|Tabular overviews of the book|
|Homepage of Jonathan Lazar|
|Universal Usability in Practice|
By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – September 20, 2007
This review takes a personal look at the book Universal Usability edited by Jonathan Lazar.
Usability: Universal usability
Jonathan Lazar is an associate professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences at Towson University. He is also director of the CIS Undergraduate Program and director of the Universal Usability Laboratory. He is involved in teaching and research in the area of human-computer interaction. Specifically, he is interested in Web usability, Web accessibility, user-centered design, assistive technology, and public policy in the area of CHI.
This book review is the result of a misunderstanding. Ben Shneiderman, who wrote the preface to the book and co-authors a chapter, asked me whether I would like to ask Sarah Horton, author of the book Access by Design, to write a review of Universal Usability for the SAP Design Guild. Somehow, I mixed it all up and replied that I would write the review myself – with the added result that I will have to write a review of Sarah Horton's book as well...
The term "universal usability" originates from an article by Ben Shneiderman, written in 2000 in the Communications of the ACM (see references). In this article entitled Universal Usability, Shneiderman outlines a research program that addresses the "universal usability challenges of technology variety, user diversity, and gaps in user knowledge" as its three cornerstones to make information and communication services available to every citizen.
Besides "universal usability," there are further terms in use, such as "universal access" and "universal design" (see Universal Design). These terms have a somewhat different meaning but are often used interchangeably with universal usability. All in all, universal usability can be regarded as a broader concept than universal access because it includes both, access and usability. I will return to these terms in a forthcoming article about universal usability (which will hopefully appear this autumn).
In the book's preface, Ben Shneiderman traces the history of universal usability and briefly discusses the contributions of the book to the initiative he once started with respect to aspects, such as design breakthroughs, innovative research methods, benefits for users, and breadth of research. In the subsequent introduction to the book, Jonathan Lazar discusses universal usability and the applications of this concept in more detail and briefly outlines the content and contribution of each chapter. Finally, in chapter 19, Jennifer Preece looks toward the future and prospects of universal usability, and in doing so focuses on her favorite themes community communication and empowerment. All in all, these three chapters provide a good foundation and starting point for reading the whole book.
The rest of the book consists of seventeen chapters from different groups of authors, presenting a wide range of projects and topics from the realm of universal usability. These can be broadly divided into:
As I do not want to replicate Jonathan Lazar's overview of the book in this review, I prepared two tabular overviews. They relate characteristics of the population samples participating in the projects to the chapters of the book. This should aid readers in quickly identifying chapters that cover similar aspects or topics, such as blind users, autistic children, designs for the elderly, online communities, and so on...
Jonathan Lazar's book Universal Usability provides a rich and valuable overview of the current state of research into universal usability. It is probably the most comprehensive book on universal usability and its applications to date. As already mentioned above, the book covers a wide range of projects devoted to specific age groups, such as children or the elderly, as well as to people with diverse impairments or diseases, such as vision, physical, and cognitive impairments, including autism and Down syndrome (chapters 1-14). A smaller section of the book is devoted to projects targeted at specific population groups, such as low-income or ethnic groups (chapters 15-18). In particular, the chapter about online forms for census data collection addresses the challenge of creating "software for every citizen." Another chapter reports on the challenge of covering diverse users roles and multiple languages and cultures within one piece of software, a digital library. So, what's missing? Only a few omissions come to my mind: People with general cognitive impairments and people with hearing impairments are not within the scope of the book. Hearing impairments receive little attention in the software business – most current software is more or less silent anyway. This may, however, change with the current boom of multimedia use on the Web. My remarks should not be regarded as criticism, though: they are just recommendations for what might be included in a future edition of the book.
According to Jonathan Lazar, there are essentially two types of universal interface design strategies. Which one is chosen depends on how the software is to be used.
Secondly, there are applications that are designed for a specific group of the population, such as autistic children, people with Alzheimer's disease or dementia, or people with visual, physical, or cognitive impairments. These applications may not be able to be used by other sectors of the population or even be of use to them. The goals of these applications are not universal: they are only meant to meet the needs of a specific user population. Thus, these projects broaden the range of people that can access information and communication technology. A closer look at the chapters of the book reveals that the major part of the projects presented there are not "universal" but rather of this second type, namely solutions targeted at a specific group, thus extending access to or improving usability for these groups. These specific solutions may, however, offer the potential, to – often unexpectedly – be adopted by other users as well, because they benefit all, or at least a wide range of users. Examples of these are, of course, the stories that proponents of universal usability like to tell the most, and for good reason. The typewriter with a keyboard as we know it today was invented for the blind father of German inventor Karl Drais – a classic example of such an incident. The book also includes a similar example: Training modules developed to teach children with Down syndrome about using the Web (Web Fun Central, chapter 7) are used by many librarians to teach Web skills to customers without disabilities.
A number of authors stress the importance of participatory design for the success of universal usability design projects. For example, Maloney-Krichmar et al. (chapter 16) state as the primary lesson of their project that the target population must be involved in the design process. Participatory design is much more important in universal usability than in ordinary design projects. Designers can rarely simply rely on their common sense and real-world knowledge since the specific needs of such user groups are largely unknown to outsiders. Where feasible members of the target audience can even be included in the design team, though this may pose a number of challenges to the project team. As, for example, Wu et al. (chapter 11) explain, if people with amnesia are members of the design team, other team members have to keep track of the overall schedule and provide the context for the members with amnesia during the design sessions.
