Moved to WordPress.com

Yesteday, I moved my this site to WordPress.com.

I talked about possibly doing that awhile ago, but since I joined Automattic a few weeks ago, I decided to take the leap. Why? Because it’s important to use the thing you help make. Dogfooding, as it’s called. 🙂 I believe it will help me make WordPress.com even better than it already is.

I initially worried about making such a move. I really like to tinker with my site, and being on WordPress.com means I can’t create my own custom themes, mess with template files or install my own plugins. But maybe that means I’ll write more. I’ve picked up the pace recently so I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the next few months.

Also, about the whole theme thing: I’m thrilled I get to create themes for WordPress.com now and want to switch themes more often. Experiment in different ways with what WordPress.com has to offer. Quick experiments are harder to do for any designer/developer on their own site when they can do anything. A few constraints here and there can push creativity. We’ll see how it goes!

Current Theme

I made a few simple CSS tweaks to Twenty Thirteen to make it even more accessibility-friendly, even though it already carries the accessibility-ready tag. Plus, some of them are just my personal preference. You can check them out on the Github repository, Twenty Thirteen A11y Plus. The readme file has instructions on how to use the theme on both WordPress.com and WordPress.org. Happy blogging!

Joining Automattic

I’m thrilled to announce that I’m joining the Automattic family soon as a Theme Wrangler.

For those that don’t know, Automattic runs WordPress.com, Jetpack, Simplenote, Cloudup and other awesome web products. Woohoo! (I keep asking my wife if it really happened. She assures me it did.) 🙂 It’s hard to put into words what this means to me, but I’ll try. It’s my dream job, yes, but it goes beyond that.

I’ve been lucky enough to work for and inside some organizations with fantastic missions. I don’t get excited unless I’m attacking big problems with a chance to drive change. From being a newspaper reporter, to working for a one of the oldest disability organizations in the United States to working with one of the United States government’s most watched and most admired “start-up” agencies, a lot of my work has been for a “greater good.” At least I hope so. 🙂 At Automattic, I get to combine a lot of the passions I’ve developed along the way: publishing, WordPress, web standards and accessibility, and open source and the open web. All for a greater good: making the web a better place.

But how can someone who builds and cares for WordPress themes do that? I wanted to be a Theme Wrangler because I believe that a good WordPress theme can open up a new world to those using it, and in turn, reveal something unique about the site’s owner to the world. A theme can become the centerpiece to someone’s story. That’s something I want to do for as many people as possible. I look forward to whatever form that takes, including helping themes evolve in new ways and bringing my accessibility experience to my every day work on WordPress.com.

The best is yet to come.

Lessons from Building an Accessible WordPress Theme

This post is a summary of a talk I gave at WordCamp Lancaster in March, 2014.

A phone call that lasted less than five minutes started my obsession with accessibility.

Dave, Meet Accessibility

During my first few weeks on the job at The Arc as Online Communication Manager, I spoke with one of our board members who told me he was having trouble using our newly redesigned website. He liked the new one much better than the old one, he said, but still struggled with a few key areas on the site. He rattled them off as I scribbled on a notepad.

After we hung up the phone and I digested the conversation, I realized I only knew how to fix one of the handful of items that he listed off to me. He was blind and used a screen reader to navigate the web. I’d never used one, but knew I had to learn so I could build a better experience for not just him, but anyone who came to our sites. I followed Jeffrey Zeldman, the father of web standards, and understood the very basics of accessibility, but didn’t really know how challenging and rewarding web accessibility could be. I dug in. (Need to know more about what accessibility is? Read WebAIM’s introduction.)

WordPress + Accessibility

A few years later, I wanted to give back to the web and WordPress. I honed so much of my front end development and accessibility skills off of opening up WordPress themes to see how they worked. So it made sense to build my own theme and release it under the GPL, like WordPress. How would I make my theme unique among the many already out there? I would bake accessibility in from the start, of course! And I would learn a lot along the way.

Accessible Zen

I released Accessible Zen in the fall of 2013 as a simple, accessible WordPress theme modeled after the themes I’ve admired on Zen Habits, built especially for personal bloggers. It proved to be a ton of hard work, but worth it. Here’s what I learned during the process:

Keep Your Goal in Mind

I set out to build a simple, accessible WordPress theme, but it turns out that’s hard when the web world keeps changing and tossing out new ideas at you every day. A theme design could go in a trillion directions. The one way that kept me on track was just opening up zenhabits.net in a browser once a week to bask in its simplicity. It served as a visual reminder.

Lesson: If you love your goal, stick with it.

Good Accessibility is Undetectable

Why is accessibility hard? The answers to web accessibility challenges and problems aren’t always clear. So much of the right approach often depends on the context of the website or web application in question. Plus, you can’t really see accessibility, like a design or content – whether it’s done well or not. Accessible Zen is built on the back of Underscores. The underlying code isn’t much different and when I look at Accessible Zen, I can’t see what makes it accessible.

Lesson: Love your starter theme of choice and use it.

 Small Details Make a Big Difference

In accessibility, details matter. When creating Accessible Zen, I focused a lot of attention on things like color contrast, skip nav links, default link styling and read more links. All these small things helped make the theme much more accessible.

Lesson: Small stuff needs love too.

Recognize What You’re Doing

You’re making something!

I spent countless hours crafting the design and code for Accessible Zen. I wasn’t sure if anyone would like it, download it or use it. But shortly after I released one of the beta versions, I saw this tweet from Shane Jackson:

I could have stopped right there and the theme would have succeeded in my mind.

Lesson: Find someone who loves your work.

Today, Accessible Zen has been downloaded a few thousand times and is used by my friends and even a company made of up of assistive technology professionals who are blind. Not bad for something born out of a five-minute phone call.

If you’re interested in making WordPress more accessible, join the WordPress Accessibility team.

Accessible Zen: Now in French

Accessible Zen now comes packaged with a French translation, plus starter files in English to get new translations going easier. Thanks to Brieuc Segalen for contributing the translation!

The changelog is below.

Grab the theme in the official theme directory.

July 1, 2014

Release: Version 1.1.3