Toward Universal Usability: An interview with Ben Shneiderman

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  • An edited version of this interview appears in Chapter 10 of A Web for Everyone.

    Photo of BenFor over 30 years, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) pioneer Ben Shneiderman has worked to keep the “human” in HCI broadly defined. Through research and teaching, writing and speaking, convening and facilitating, he has advocated for and assisted in the creation of technology tools in support of the common good. His award-winning book, Leonardo’s Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies, is a call to action, urging users to expect success from their technology tools, and challenging designers and developers to satisfy those expectations.

    Since Ben invented the concept of universal usability, we wanted to get his take on how designers are measuring up, and what is keeping them from moving forward more effectively.

    We are making progress toward universal usability

    In his May 2000 Communications of the ACM article, Ben raises the bar from accessibility to “universal usability,” going beyond technical accessibility for people with disabilities to successful use of computers by everyone. To achieve universal usability, we need to account for technology and user diversity, as well as gaps in knowledge—to “bridge the gap between what users know and what they need to know.” And he establishes as a success measure “more than 90% of all households as successful users of information and communications services at least once a week.”[1]

    Now, more than a decade later, Ben is optimistic. “The software we have today is far better than what we had ten years ago.” We have examples of software and devices, including mobile apps, mobile phones, and digital cameras, where “most people can succeed most of the time.”

    Also, many more people are engaged in promoting accessibility and universal usability. For example, the Association for Computing Machinery, or ACM, recognizes universal usability as an important issue, as indicated by their journal Transactions on Accessible Computing.[2] “As a research topic, accessibility has become a respected part of the computer science discipline.”

    “There are many people at work on universal usability. It’s gratifying to see that when we speak about it, students, researchers, professionals, and policy makers listen.” And along with attention comes results.

    To illustrate, Ben tells a story of a recent plane trip. He was seated next to a businesswoman who was blind, which he knew because of the cane he helped tuck away in the overhead bin. “She sat down next to me, took out her iPad and keyboard, plugged in her earphones, and began to work.” During the flight Ben had the opportunity to chat with her. “I asked whether she was using special software and she said no.” The current implementation on the Apple iPad provided everything she needed to perform her work. “That’s the kind of progress that inspires me in a wonderful way. It is gratifying to know that thoughtful design enables users with disabilities to hold challenging jobs and lead more fulfilling lives.”

    Universal usability is about satisfying experiences

    ““Accessibility’ defines a set of technical requirements that could be met and yet the result may not be universally usable. ‘Universal usability’ specifies not just the attributes of the technology but the experience of the users.” Universal usability is evaluated and measured very differently than accessibility, by way of real users. And this, Ben acknowledges, “is a serious challenge.”

    “The expectation of satisfying the full range of human diversity is an enormously high achievement to push toward.” But he also believes it is achievable if people give it the care and attention that they give to other priorities. “Health is achievable. We have times when our health is better than others, but we strive to be healthy all the time.” Similarly, we should strive to satisfy people “with different hardware, different network connections, different abilities, and different levels of knowledge about using computer technology.”

    Expecting to be successful in our use of technology

    Much has to do with our expectations as consumers of technology—whether we expect to be satisfied, or to satisfice.

    Take, for example, digital cameras. We started out with small digital cameras that were able to take fuzzy images, and built up to easy-to-use, high-resolution cameras that are integrated into other devices. “As time goes by and technology improves and advances, our expectations of what we can accomplish grow ever higher. We now expect to be able to take good photos indoors without a flash on a cell phone.”

    But in many cases, our expectations have not been forceful enough to affect change. Software still produces “frustration and difficulty.” University and commercial websites are not accessible. Even government agency websites that are under strict legal requirements to be accessible often aren’t. To make real gains toward universal usability, people must expect satisfying and successful experiences from all of our technology tools. Every user must become an activist, speaking up to influence those who can make change happen.

    Strategies for delivering universally usable experiences

    One approach to designing universally usable software is using multi-layer interfaces that include a basic mode that is easy to use and error free, but with more features and functions available as users become more proficient. Ben calls these “karate interfaces,” in that users move metaphorically from white belt to black. At each step, there are different things to learn, and with mastery of each step comes increased proficiency. “More attention to multi-layer interfaces could make systems usable by people with low skills and low needs, as well as people with high ability and high needs.”[3]

    Ben recognizes that this type of interface requires more effort from designers and developers, but asserts, “It’s something we should all expect. Moderate effort by the design team can bring huge benefits for millions of users.”

    We expect automobiles to have levels of adjustability. We can move the seat, tilt the steering wheel, angle the mirrors, raise the lighting—there are so many adjustable features. Of course, it takes more time to design and may cost more, but the benefits to usability and safety are enormous.

    Mature technologies have many forms of adjustability that are easy to use, enabling people to move gracefully from simple use to more elaborate use. They empower people to do remarkable things.

    Building awareness and expertise in the profession

    Ben sees examples such as Apple’s iOS as influential in raising awareness and moving toward universal usability, since the main force holding people back is lack of knowledge in the profession. “We need to tell the good stories about those who have done the right thing and have done a good job. That will encourage others to follow in the same way.”

    One byproduct of a lack of knowledge is general uneasiness about the implications of building software for universal usability. Since accessibility and universal usability are not typically part of education and training, most people who are building sites and applications are not proficient in these areas. “The expectation of many designers, engineers, and programmers is that it’s going to be very difficult to do.”

    A key way to address this knowledge gap is through textbooks. Ben suggests a checklist review process, in which any book intended to support the computer science curriculum is checked for whether it includes universal usability. “That kind of review would make authors, adopters, professors, and university departments aware that universal usability is an essential part of computer science.”

    Ideally, the topic would be integrated into every aspect of the book, as with Ben’s seminal textbook, Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction, with Catherine Plaisant, Maxine Cohen, and Steven Jacobs. In the current 5th edition, Ben notes that “There is no chapter about universal usability—the whole book is about universal usability!”

    In addition, Ben would like to see more rigorous professional standards to support the practice of universal usability. “There is a growing movement in support of software engineer certification. I’m in favor of that, and I think one of the criteria should be that their training covers accessibility and universal usability.”

    Universal usability shouldn’t be a special course that someone has to take. It should be part of the preparation for anyone who learns about computer science and training for every computing professional. I want to be in a discipline and part of a profession that is proud of its role in achieving universal usability.