone. I also must do this when editing a journal, but for another reason which is that I can not choose which groups to publish my journal in in Firefox. The controls to do so are hidden in Firefox unlike the Last.fm of pre-July 2008. This is ironic because with the old site I didn't have trouble with these wikis but journal writing was a chore. With the old site, writing in a journal was like writing in the tag boxes or sharing boxes is today, dead slow. With the new site I can easily write in a journal without everything lagging and freezing. You win some, you lose some. The only reason I like Firefox for most things on Last.fm is because the pages load at a snail's pace with IE.
Well one of these days I'll get off my lazy pecimistic butt and write
a long letter to a staff member high up in the chain. Pecimistic because I, like so
many others do not think the staff, or at least the powers that be, are listening to us. I know that the staff members who write in the forums are probably just as much in the dark as we are about many things. I was being encouraged to do just that back in July and August, but I only posted a few things in the forum, my thinking being that back then there was so much noise generated by the ordinary users complaining about the new site that noone would be paying much attention to me anyway. Unfortunately I think I was mostly right, gauging from the responses from staff in the topics I posted in. There are probably no more than 100 screen reader users on last.fm and that's being generous. So, UK laws stating that all websites be accessible notwithstanding, and that doesn't even apply to privately run sites like US laws do, I don't expect anything to happen when I do make the attempt. For the most part though, the site is still much more accessible than it might be, and now I can remove single tags from artists from the tag page in the library at least. I've been lucky in that I've been able to find workarounds for many of these problems. It's unfortunate that the average user would not have the patience or the knowhow to do such. I'm not saying I'm any kind of computer whiz or hacker, but there are many levels of computer literacy out there among blind and sighted folks alike.
The library is another story though, it's a bit of a mess with each page of artists in
your library containing umpteen other pages on it as disorganized lists, and I do mean disorganized. It seems like they must have paneled the page with them and of course since they come out in a one-dimensional line for me, they're just a confusing mishmash. I really don't understand why I need 500 plus pages of my library, where each page has about 10 or so lists from previous pages. It would be like publishing a book where each page has mostly the same material as the previous page, only it leaves out the first sentence of the previous page, and adds on a new sentence, and each succeeding page in the book does the same thing, printing the exact same sentences and paragraphs as the previous, minus one sentence at the beginning of the page and plus a new one at the end. This is the way the library is displayed. As an exercise, try going to your library. Go to say, page 6. Copy that page into a notepad document. Now go to page 7 and do the same. Go to page 8 and do the same. Now compare the notepad documents.
Something they seem to have fixed recently, I used to have to do a bit of fooling with the address bar if I wanted to see one of my tags in the library that isn't shown in the cloud
. You see, it was impossible to show the tags as a list. You could click on show as a list
, fine, and you could see the first page of tags, but as soon as you wanted to go to the next page it automatically took you back to the cloud instead. Now they seem to have fixed that, I can actually look at all of someones tags now.
And I've recently been looking at artists in other people's libraries. I will tag an artist who is a last.fm user with the tags he has given himself, but the only way to do that is to find him in his own library. What I do is go to the tasteometer and click one of the artists there. It's the only place you'll these days see an artist page from someone else's library. Then I simply replace the artist name at the end of the URL in the address bar with the artist name I want, load the page, and voila, I can now read what tags he's given himself.
So now you know a bit of how I see the last.fm website. The problems that still exist are why I'm still in that Bring back the old Last.fm
It's not that I ever expected it to come back, and has nothing to do with those pictures in my library or the ugly
layout, these are meaningless things to me, paint it black or paint it yellow. It's simply to let people know that I'm still not happy with the new site. It's not the layout, it's the underlying structure, the very code itself I take issue with. I also miss many features that everyone else does, recommend to all friends, group recommendations, etc.
Check out this site for more info about how we navigate and the accessibility issues we face:www.webaim.org
the screen reader I mostly use is atwww.gwmicro.com
the most popular one iswww.freedomscientific.com
you can get demos of each of those that run for 40 minutes before you have to restart your machine. A free one that's open source is atwww.nvda-project.org/
Also check out my group SpeakOn
for more info.
It started out to be an accompanying group to the mailing list of the SpeakOn music player that was designed to be a media player for the blind and has last.fm support, but I decided to make it an accesibility forum here on last.fm too, not that there's been much activity on that front, but there is some info there.