Chapter 1. Introducing Universal Design

There’s a popular, and probably apocryphal, story that features a naval officer (sometimes it’s a businessman) who receives a performance review that reads: “This officer never makes the same mistake twice. However, he appears to be attempting to make them all once.”

Over the life span of the Web, we’ve learned a lot about what not to do. Sometimes, this trail of “don’ts” leads us in the direction of the “do.” But all too often, another “don’t” is lurking around the corner. Because of all of the complexities involved with heterogeneous servers and protocols and languages and authoring tools and browsers—and don’t get us started about the users—we as web tradespeople are all too happy to give up on finding the right way to build our content, once we’ve found some way to build it.

Before web production can grow into a profession, we first need a science, a calculus—or at least, some kind of broadly applicable line of reasoning on which we can rely to keep the don’ts at bay. In this book, we put all those pieces together, to help ensure that we don’t all keep making the same, or worst of all, self-perpetuating mistakes.

If our job is to create a science, we’ll need to determine the core value against which we measure all our progress. In the past, many have advocated adherence to a technical standard—say, HTML—and we agree that web standards are important. (You should expect as much from two alumni of the World Wide Web Consortium, which has published nearly all of those standards.)

Still, adherence to a technical document does not a profession make. It’s still possible to code oneself into a corner in fluent HTML. Real expertise comes from people who use their code and content to anticipate problems before they arise and to improve the user experience wherever they can.

For the purposes of this book, we will approach every problem we face with the ultimate goal of providing the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people possible. This is the principle of universal design (UD).

The field of UD grew out of disciplines where exclusion is common, and the consequences of that exclusion can be dramatic. We are specialists in one of those disciplines: accessibility to users with disabilities. People with disabilities often represent the most compelling cases for inclusive design—not just in information technology but also in the physical world. However, UD encompasses all possible contingencies involved in the design of an object or experience, whether they are physical, cognitive, economic, geographic, ergonomic, or even something as simple as user choice.

Ron Mace, an architect who dedicated much of his career to designing a more usable world, coined the term:

Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

Over the years, we’ve found that web practitioners tend to discover an affinity for architecture. Matt, for one, has taken more photos of buildings over the years than he has of people. Conversations in some web design circles are as likely to gravitate toward names like Frank Gehry or Santiago Calatrava as they are to Tim Berners-Lee or Eric Meyer. We have come to recognize that it is because, like them, we deal with architecture every day. Although our failed designs rarely result in a physical catastrophe, we do make decisions that affect people’s ability to navigate, interact, and seek and participate in communities of their own. Our architecture in many ways is their architecture—and so, we have a lot to learn from their rules and rigors. This book is our attempt to apply the architectural field of UD to the Web.

One of the biggest opportunities for universal design to take hold on the Web is with something you probably already own: a mobile phone. It is estimated that mobile devices will overtake computers as the method of accessing web content within the next few years, if they haven’t already. As this transition takes shape, all of the contingencies we just outlined will play a role in how a piece of content is designed.

You will find that we come back to mobile and accessibility as our criteria throughout the book. This is not at all accidental. Between these two issues, we find concrete examples of nearly every kind of eventuality that will arise when humans come into contact with web content. We have concrete guidance to offer in order to make today’s web content work better for both user groups because the techniques for making web applications work on mobile devices overlap so often with the techniques used to make content accessible to people with disabilities.

Mobile and accessible design are also at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to meeting our stated goal: while good mobile design has the potential to reach the greatest number—perhaps billions of people—accessible design practices can mean the difference between participating in many of the most basic life activities and being marginalized. It is a stunning example of the greater good.

Accessible Design: A Story

Even today, many grocery stores have a phone-in service, allowing people to place their orders and have a clerk gather the items for customer pickup. For someone who is blind, or who uses a wheelchair, or who can’t lift heavy items, a service like this allows them to live unassisted. Those of us without these disabilities tend to think of things like grocery shopping as a chore, but it is so much more to those who can’t do it themselves.

In 1998, Matt was a web developer at an online grocery delivery service based in the Seattle area. When users who were blind started calling in, there was little that was known about making the web usable for them. At the time, and unbeknownst to Matt, Wendy was working on what would later become the first Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. But the most official accessibility policy in the U.S. in 1998 was an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 called Section 508, which requires federal agencies to make or purchase electronic and information technology that is accessible to people with disabilities.

Standards aside, one thing was clear: while for the soccer moms of the Puget Sound an online grocer was a convenient service, for people with disabilities it was life-enabling technology.

Accessibility to people with disabilities has always been tough to sell on its merits, however noble and intuitive they may be. The stereotypes and stigmas attached to disabilities and people with them are all deeply ingrained in our culture. The sad fact is that even in 2008, in spite of an array of assistive technologies that enable people who are blind to be equal members of the workforce, the National Federation of the Blind reports that the unemployment rate among people who are working age and legally blind in the U.S. is approximately 70%.

Think about that. 7 in 10. Regardless of your position on the political spectrum, this should not only alarm you but also motivate you to work toward increasing access to information, community, and, most critically, work and greater independence not only for people who are legally blind but anyone who has a disability.

