A lot of small but noticeable usability improvements

Beginning of this week, Aaron Leventhal, who is the module owner for Mozilla accessibility, and I met in Stuttgart, Germany to work on some hard to reproduce and nagging issues. Among one big issue having to do with how document loads are being processed, we also fixed a number of smaller, but no less important problems that vastly improve usability in Firefox 3 and Thunderbird 3 alphas.

The Doc loading stuff

This involved quite a number of complex issues having to do with loading of documents in Firefox, firing the correct events at the correct times, and not firing events when we shouldn’t. For JAWS users on Windows, the mosst visible change of this is that in Thunderbird, every message should now again come up and be read without you having to switch virtual cursor on and off all the time to get messages to read. For Orca users on Linux, Firefox now again fires correct document load finished events and helps Orca to correctly read web sites when it is time to do so.

Focus no longer getting fired on items in non-focused widgets

OK, let’s start with an example: Have you been in the Add-Ons manager in Firefox recently? if so, you’ve probably noticed that, when you switch tabs from Extensions to Themes and back, that when you return to Extensions, your screen reader tells you something about a highlighted Extension. Firefox tricks screen readers into thinking that focus actually shifted. However, focus did not shift, but a focus event was fired when the selection was shown on the list of extensions.
A different example is in Thunderbird, where if you were in Inbox, then went to another folder, then arrowed back up to Inbox, the screen reader would tell you that focus shifted to the message you had last selected in the Inbox folder. Again, focus actually does not shift, but an event is fired for the widget not currently in focus.
Aaron and I put a stop to that happening. As a result, reading should be much more consistent now when you work in both Firefox and Thunderbird. Screen readers should no longer get confused as to where the focus actually is.
By the way: This issue had been around since Firefox and Thunderbird became accessible in their respective 1.5 versions. It was annoying as hell to me, and I am very glad we finally got that one nailed and dealt with!

Tree items updating when they change

When a tree item changes visually on the screen, like a newsgroup or IMAP folder updating its number of total and unread messages in Thunderbird, assistive technologies were until recently not notified of these changes. One had to shift focus away from, and back to the tree view to get the correct picture.
Not any more! Alexander Surkov, one of the great developers working on the accessibility module, has fixed this problem and made sure that ATs can now update when there’s a change.
This again makes working in Thunderbird, but also when you deal with changing bookmarks in Firefox, much more convenient and fluent.

If you haven’t already done so, I would suggest you update to the latest nightlies of both Firefox and Thunderbird on your respective platforms and try out these great improvements!

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