XIII.1 January + February 2006
Page: 50
Digital Citation

Review of “Access by Design by Sarah Horton”, New Riders, 2005, ISBN: 032131140X, $24.99

Robert Douglass

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Sensitivity to accessibility issues is a key issue for many of us in the interface design field. There is growing demand from government and corporate clients to design accessible sites not just to comply with the law, but for the specific purpose of marketing products and services directly to the disabled community. Accessibility is an important issue for both Web- and software-application development teams.

Sarah Horton's previous book, the Web Style Guide, was well received and she has done a good job at carrying the style and vision of that book over into her new book, Access by Design. This book doesn't just help by listing the various accessibility standards and checklists, but it has the higher goal of promoting universal usability. Working to satisfy checklists alone does not guarantee that all users will benefit from your Web site. Universal usability aims higher at the creation of solutions that are truly usable for the widest variety of people. In the same way that architects have evolved from bolting ramps and elevators to their designs to truly integrating accessibility into the main building structure, so the Web-design community can integrate accessibility into designs that please and delight all users. Horton's goal is to provide readers with the technical and design skills that make universally usable Web sites possible.

Universal Usability. In Horton's view, the skills necessary to create universally usable Web sites are critical for interface professionals to master. While most of us realize that we need to go beyond designing for the fictional "average user" to design for a broad range of users, Horton emphasizes that we need to learn to design for all users. As she explains, "By anticipating the needs of all people, things can be designed in a way that makes them universally usable (p. 9)." This mindset adds important dimensions to the design decision-making process, and can help designers to get beyond designing for look and feel alone. The best look and feel cannot benefit blind users, and may even detract from their experience. If the overall goal of making a site universally usable is not kept in mind, it will be difficult to make the decisions that enable a truly accessible site.

Enabling Universal Usability. The goal of universal usability is at the heart of making sites usable for as many as possible, because it will help us to make more informed design decisions. Early in the book Horton presents a terrific analysis of the standard design decision to adopt a two- or three-column layout. If you're not thinking about universal usability, this decision is a matter of visibility (How can I get content "above the fold?") and readability (How can I get nice short lines that are easy to read?). But viewed through the lens of universal usability, three-column layouts are often unusable for visually impaired people who crank the font size up to "extra large:" "Whenever the result of a design decision is that people cannot use our site, then other methods must be considered (p. 14)."

When it comes to column layouts, Horton recommends the use of only one or two. This is the most flexible design that all users can adapt to their needs. In general, Horton argues that designers strive for the maximum flexibility by writing well-formed HTML to capture a Web site's content, and then using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to achieve all presentation effects. These designs allow a designer to have her cake (a handsome presentation) and eat it too (that is flexible and universally usable).

Keeping Designs Simple. One of the major themes of the book is that universal usability is best achieved by simple designs. Horton states this plainly: "...the best way to achieve a balance between engaging and overwhelming the user is to apply the simplest solution to any design problem (p. 23)." Visually, simple sites are designed to be clean with no unneeded design elements and flourishes. Horton highlights the Netflix Web site for having done a great job of communicating content in a simple and clear way. Simple sites are most likely to be usable by the widest variety of people.

Simplicity also has a benefit for development teams. While designers might have to be very deliberate in the creation of simple designs, these designs are easier and cheaper to maintain and extend. It is quite simple to provide alternate views of a simple site (for example, printer friendly views, or text only views) by providing alternate style sheets. In addition, design changes can be made by altering the site's style sheet instead of by visiting every page.

The theme of simplicity also extends to other areas as well. Horton asks designers to use images purposefully, keep file sizes small, and to provide thumbnails of images. Forms should be designed for clarity and simplicity so that users can complete them successfully. Horton highlights these types of practices to give the readers a better understanding of how they can practically implement the simple design principles she champions.

Horton also makes a strong argument for making use of accessibility features in the authoring software for PDF and Flash. For example, Flash designers can include text alternatives for images and other nontext elements in the documents they create. Even better, Horton argues for providing alternate versions of "rich" content, and cites an example of a Web site that provides both HTML and PDF versions of documents.

The Importance of Standards. The second major theme of the book is the importance of adhering to design standards. Not only should you use CSS with your HTML, you should make sure that the HTML and CSS that you write are valid and meet all applicable World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards. Fully valid code serves the goal of flexibility because it is compatible with the widest variety of devices.

Users benefit from adherence to standards and flexible design in numerous ways. For example, a visually impaired user might use their browser settings to increase the text size for pages they visit. At the same time, PDA users might require a much smaller font size. Complying with W3C standards helps to ensure that these users will have a positive experience.

Conclusion. Access by Design is a well-structured book that is filled with annotated examples of Web sites that both succeed and fail at implementing the principles Horton advocates. Each section and chapter contains a succinct summary.

The goal of universal usability championed by Horton is lofty. She has written a book that not only provides readers with technical details on how to achieve this goal, but also the rationale behind those details. With this new book, Horton has moved beyond the "checklist" approach to accessibility and brings us to a larger vision of usability that enables us to address the user needs of as many people as possible including those with special needs. By following the principles she advocates, designers will create more accessible and usable interfaces for all users. Her latest book is an important work for designers and anyone involved in the Web or software user interface design field.

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About the Reviewer:

Richard Douglass is a usability analyst with Lotus Software at IBM. He can be reached at

To submit a book review, please email Gerard Torenvliet at


Gerard Torenvliet
CMC Electronics
415 Leggett Drive, P.O. Box 13330
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K2K 2B2

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©2006 ACM  1072-5220/06/0100  $5.00

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