The first photographers had to design and build their own cameras. As photography caught on, the needs of professional photographers stimulated camera design innovations. Fifty years passed before George Eastman designed the Kodak camera for a much wider community of users. It took another century for camera designers to include high-tech universal usability features such as automatic aperture settings and autofocus. These features enabled most users to produce quality images reliably. This story has an amazingly successful outcome: cameras are used in 96% of American households today. And now, as digital cameras and cell phones with cameras have become popular, photos will become even more ubiquitous.
Similarly, the first Web site builders had to design their own programming tools. And as Web popularity soared, the needs of Web designers influenced the software tools. With 70% of American households now using the Web for health, travel, and shopping, it is clear that the transformation to public use of the Web is here. However, user experiences are often filled with frustration aggravated by confusing layouts and failure to find what they want. Improving the quality of Web experiences and broadening the audience is the next challenge for high-technology researchers and entrepreneurs.
Fortunately, Sarah Horton’s book can accelerate the pace of Web site design improvement. With clarity and thoughtful authority, Sarah lays out the territory of good design, as inspired by universal usability. Her goal is to make Web sites accessible for everyone. By this she means to improve the Web experience for all users, including those who have physical disabilities and other limitations. She assumes knowledge of HTML, CSS, and other technical issues, so she can concentrate on design. Her analysis is sophisticated but her advice is clear and easily applicable.
The chapters provide lucid examples of good and bad design for structure, text, images, tables, and forms. She guides designers through the presentation issues of links, color, audio, video, and interactivity with comprehensible guidelines and wise advice. Each guideline is nicely summarized in a section called In a nutshell. The advice guides designers to make sensible decisions that will benefit most users—by improving layouts, appropriately integrating images, and clarifying content. The family values of good design produce many happy children.
Sarah’s book is among a growing set of efforts to improve Web design for all users. These strategies benefit users with visual, auditory, or mobility limitations and also bring gifts to older adults, users with cognitive limitations, users with low literacy, novice users, and others with particular needs. The good news is that these same strategies also benefit all users.
There is also good news from research and development workers who are increasingly mindful of clearly defined personas and audience segments. Refined evaluation methods, automated software evaluation of designs, and logging tools are providing the richer feedback needed to further improve designs. Controlled studies with selected user groups, observations of diverse users, and torrents of usage data give Web designers the evidence they need to make rational decisions for a wider range of users. As a computing professional this is satisfying to see, as I believe we will be remembered, in part, by how ambitiously we work to ensure that every Web user can successfully accomplish his or her goals.
Professionals like Sarah Horton, who address their social responsibilities to ensure broad access, are receiving recognition for their efforts. During 2005, the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction (SIGCHI) established an award for social impact. The first recipient of this award was Gregg Vanderheiden of the University of Wisconsin’s Trace Center. Dr. Vanderheiden received the award for “his technical innovations and inspiring leadership in making information and communications technologies usable by more people. His contributions are especially beneficial to users with disabilities, but the techniques he developed will bring benefits to all users.” He cochaired the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group, whose recommendations have had widespread international influence.
Conferences that address accessible designs are gaining strength. The ACM’s Special Interest Group on Accessible Computing is actively promoting research with its Assets conferences on computers and accessibility. I am proud of organizing the ACM’s Conference on Universal Usability, which generated a capacity crowd of researchers and industry leaders. The SIGCHI group has an extensive Web site devoted to accessibility as well.
In Europe, the newly formed Accessible Design in the Digital World Conference is led by the diligent and persistent efforts of Alan Newell. The event adds to the interest generated by the series of successful conferences on User Interfaces for All (UI4ALL) invigorated by the enthusiasm of Constantine Stephanidis, who also founded the journal, Universal Access in the Information Society.
Visionary leaders recognize the importance of broad participation by attending to the needs of diverse people. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “I feel... an ardent desire to see knowledge so disseminated through the mass of mankind that it may... reach even the extremes of society: beggars and kings.” Similarly, two centuries later, World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee emphasized the many dimensions of universality in his Japan Prize lecture: “The most important thing about the World Wide Web is that it is universal. By exploring this idea along its many axes we find a framework for considering its history, its role today, and guidance for future developments.” He amplifies this idea to suggest a torrent of further innovations. Universality is a generative theme; it forces new requirements that lead to surprising benefits for many users.
The first wave of Web dissemination is spreading across the world as users learn about the possibilities and get connected. But fewer than one in six people in the world are Web users, so there will still be much turbulence as the first wave of information access rolls through. There remains much work to be done by designers in providing useful, usable, and universal content. Cross-cultural, multilingual, and multicultural designs are no longer just fashionably innovative; they are becoming required and expected. Serious attention to privacy and security is shifting from nice-to-have to need-to-have.
When 80% of humanity has access to information and is getting email, we’ll need to celebrate with trumpets and fireworks. Of course, the second wave—in which users can create Web pages, produce content, and disseminate their ideas, music, photos, and products—has already begun rolling out among early-adopting users. The shift from information access to content generation is profound. eBay, wikis, and blogs are part of the second wave, which already claims several hundred million users—and that is just the beginning. The creative aspects of the second wave are enabling artists to produce animated and interactive visual and musical art projects while enabling scientists to collaborate in exploring the human genome or fighting HIV/AIDS. Open-source creativity is a potent force, especially when harnessed by the vision of universal usability. Online communities and social computing are spreading, enabling fruitful cooperation and democratic participation.
Universal usability will do more than stimulate entertainment, encourage conversation, and facilitate photo sharing. It has the potential to improve health care, enliven education, and accelerate economic development. Realizing these potentials is the goal for those who want to be heroes of the second wave.
But before we let this utopian optimism wash away our rational side, we should remember that there are serious risks. Good intentions are a fine starting point, but attention to real dangers is essential for happier outcomes. Universal usability in design is important, but economic, educational, and policy support to reduce digital divides are necessary as well. Public discussion about privacy protection, community values, and appropriate regulation can help reduce the dangers. Unfortunately, we will also need capable enforcement to cope with the spammers, spyware distributors, and stalkers. We’ll need to address the deceptive advertisers and malicious identify thieves, and we’ll need to develop protections from racist or terrorist groups who seek to use the universality of the Web for harmful purposes.
And what about the third wave? Can we envision ways in which Web technologies will promote effective international development, hasten innovative education, and ensure safe neighborhoods? How can we use the Web to improve health care, accelerate environmental protection, and support conflict resolution? The key to the third wave will be the transformation from information to action. A Web page on world hunger is a good start, but it does not in itself solve the problem. Information without action is failure. Knowledge without responsibility is tragic.
It is difficult to envision the impacts of our efforts, but I have come to believe that open discussion and broad participation have profound benefits. Thomas Jefferson and Tim Berners-Lee had the right idea. Open systems enable a wider range of ideas that contributes to more successful solutions. Engaging more voices not only widens the range of policy options, but it also builds commitment to the community’s decision and encourages refinements as the inevitable implementation problems emerge.
Mindless optimism is dangerous because it allows darker forces to emerge, but visionary thinking is needed to create new possibilities. A mature approach balances the enthusiastic and sober sides of our personalities. Each designer makes a contribution by creating new opportunities; each designer shares responsibility for the world he or she creates. There’s much work to be done. Sarah Horton has done her job well. Now it is our turn. Let’s get to work!
University of Maryland