User participation in projects is not only essential for groups with specific needs or impairments, but even more so for community-oriented projects, such as community Websites projects for ethnic or low-income groups. Here, participation is an essential ingredient of the project and provides the foundation for its success sustainability. For example, in the Camfield Estates MIT Creating Community Connections project (Pinkett, chapter 15), the MIT provided households with hardware for Web access and offered training courses that enabled people to use the technology to build a community Website. The long-term success of such projects depends to a large degree on what happens after the initial research program and particularly funding has ended. User participation generates acceptance and helps create the necessary impetus to allow the project to maintain its momentum.
Universal usability projects not only present challenges to design but also to methodology: According to several authors, existing methodology is often insufficient and has to be adapted to the respective clientele. As a consequence, universal design projects help to extend current methodologies and make them more widely applicable. A number of chapters list implications for researchers at the end. However, these are mostly issues that have yet to be explored. Some authors, such as Lazar & Allan (chapter 6), have already provided extensions to existing methodology, in this case, a method for remotely collecting research data from blind users. As another example, Pinkett (chapter 15) provides a set of recommendations based on "lessons learned" in the Camfield community project.
There is one approach to widening software use to include specific user groups that I would also like to mention: Extending the application of available and common technology to replace costly, specialized solutions. For example, Wobbrock & Myers (chapter 14) successfully explore the use of common pointing devices, such as joysticks, trackpads, and trackballs for entering gestures (as alternatives to text input). Zhao, Shneiderman, & Plaisant (chapter 5) use sound output to sonify complex maps of geo-referenced data, because it is incorporated in every PC and much cheaper and more flexible than tactile maps. Other projects use speech input and output to communicate with the computer. Both are also readily available in today's computers. Feng & Sears (chapter 13), for example, explore the idea of speech input to interact with the computer. As speech input is still plagued with many problems, they investigate methods to improve its reliability.
In then end, however, and if we are willing to follow Jennifer Preece, universal usability may only be an intermediary step on the way to "universal sociability." In her outlook (chapter 19), she urges designers of social interaction software to "strive to go beyond universal usability for individuals to build software that is universally usable by communities and societies." Preece adds that "as the authors of this book demonstrate that universal usability has come a long way. ... The road ahead leads beyond universal usability, our next goal must be to use technology to support universal sociability."
While the book covers universal usability, or universal access, the book itself does not seem to be targeted at a wide audience. Ben Shneiderman started universal usability in 2000 as a research program to address the "universal usability challenges of technology variety, user diversity, and gaps in user knowledge." No wonder then that this book, which provides an overview of what has been achieved so far, is a book "by researchers for researchers." As it stands, the book is targeted at a more academic audience. It is academic in style, and the chapters read like research articles for journals. For example, you will often find extensive descriptions of experimental procedures, data, and interpretations of results. This is fine for an academic or professional audience, but it is not suited to the general public. I even doubt that this style of presentation is suited to usability practitioners.
This restriction is regrettable, because universal usability deserves "universal" attention. The book missed the chance to address a wider audience and generate more interest in its topic. In my opinion, further effort has to be invested in making universal usability a program and an affair of the heart for the whole user interface design community.
As this book is an anthology, it is not necessary to read it in one go. I have already suggested how readers can approach this voluminous book, weighing in at a hefty 600 pages, in the overview section. However, to embellish this, I would like to add some details: As a "starter" I would recommend beginning with Ben Shneiderman's preface, then read Jonathan Lazar's introduction (chapter 1), and finally Jennifer Preece's outlook (chapter 19). These chapters will provide you with the basic information about universal usability, its concepts, applications, and issues. It is also definitely useful to read Ben Shneiderman's article on universal usability, in which the research program has initially been formulated, if you haven't already done so. This can be done either before or after reading the three chapters.
After this, you have several options. One strategy would be to read the chapters one by one, as time permits. The chapters have been arranged logically and it makes sense to read them in order. Alternatively, you may want to jump to the topics that are of particular interest to you, whether they are related to disabilities, diseases, age, social status, or whatever. All articles can be read independently. My tabular overview should help readers find the relevant chapters.
Finally, I would like to make a few suggestions to the editor and the authors of the book, which, in my opinion, might make it more useful. While a lot of information about impairments, diseases, and demographic data can be found throughout the book, I would have liked to find this information in a consolidated form as well. Therefore, I suggest adding the following two appendices to the book:
A change in the style of the book from a scientific one to one with a more popular appeal to attract a wider audience would also be welcome, although this would probably result in a new book...
To sum up, Jonathan Lazar's anthology of recent universal usability projects provides a rich and valuable resource of reports on the current state of research into universal usability. It is probably the most comprehensive book on universal usability and its applications to date. I would therefore recommend it to all people who are interested in universal usability, not only user interface designers. Considering the growing relevance of this topic, it should be read by all people involved in user interface design projects.
The only gripe that I have with the book is that it is a book "by researchers for researchers." To reach the whole design community and beyond, in particular UI practitioners and stakeholders within companies and institutions, the book needs to be made more "accessible" to a wider audience. But as I already stated, this would result in a different book – and this has still to be written.
Forthcoming article about universal usability: