Good design and accessible design

To central London today for a highly productive and informative discussion of the issues of good design and accessible design. Before the discussion took flight, I gave an introductory preamble, which broadly followed the text below.

Accessible design is good design

I’d like to start by looking at where security as a subject is today. Why? Well, because security is now so well established as a critical business issue: organisations employ dedicated people to handle their security needs. Security itself is built into the design of business processes and operations. It’s in the very DNA of the way we think about and build technology.

Now contrast that with accessibility. It seems to be where security was as a topic maybe 5, 10 or more years ago.

All too often it seems to be an after-thought, an optional extra — or something added reluctantly purely because of legal regulation. Rather than a welcome recognition that good accessibility design is, well, good design.

People would, rightly, not do business with a company that ignored their security and privacy concerns. We need to achieve the same recognition of accessibility. When we live in an age built on what is often referred to as the “knowledge economy”, and when predictions suggest 50% of UK GDP will be generated by the knowledge economy as soon as 2010, it seems absurd to exclude a large number of potential consumers and employees of that age due to poor design.

There is plenty of evidence that everyone benefits from well-designed technology, not just those deemed to benefit from “assistive technologies” (a study in the US showed that 57% of working age computer using adults could benefit from the use of accessible technology).

When I look across the UK, I wonder why we remain so wedded to outmoded ways of working — ways of working that in many ways stack the deck against those with disabilities. Everything from the commute to work using either public or private transport, through to building design and the ergonomics of the average workplace can present a bias against those with accessibility needs.

Only yesterday at an event I heard Anne McGuire MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions, state that 80% of people on incapacity benefit want to work. What a sobering statistic. And what an apparent indictment of the way we currently think about the world of work. Technology is a wonderful liberator — it frees us from location, from time, from traditional geographically based constraints. Or at any rate, it should do.

With all the talk of anytime, anywhere working it’s a shame it’s not more delivered.

There have of course been challenges with achieving clarity of how to build and test against accessibility criteria. But this is improving, with the promise of the work happening with WCAG 2.0 for example. In the same way that few would build a system that did not take account of security standards such as ISO17799, I hope well see a shift in emphasis that accessibility is a design criterion from the start of a project — not something that has to be tacked reluctantly on towards the end merely to meet accessibility requirements, as if it is a burden rather than an asset.

There is much talk of “professionalism in IT”, which would certainly be a good thing. But what does that mean? Are we really serious in the IT industry about being a profession — with all that goes with that? And, if we are, how do we factor in accessibility as an issue relevant to everyone on a project, as a critical — not optional — element of such professionalism? To me, accessibility is after all about good user design. Design is a topic that I believe is only going to increase in importance: those who design well design well for everyone, not merely a subset of users.

Accessibility goes mainstream

One of the key developments I see happening right now is the separation of content from delivery channels. This offers a fundamental shift in the way we think about technology, the way we think about technology design. In the past, the presentation was closely integrated with the underlying system. This may have been a convenience for the programmer, but rarely did this help the user.

Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) have been much criticised for causing many of the accessibility problems we now need to fix. And as we enter the “post-Caxton” age, in which the supremacy of text is being challenged by the move to a genuinely multi-media, multi-modal Internet, I know there are concerns too about how an ever-more graphical, visual Web will impact accessibility.

But there are some good points too about this “post-Caxton” age. Podcasts for example. In an age when text does cease to have supremacy over other forms of capturing and communicating content, some of the inaccessible by-products of textual dominance will wither too. Surely that has to be welcomed?

A common infrastructure

We are now witnessing a move towards a clear separation between presentation and function, between form and function if you like. This is the age of Web services systems that expose programmatic interfaces that can then be consumed and used by a whole host of different front-end systems. One underlying system can serve multiple devices, channels and interfaces. This is a development of major significance that will impact the way we design and interact with systems for generations to come.

Think for example of the current complexity of finding and listening to Internet radio stations using a browser and a PC. The whole process of booting the PC, logging in, firing up an Internet browser, going to a Web site, looking for Internet radio stations, firing up a media player and so on.

And then compare that experience with using another kind of browser — a dedicated Internet radio. It achieves the same objective, but by very different means. A simple, familiar form factor with an on/off switch and a tuning dial.

Yet both the dedicated Internet radio and the PC-based Internet radio experience are built on the identical underlying infrastructure, use exactly the same content. This separation enables us to rethink the way in which people will interact with and enjoy the benefits of the digital age. It enables us to rethink the way we design corporate systems, both internally and externally. Web sites for example are just one form of presentation of our corporate services. We need to ensure we take advantage of this model and design systems so that the same underlying content and services can be accessed in a rich variety of ways.

This is because for all the talk of convergence of content (audio, text, video, etc), we will see an increasing divergence of presentation methods and devices. This has to be a good thing. It will offer unrivalled opportunities for users to drive and reward market leaders where those who offer the easiest, most convenient and best designed interfaces and devices will be richly rewarded. For those not familiar with his work in this important area, I recommend you visit Bill Buxton’s website.

The pivotal role of technology

One of our slogans at Microsoft is about “enabling people to realise their true potential”. And I can’t think of any better way to summarise the key, enabling role of technology in eliminating barriers to access as consumers, employees, students, whatever.

Better design of IT is as fundamental to corporate success as security. We need to ensure this is reflected in the way IT professionals think, in the way they are trained and operate. And we should take advantage of the new world of Web services — the separation of content and delivery — to create barrier-free business processes and experiences, for consumers and employees alike.

We must continue to work on ensuring that accessibility is understood as something that, like security, needs to be in the very DNA of the way we think about and build technology.


This blog post originally appeared when I hosted NTOUK on SimpleBlog. It’s one of several I’m retrieving and posting here to bring together my posts in one place. The content, date and time shown for this post replicates the original. Many links are, inevitably, broken: where I can, I’ll substitute ones that work, particularly where the Internet Archive Wayback Machine has captured the content originally linked to.

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