Today we’re delighted to have a chance to talk with Lawrence Meckan from Absalom.biz.
Lawrence has enormous experience with both Mambo, Joomla! and webdesign in general. He is based in Australia and is particularly involved in the development of accessible websites.
1) Hi Lawrence. Could you tell us a little about yourself? What’s your background?
I’m an Australian based designer, first living in Sydney, now based in Melbourne.
I work deploying and managing enterprise grade content management (3500 pages+ is one of my smaller projects, not including workflow, training, style guides, policies and the associated business case management) and have come from a background of academic print publishing and senior IT management. I also mentor and network with various smaller design studios across Melbourne helping them with industry best practice design. So I pretty much know the design process from concept to delivery and ongoing user support, including how to deploy and fix web services. My passions remain design, typography and semantics, essentially how to convey the message in an effective way without resorting to spurious marketing claims. My first website that I designed was in 1993, so I’ve been designing for a while now. It should still be around somewhere if you look hard enough.
2) How did you come to Joomla and what roles have you played in the project?
I came to Joomla through my work on the Mambo Open Source project. I’ve been developing and supporting the codebase that forms Joomla! since early 2003 in the late stages of Mambo 4.0.14, having first dealt commercially with content management systems as early as 2000 (Frontier Manila, Nuke and others). My roles within the project have been two fold – accessibility/usability and community development/governance. I have been part of the Usability & Accessibility Working Group up until late 2006, including the development of a semantic structure that would allow change and ambiguity, since documented on the private U&A Working Group wiki. As the various players within the U & A Working Group all held similar, yet slightly divergent and contradictory viewpoints on the deployment of those ideas, it meant the Core Teams couldn’t effectively gauge what the correct model was as they mistook conflicting viewpoints and dissent for harm to the overall project.
I held a similar role within the Mambo Open Source project as part of the 3rd Party Development & Standards Team, again providing accessibility and usability support both to the Core developers and to the wider userbase, prior to the fork of Joomla!.
I also help co-ordinate the Melbourne Joomla! Users Group, aiming to foster Joomla! adoption and development amongst the local Melbourne community through networking with other social and technical groups. Part of this role includes the principles of open, transparent governance for local providers and the wider Joomla! community. At the end of the day, we are developing Joomla! for users, not for developers or for a swag of awards. So if we fail to meet the needs of the users or listen to the critiques of the software we develop, we are kidding ourselves as a project. Letting the developers listen to the community and their needs is paramount to delivering a good product. This is, of course, where the usability and accessibility of a design comes into it again.
3) You’ve been involved with the Usability & Accessibility Working Group at Joomla. What does the group do and what are the groups current projects/aims?
I was part of this group since its inception up till very late 2006. The delivery of an accessibility solution changed when Nic Steenhout (vavroom) left and it got rebadged late 2005 under Andy Miller (rhuk) and then split and resplit late 2006, but the basic ideology out from the Core hasn’t. The group was charged with providing a means of accessibility that would benefit the end users without making them think. This was done primarily in 2 ways.
Firstly there was an accessibility audit, done primarily by Nic Steenhout with support from myself, in regards to WCAG 1.0 compliance mid 2005. As the stated goals of Joomla 1.5 are that it deliver a solution capable of complying with Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act as well as correctly meeting WCAG 1.0 Level 2 (AA) compliance, an audit of the entire structure and design needed to take place. This was delivered late 2005. This was again replicated (in part) in the 2006 Joomla! Summer of Code, and again, somewhat, in the addition of the Beez template to the 1.5 SVN. Nic had delivered a much wider codebase for an effective solution prior to his departure from the Joomla! Core, but it was not adopted. So basically we ended up with a training document to help educate developers and users to industry best practice. I would recommend most developers who host on JoomlaCode or the Extension site at least read it every 3 months to make sure their coding skills and design principles follow industry best practice.
I’m now working on a similar solution for 1.5 as the risk for template overrides is that they provide designers and coders, who are not primarily accessibility and usability experts, with a false sense of security regarding accessibility and usability. In order for any design to be truly effective, it has to be invisible and transparent, and bulk loading of an override structure for each component at the template level doesn’t guarantee that level of quality control. How will the various designers and developers know that what they receive has been quality checked for accessibility, if there is a variation between the initial source and what the client wants?
The accessibility online space has already had attempted hijacking by marketers claiming their work is accessible when it’s not, to the point of legal injunctions against major commercial and government websites, and I doubt the Teams would want to face down a similar claim.
This means we, as developers and designers for the Joomla! project, whether involved in an Official Team or not, need to think why we’re deploying the specific services, components, modules and plugins for our clients and what that means for the overall user experience.
In terms of the lowest common denominator, Beez does pass a mechanical 508 test, under the erstwhile claim that it is an accessible template. So what does this pass mark actually mean when we have the various people from across the Teams claiming 508 status?
