HTML5 Specs

One table in a thousand

Continuing with the discussion on the table element, began in the last page of this series, another change I would make in section 4.9.2 of the HTML 5 specification is to the example tables. First though, I want to return to the summary attribute one more time, before moving on to other topics.

The decision about summary was based on an analysis of data pulled from web pages scraped from the internet[1]. What’s been ignored in the discussions related to the incorrect use of the summary attribute is that only about one in 1,000 HTML tables reflect correct HTML table use. So, accuracy when it comes to past use of HTML tables is just something that one can’t “accurately” assess. The raw data is interesting, but we can’t draw conclusions from it.

I found that rather than looking at raw data use, if we look at discussions people have had about the table summary attribute, instead, we find that the summary attribute has been taken very seriously, but its use isn’t necessarily showing up on the web, or in Google.

For instance, this bug report is for a CMS and is directly related to an incorrect table summary. The summary use is accurate, but the table structure was altered, and the summary needed to be changed to reflect this alteration. The table summary is also probably one of the better examples of why something like summary is necessary, including the important note that column 1 is not used. A sighted person would see immediately that column 1 is not used, so this information is redundant to the visually enabled. For those people who need to use a screenreader, though, if they didn’t know that column 1 is empty, they would end up getting some variation of “blank” for every cell in that column. The information about the second column is just as valuable, as it informs the person that column 2 has checkboxes, again something that a sighted person would see immediately.

Yet we won’t see this accurate use of summary on the web, because the CMS is primarily used for educational purposes, and most likely implemented behind a firewall. In fact, it would have to be, because most educational systems have to be protected because of legal issues to do with students and privacy. I worked on systems at both Harvard and Stanford, and they all involve quite complex data tables, and none of the web pages would be available on the internet. When you consider that both universities had government and school mandated accessibility requirements, I’m fairly sure that both would be using summary with data tables, but we wouldn’t see this use in Google.

I found the same discussion about accurate and effective use of the table summary attribute related to intranet use for states and counties, other companies, and other products (Google Search on table summary example accessibility). It could very well be that there is a significant number of good summary uses, but we’ll never directly see them because they’re behind a firewall.

This brings me back to the table examples in section 4.9.2 of the specification. To reiterate, the summary attribute remains. However, so do the other examples of table documentation. Providing examples is a good way to not only help people use HTML tables accurately, but it also enforces the importance of accessibility. In fact, I would modify and expand the section.

By providing the differing, and I feel complementary table documentation techniques and examples, we’re also, indirectly, enabling better data collection activity in regards to summary in the future. If the issue with the perceived incorrect use of summary is that people don’t understand how to use summary, then in the future we should see correct descriptions of the table using one of the other techniques, without seeing an associated correct use of summary. I hypothesize, though, that we’ll see a positive correlation between correct use of HTML tables, and correct use summary, most likely used with a correct use of caption, or *figure legend.

However, I don’t like the example table, and will replace it. I also believe more example tables are needed, as multiple examples help drive home differences in the table documentation techniques. Unfortunately, adding more examples will make a long specification even longer.

Because of the increased length of the table example section (and example sections elsewhere in the HTML 5 specification), we’ll need to split out the examples into an HTML 5 Primer.

HTML 5 Specification Modifications

To **summarize: The summary attribute is maintained as a viable, active attribute, the existing HTML table examples in section 4.9.2 will be replaced with multiple table examples, all of which will, most likely, be moved to an HTML 5 Primer document.

Additional References

See the HTML/SummaryForTable Wiki page for more details on this topic.

[1] Ian Hickson’s recent email related to the topic.

*I don’t expect to see a lot of use of figure with HTML tables, and I’m not a keen fan of figure use in this way. I’ll cover figure in more detail in a future page.

**No pun intended

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