Those of us who are passionate about accessibility are aware that continuing to ignore the design factors that create barriers only magnifies the problem. It is not a coincidence that the name of the leading screen reader, JAWS, stands for Job Access With Speech. Assistive technology, such as screen reader software, depends on machine-processable information—including names, descriptions, roles and states of objects, as well as the relationships between objects—which are not strictly necessary to create a visual user interface, Web or otherwise. This is why we must consider these needs in the everyday work we do.

On the other hand, the landscape for web design is changing for everyone. Since June of 2007, one device alone has driven a new, global awareness of designing for mobile devices. And it is rapidly enveloping us all.

When it comes to attracting users, the iPhone is an international phenomenon. Available in a growing number of countries, it appeals to early adopters—a common trait of Apple products—but also to people who prefer simple ways of getting things done. On July 11, 2008, the geeks and the seekers waited in line for hours to get one of the first iPhone 3Gs. To many of them, this was their own version of life-enabling technology. And woe to those who didn’t understand the iPhone craze: at a store opening in the Los Angeles area, a reporter for KTLA descended on the crowd to poke the poor captive audience with a proverbial stick, and found himself a hair’s breadth from being eviscerated.

It’s easy to dismiss any discussion of the iPhone’s impact on mobile computing as Apple fanaticism, but two features have undeniably altered the landscape:

  • A mobile browser with desktop-like functionality

  • A large user base with unmetered wireless access to the Web

Before the mobile Safari browser, the Web was a very different, very constrained experience. Users found the sites their carriers wanted them to find, thanks to the walled gardens constructed for them, and avoided straying too far for fear of outrageous bandwidth overage charges. But today, not only do millions use the iPhone for web access (some 94% of iPhone users, according to Apple, access the Web from their device), but full browsing applications have appeared on other platforms, and the possibility of returning to the tiny screens and minimum capabilities of the mobile Web of just a couple years ago already seems rather quaint. Furthermore, the market has spoken, and it doesn’t want that mobile Web; it wants the Web that it has today, on any device, in any place. We know the market does not take no for an answer.

The web’s post-hoc adaptation to mobile modes of interaction is not limited to phones, either. More and more portable electronics are coming equipped with wireless connectivity and embedded browsers: at least 71 million Nintendo DS systems and 38 million PlayStation Portables have been sold as of June 2008, and each one is Wi-Fi–equipped, as are instant-messaging devices like the Sony mylo. Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader (which you may even be using to read this book) lets users get connected using a basic browser on the device’s data service. And Nokia’s N800 series Internet Tablets come complete with a full Mozilla-based browser, as well as the Adobe Flash 9 plug-in, all on an 800x480 display. The range of devices accessing the Web in the next few years will include both upgraded versions of the electronics we use today, and hundreds, perhaps thousands of new gadgets we haven’t yet imagined.

In fact, not only will the number of non-PC Internet-connected devices pass that of Internet-connected PCs—on a global scale, it won’t even be close. In 2007, Lee Kai-fu, the president of Google’s China operation, said, “most Chinese users who touch the mobile Internet will have no PC at all.” And the numbers prove it: according to a September 4, 2008 article in The Economist,[1] 29% of China’s Internet users, or 73 million people, use the mobile Web—a 45% increase in the first half of 2008 alone. The article goes on to outline the efforts of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) not only to modernize their mobile and Internet infrastructures but to use new technology to leapfrog those of us in the so-called industrialized world. It’s no coincidence that Google has invested heavily in creating a mobile platform called Android, or that Nokia has bought and committed the Symbian mobile OS to the open source world. All those new toys have to run something. And the web-browsing tech in nearly all of them will be more like a desktop browser than the comparatively slim mobile pickings of the last few years. For its part, Google has announced that the rendering engine behind Chrome, the browser it released in September 2008, will be in Android devices as well.

That isn’t to say that this change will be without compromise. Let’s look at the iPhone as an example. The iPhone’s 480x320 display is just over 1/12 the resolution of a standard 1280x1024 monitor. Enabling the desktop-like experience on a screen that small requires the ability to zoom. Links are often hard to tap on with your finger because they are too small or too close together. (One critic has said it is like “clicking on a 20-pixel image with your 40-pixel finger.”) And text entry, while arguably improved over competing phones’ chiclet QWERTY keyboards, is still at best a third as efficient as a full keyboard.

It is here that we see the nexus between mobile interaction and disability. People with low vision use screen magnifiers in much the same way iPhone users stretch and pinch their way around the browser. People with fine-motor disabilities often have trouble using a mouse to navigate web pages because links are too small or too close together. Some people with more profound motor disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, use onscreen keyboards to enter text on sites—and they don’t like having to type any more than most people using their mobile devices do.

It could be that the current crop of mobile device users is the best thing to happen to people with disabilities for a long time. When else have millions of people stood in line with $199 or €129 or £99 in hand to purchase a functional disability? Where people with disabilities have long been treated as a weak force in the market, mobile users are now dominating, and by winning themselves some concessions from websites in their thrall, maybe, just maybe, they have the potential to enable those whose needs run far deeper than mere convenience.

Get Universal Design for Web Applications now with O’Reilly online learning.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from 200+ publishers.