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Rich Internet Applications and Accessibility
By Louise McIver, published 14th March 2005.
A presentation on creating Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) using Macromedia Flex was given at a recent Scottish UPA  Event which I attended. The talk was very interesting and prompted me to do some further research on the subject, with a particular interest for the accessibility issues surrounding what is promising to be an interesting and exciting new way to produce applications for the internet.
RIAs give an online application an interface similar to that of a desktop PC, affording functionality such as drag-and-drop and instantaneous processing and feedback. All data required for an application to function is downloaded onto the users' computer and is processed locally. Macromedia Flex is a development environment for creating RIAs, once created these use Flash Player to run in the users' browser. For a more in-depth look at Flex see the Macromedia website .
There seems to have been consideration and discussion of the usability of RIAs. Some heuristics  have been produced for evaluating RIAs which suggest ways of applying Jakob Nielsens' Usability Heuristics  to the applications. Various aspects of usability and user experience have been hot topics discussed by the RIA user group . Macromedia have taken steps to make applications developed in Flex accessible [6, 7], however a very specific browsing environment is required for this to be effective. While RIAs can provide more usable interfaces than most traditional online applications it is a concern that they may not be optimally accessible.
RIAs created using Flex are ultimately Flash movies - they run in the Flash Player, and carry similar accessibility issues as a result. For example, simple browser changes that users can make to aid their use of online applications cannot be utilised with RIAs, these include:
- use of back and forward navigation buttons to aid navigation,
- ability to bookmark pages so they can be easily found at a later date (without having to navigate an application with the possibility of becoming lost),
- using the browser options to adjust text size for users with visual impairments,
- applying a personal stylesheet to the interface, which can be used to adjust background and foreground colours by people with dyslexia for example.
Accessibility issues were raised at the presentation and we were assured that accessibility features can be 'built in' to RIAs created using Flex. It is a concern that if making these applications accessible requires the developer to do more work, it may not be done. When accessibility guidelines and good design principles are followed in the creation of a traditional HTML-based online application it is much easier to achieve accessibility without any extra work for the developer.
Rich Internet Applications seem an exciting way of producing online content and have obvious benefits in terms of interface quality and processing speed. However, there are some accessibility issues that developers need to take into consideration and tackle as best they can in their application.
- Scottish UPA - www.scottishupa.org.uk
- Flex section of Macromedia website - http://www.macromedia.com/software/flex/
- RIA Heuristics - http://www.boxesandarrows.com/archives/usability_heuristics_for_rich_internet_applications.php
- Jakob Nielsens' Usability Heuristics - http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/heuristic_list.html
- RIA User Group - http://www.richinternetapps.com/index.html
- Flex Accessibility Overview - http://www.macromedia.com/macromedia/accessibility/features/flex/overview.html
- Accessibility Info for QA Testing - http://www.markme.com/accessibility/files/FlexQAdoc.swf