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Interview with Whitney Quesenbery


Whitney Quesenbery will be sharing some essential bits of advice in our upcoming event, 31 Awesomely Practical UX Tips! It’s a one-day virtual conference in which 6 experts offer…you guessed it…31 Awesomely Practical UX Tips!

Register yourself—or your team&#8212for the May 29th day-long (10am-5pm ET) virtual conference. You’ll learn from and interact with UX experts you know and respect: Steve Krug, Luke Wroblewski, Susan Weinschenk, Aarron Walter, Jeffrey Eisenberg, and Whitney Quesenbery.

This week we pick Whitney’s brain about universal design principles and the content of her forthcoming book. Here’s what she had to say:

Rosenfeld Media: You and Sarah Horton have a new book coming out, Web Design For Everyone—can you tell us about it?

Whitney Quesenbery: Almost three years ago, we started talking to Lou about an accessibility book. As important as the technical standards are, I knew that a Rosenfeld Media book has to start with the user experience. And I’m not that technical. I wanted a way to think about a project that would start with people, and would acknowledge all of the different considerations that go into making a web site or app.

Think about what it takes to do something as simple as putting a heading on the screen. There’s user research and IA, content strategy and HTML markup, graphic design and CSS coding, the structure of the site and the server it sits on. All of them have to pull together to make that heading show up in a browser. If we can get all of that right, adding accessibility doesn’t seem so hard.

We’ve organized the book around the way we think as UXers. It starts with personas, so we don’t forget that UX is about people. Then, each chapter looks at one principle of UX design:

  • Clear purpose
  • Solid structure
  • Easy interaction
  • Helpful wayfinding
  • Clean presentation
  • Plain language
  • Accessible media
  • Universal usability

The principles also take in the many disciplines that contribute to UX, so we hope that any practitioner can explore how their own skills and method contribute to making a web for everyone.

RM: You mention “Universal Design Principles” in your book? Could you tell us a little about those?

WQ: One of the things I like about the Universal Design Principles is that they really are principles – not rigid rules for design. I think of them as 7 questions to ask about any UX project. The answers guide the design towards a product that can be used by everyone.

  • Is it an equitable experience, appealing to all equally?
  • Is it flexible, allowing for people to choose how to use it?
  • Is it simple, consistent, and clear?
  • Does it present information in multiple ways, supporting all senses?
  • Does it tolerate errors without punishing users?
  • Is it comfortable and efficient to use?
  • Does it allow people with different physical abilities to use it?

Those sound like questions I’d want to ask about anything I worked on. The big leap to universal principles is thinking about people with many different abilities and preferences, not just dictating one experience.

You might also notice that these principles can be applied to physical objects and spaces, not just to the web. The group that created them in 1997 included architects, industrial designers and engineers. They were concerned with how people interacted with anything in the world — which now includes the online world. That makes a lot of sense to me now that user experience includes both software and hardware devices.

(You can read the official version at the Center for Universal Design)

RM: We heard that we should be designing for Mobile First, but you’re actually addressing Accessibility First. Are these themes in conflict? Or do they complement one another?

WQ: They are absolutely not in conflict. In fact, I think we’d have better web sites if we combined them. Both of them say that we need to start by designing for constraints. In both cases, there are both technical and human constraints.

In mobile, for example, you have a small screen, limited bandwidth, and a device that is often used by someone on the go – certainly not a person sitting at an ergonomically correct desk, paying complete attention to the interface. Mobile First simply says to design for that situation. Find the most critical features. Make the screen easy to read. And make sure that people can tap on buttons or other controls without accidentally doing the wrong thing.

In accessibility, the constraints are the human senses and the need for alternatives. What if someone can’t see the image or hear the video intro? Can they use the site? The same responsive design approach that lets a site or app work on different size screens also lets it work when users need larger text, or different colors.

Both mobile and accessibility also rely on sites built to strong standards. This may sound pretty boring, but it makes all sorts of things possible because accessibility relies on two things that standards provide: flexibility (for different ways of displaying content) and interoperability (so that people can choose the technology that fits their needs). This solid structure is a foundation for a great user experience for everyone.

RM: Thanks, Whitney!

There’s still time to sign up for 31 Awesomely Practical UX Tips! Join Whitney along with five other experts for this awesome virtual event on May 29th.