Do you find table summaries helpful?

On the W3C HTML Working Group’s mailing list there’s been plenty of discussion about the future of the table element’s summary attribute. Should it be allowed at all in HTML 5? Should it be allowed but only “semi-valid”? Should other ways of providing information about the structure of a data table be encouraged?

One question that I have seen being asked is if people who use screen readers actually are aware that data tables may have a summary attribute and if they find the information provided in it useful.

I haven’t seen a lot of answers to that question, so I would be very interested in hearing from people who regularly use a screen reader when browsing the Web. Here are a few questions:

  • What screen reader do you use?
  • Do you regularly look for summary information when you encounter a data table?
  • If you do look for table summaries, does the information you find help you understand the data in the table?
  • Can you provide examples of data tables that you think use the summary attribute in a good way?
  • Do you have any suggestions for better ways of helping screen reader users understand and navigate non-trivial data tables?

Thanks in advance for any input.

Posted on November 17, 2009 in Accessibility, HTML 5

Comments

  1. Hi Roger,

    Thank you very much for this survey on table summary. Your timing is terrific. It seems like the HTML 5 table summary issue is one of the topics for the new Accessibility Task Force to address. Cynthia Shelly is writing a change proposal for it.

    Related References:

  2. November 20, 2009 by S.R. Grossman

    I don’t use a screen reader, but we did a survey amongst screen reader users in higher education in California several years back on a contract job - unfortunately don’t have a full copy of survey, so don’t have actual stats anymore. I’ve emailed requesting a copy, and will post back.

    We were surprised that the majority who answered replied they thought caption and summary were redundant listening and would just like better written captions. Course this was over 3 years ago.

  3. I use a screen reader every day at work and home, and find table summaries very helpful. Tables are almost always a mystery to a screen reader user, and summaries help you understand the whole table a lot better.

  4. What screen reader do you use?”

    Jaws v10/11 mostly, but also NVDA, SA To Go and Window Eyes from time to time.

    “Do you regularly look for summary information when you encounter a data table?”

    Not proactively. Jaws reads the summary automatically when a table is navigated to using the quick nav key. If I come across a table summary though, I will pay attention to it if it’s well written.

    “If you do look for table summaries, does the information you find help you understand the data in the table?”

    That depends on the summary. I’ve come across “Layout table” as a summary, which is a waste of time and space. I’ve also come across sensible summaries of the table content, which are particularly helpful.

    “Can you provide examples of data tables that you think use the summary attribute in a good way?”

    Typically, when you want a good example, you can never find one.

    “Do you have any suggestions for better ways of helping screen reader users understand and navigate non-trivial data tables?”

    Screen readers are able to deal with complex data tables reasonably well. The difficult part is for the user. The solution needs to provide the equivalent of a quick visual glance at the table.

    It strikes me that a table summary is a very good way of doing that. Providing guidance on writing good summaries would also be helpful, as well as sorting out the frequent muddling of captions and summaries.

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