It is poignant to note that the stock standard Joomla! install, running the Milkyway template, also gets the exact same mechanical mark as Beez on the same test. Obviously some growth and change has to occur for Beez to demonstrate better design practices than the stock standard Joomla! package in this regard. Neither template structure provide the correct path to WAI Level 2 compliance at this time, which is another issue in itself prior to 1.5 becoming stable. Without this sanity check towards accessibility and design, any government, enterprise or educational institution who chooses to use Joomla! 1.5, even with the Beez template overrides, falls into the trap of “checklist syndrome” where the mechanical test incorrectly affords a pass mark when in reality the design should be grown and matured further to correctly pass the test.
It’s this growth and change I’m working on outside of U&A these days based on the extensive experience I’ve collated since delivering the first accessible template for Mambo in 2003. I’m also working with the Guild of Accessible Web Designers to further the design ideas seen in Beez as I’ve taken them and retroactively fitted revised versions of the code present in Beez to my own business site.
4) Could you explain a little about your current project, integrating the Dublin Core into Joomla? What is it and what changes will it bring to Joomla?
Dublin Core is just a small part of a much larger semantic web project, delivered as the Microformat Joomla! fork. Dublin Core is concerned primarily with enterprise collection and management of metadata. As my roles have dealt with enterprise development of content management systems, correct leveraging of metadata is needed so search engines and users can find that information easily, especially when you’re dealing with significant CMS rollouts (generally 1000+ pages).
Within Australia, you have standards such as the Australian Government Locator Service, based on Dublin Core, and you have specific bodies that validate Dublin Core metadata for specific industries. HonCODE would be a standard that validates Dublin metadata for quality and credibility of a site for the health industry. Dublin Core is just a small step to help make things searchable, in the same way that well formed, stable SEF URLs make things searchable.
Dublin Core provides enterprise grade organisations, such as the UN, through sites like UNRIC, with the visibility they need to let search engines find whatever is located within their site. Considering the UN has run DCMI on numerous other supranational sites and has members of the UN as part of the DCMI trustees, I was actually quite surprised that the UNRIC site ran without it when it was launched.
Dublin Core may not seem like much, but when considered in a much larger strategy towards the semantic web, it is powerful. It really wouldn’t take that much to make the Dublin Core plugin I’ve built 1.5 compliant. It would then require a simple modification to the content structures to deploy individual DCMI values on each content item, essentially completing the Joomla! Summer of Code Dublin Core project that’s scoped for this year in less than a week.
5) If we look at Absalom.biz, what accessibility features are we going to see that most websites don’t have?
The real accessibility features might not seem like much on their own, but they remain powerful when considered “as a whole” and “all together”. I have managed to solve the issue of permalinking Joomla! articles, both in terms of DCMI and in terms of page structure. I have done this as part of a wider microformat model, that remains semantically, mechanically correct and readable by people. So you not only have a site that repeatedly spits out the same permalink across DCMI and all other forms of content, but also can validate to WAI AAA whilst doing so. I have also taken the ideas behind Beez and redesigned them to be contextually relevant within a Joomla 1.0.x buildbase. I’ve also just finished integrating stable geocoding architecture to allow system wide management of mapping tools. Component specific deployment and template-based lock-in isn’t the way to do effective mashups of data within the Joomla! engine, so I’ve been redesigning the “core” of 1.0.x along the way so each ‘bit’ can speak to other ‘bits’ around it.
So 5 specific things have been done to increase accessibility and usability:
- Dublin Core – metadata structures for enterprise
- Microformats – industry best practice semantic structures of HTML that can be consumed by other software packages (e.g hCard to Outlook).
- WAI AAA validation – well formed code across the site, including redesigning existing 3PD work to spit out well formed code. Most developers need to rethink how they code extensions for Joomla! in this respect, as I’ve seen claims of “XHTML/W3C” compliance fall into a crying heap for certain products I use.
- Geocoding – the ability for system wide location data based on microformats and existing content/contacts/components within Joomla!
6) What design resources would you recommend for someone working on improving their design skills? Are there blogs and sites that you read often to pick up tips?
The resources I would recommend are:
Regarding tips, I generally farm:
- My Flickr contact list
- Joe Clark / Fawny
- The Links for Light Reading from the WSG hosted at Max Design
7) As someone highly involved in design, what benefits are you looking forward to with Joomla 1.5?
- Simplified templating, though I’m working to make it even simpler.
- Content/data finally being free of the com_content component
- A more stable URI management schema than in 1.0.12
8) Do you have any new projects or plans in 2007 we should be looking out for?
I’ve in the middle of a plethora of new projects:
- StyleAMP for Joomla! 1.5 – the project ideas that have been hanging around since I first joined U&A (even prior to it thanks to Jeffrey Veen) to once and for all fix the problems of accessibility and usability, instead of resorting to overrides at a template level. 50% to a live alpha stage, probably releasing publically late May or June. It will be an open source licenced tool for any CMS as well.
- Porting Cameron Adams’ WidgEditor to Joomla!
- A full usability audit of the backend process for Joomla!. I really need some high use / enterprise websites in terms of Joomla! administration that would like to be credited as part of this process, so if you know of any, let them consume my hCard on my site.
I’m also networking with the Guild of Accessible Web Designers regarding the overall structures of Joomla! (membership pending) and the Australian Web Industry Association. Across the Joomla! community, I’m providing some knowledge share to the a8e Joomla! project as well as the Microformats Joomla! Summer of Code project.