James Aylett: Accessibility Advent: enhance long drop downs

Published at
Wednesday 19th December, 2012

(Throughout Advent I’m sharing some hints as to how web developers can make my life as a speech recognition user easier.)

A simple one today: if you have long drop downs on any of your forms, such as if you have to ask for my country, then please use progressive enhancement to turn it into a combo box.

The problem is that your ordering of items within a drop-down is going to be wrong. You can do clever tricks – look up my likely country using geo-IP, then pull the most likely other options to the top before dropping to alphabetic order (although note that if you provide too many options out of order you make it harder for people to find the correct entry) – but anytime you have a large number of options in a list someone is going to get the short straw and have considerable difficulty.

For me this usually happens because “United Kingdom” comes in alphabetic order after “United Arab Emirates”, but people sometimes instead list it incorrectly as “Great Britain”. So I might select the drop-down (which usually does not open it), and say “United”, which will either select “United Kingdom” (if it’s pulled out towards the top of the list) or “United Arab Emirates” (if it’s not). If the latter, saying “Kingdom” will probably end up with the right option being selected, although if it’s in the list as “Great Britain” then all bets are off.

Worse, if “United Kingdom” is in the list and was selected to start off with but I didn’t notice, saying “United Kingdom” can end up with either “Iran” or “Kiribati” being selected (basically down to how much space I leave between the two words, although sometimes it actually selects the correct option). And if Dragon misrecognizes what I say, anything could be selected. My easiest choice at that point is to force the drop-down to open if it hasn’t already (by saying something like “down arrow") and trying to figure out by eye what the correct option is, hoping it’s actually on screen.

With a combo box, I can just say “United Kingdom” and, if Dragon misrecognizes my speech, I can use normal speech correction commands to make things right. Validation against the list should come as late as possible, to avoid messing with this process.