Societal/cultural consciousness and change

XVII.1 January + February 2010
Page: 40
Digital Citation

INTERACTING WITH PUBLIC POLICYInteracting with public policy

Jonathan Lazar

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Welcome to a new forum in interactions on interaction design and public policy. You might be reading this and saying, "Why should I care about public policy? I'm not a policy wonk, I'm not a politician, and I don't get involved in politics."

Public policy actually has a great impact on the work we do in interaction design and human-computer interaction. "Public policy" is a broader term that includes both government policy and policy coming from non-governmental organizations, and yes, every now and then, it does include politics. Around the world, many governments are grappling with similar policy issues related to human-computer interaction, usability engineering, and interaction design. Two of the biggest interaction design policy topics are how to facilitate fair and accurate voting (what types of interfaces, what types of voting machines), and what types of Web-based information should be legally required to be accessible for people with disabilities. Often, policy discussions do take place in a one-country context due to the need to adapt to the laws or cultural issues of a country (or even different laws of a smaller state or a province or administrative unit). But these aren't just American issues (or British, French, or Brazilian ones).

back to top  Policy Is Local; Research Is International

While government policies are often limited to one country, the community of researchers and designers who hopefully are involved in informing policy makers is international. There are researchers working on voting-machine usability and Web accessibility throughout the world. We may collaborate on research and design projects, and we may meet face-to-face at conferences. When we work together, we can be more effective at informing policy makers and ensuring that science and research and good design practice are the driving factors for policy, rather than politics or scare tactics. Have you heard the term "harmonization" recently? It's the idea that we should have a consistent set of international technical or design standards [1]. Harmonization would mean that it is easier for interaction designers to build tools and systems that can span multiple countries. But harmonization happens only when interaction designers are out there talking with policy makers, saying, "Yes, standards are important. Yes, consistency in policy is good." Policy will always be based on a specific country, state, province, borough, or city and will be local. One person alone can't influence policy in multiple countries. But you can work to create technical and design standards that are applicable in multiple countries. We want to encourage local policies that use international standards. The environmental tagline "think globally, act locally" really applies to interaction design and public policy, as well!

back to top  Being Proactive Versus Reactive

If you want to understand the impact that we as interaction designers and researchers can have on public policy, you should compare the policy issues of Web accessibility and voting machines [2]. Researchers and designers have been involved and proactive in Web accessibility from the beginning, helping drive the public policy. After the confusing results of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, voting machines fell under scrutiny. It was as if the entire interaction design community woke up and said, "Hey, those are interfaces....Why weren't we involved?" We were reactive, not proactive, and even today we are still behind the ball and have trouble getting policy makers interested in the usability concerns of voting machines, rather than issues of security, accuracy, or paper verification trails. Compare that with Web accessibility. People from our research communities helped work on the Web Accessibility Initiative from the World Wide Web Consortium (an international, non-governmental organization). In 1999 the first design guidelines to address accessible Web content (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG) were based on research and science and design, not politics. Those original WCAG 1.0 guidelines form the basis for most accessibility laws around the world today. For instance, when the guidelines for the Section 508 law in the United States were announced in December 2000, the guidelines were primarily based on WCAG 1.0. The early involvement of those in the research and design communities helped drive the public policy. The new WCAG 2.0 was approved in 2008 and is starting to gain recognition from policy makers around the world as the new benchmark for accessible Web content. With Web accessibility, the research community was proactive; instead of running and trying to catch up, we were actually influencing the policy!

back to top  Interaction Design Policy Issues

What are some of the policy issues related to interaction design occurring right now in the U.S.? As a part of the stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009), the government is working toward having a digital version of all medical records. Certainly, there are issues related to the interface—what types of interfaces doctors and nurses will use, whether patients will be able to access their own medical records, and if so, how? There's now a bill in the U.S. Congress (the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act) that would require full accessibility for people with disabilities, for VoIP, text messaging, and videoconferencing, among other things. Agencies such as the Department of Defense are trying to create policies on how agencies can use social networking tools like Facebook, and what limitations employees and military personnel have on using those services. The guidelines for government computer accessibility, known as Section 508, are currently undergoing revision (the "508 Refresh"). The Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee (TEITAC) submitted its suggestions for how Section 508 should be revised [3]. The U.S. Access Board, a federal agency focused on accessible design in general, is currently reviewing the report and will decide on the new set of guidelines. The suggestions from TEITAC, if adopted with only minor changes, would align the 508 refresh with the new Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) from the World Wide Web Consortium.

And there continues to be a lot of activity related to Web accessibility. On Sept. 1, 2009, the New York State attorney general reached an agreement with HSBC Bank that, among other things, requires the bank's website to be accessible for people with disabilities by May 31, 2010. This follows the big news of the 2008 settlement in the long-running Target vs. National Federation of the Blind class-action lawsuit. Target, a large chain of stores, was sued by a group of blind individuals because was not accessible for people with impairments. The legal argument used was that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to websites. For those not familiar with the ADA, it was signed into law in 1990, and it requires access to any places of public accommodation and requires accommodations for any private companies with 15 or more employees. Of course, in 1990, the Web was not a consideration to policy makers. So it has been unclear in the law whether the ADA, which applies to private companies, would also apply to websites. There have been many previous lawsuits and attempts to understand if ADA applies to the Web, with little success. However, in the Target vs. NFB, there were a number of preliminary court rulings that stated that ADA did apply to the Web. Both sides agreed to a settlement in 2008, which included Target agreeing to make its website accessible and creating a $6 million fund to pay claims to blind individuals who suffered as a result of the inaccessible website.

In other recent accessibility news, new regulations went into effect for airline websites and airport kiosks in May 2009 under the U.S. Department of Transportation. While the new regulations don't require accessible websites or kiosks, there's an interesting wrinkle: If an inaccessible airline website causes an impaired customer to call or otherwise contact the airline telephone call center, that individual may not be charged extra for placing the call (as is often the case). And they must be given, over the phone or by other means, the lowest airfare available on the website at that time [4]. Charging a higher fare over the phone could be considered discriminatory pricing based on impairment. It should be noted that when contacting the call center, the individual must immediately identify him or herself as having an impairment. Is that fair? And is there any way to validate that? We shall see how this policy works out.

There's currently a bill in the U.S. Congress (the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2009) that would require all voting machines to allow for independent verifications of voting, with paper trails. Voting machines remain a hot topic. Even without federal action, many states have decertified their existing voting machines to require paper verification during the next election, or at least that it be phased in over the next few elections. For many states, that means switching from the touch-screen machines to optical-scan machines. And for voters, that means learning yet another voting-machine interface, which will no doubt be challenging.

Finally, for many people in the U.S., government defines the perception of "usability." The website is the starting point for many Web searchers looking for basic information on usability. When I searched on Google, it's the second result, after Wikipedia, and before groups like the Usability Professionals Association.

back to top  Policy Comes From Many Different Sources

Public policy is complex because it comes in many different forms from many different sources. International stakeholders in design-related public policy include the non-governmental organizations such as the World Wide Web consortium, and professional organizations, such as ACM SIGCHI (Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction), USACM (the U.S. public-policy arm of ACM), the Usability Professionals Association, and AIGA. Here's where it gets more complex, becoming more specific to each country. Policy comes in different forms in each country. In the U.S., public policy can come in the form of a law, a signing statement, a regulation, an executive order, case law, or other forms. Different agencies and organizations within the U.S. federal government can influence public policy on interaction design. For instance, the website is managed and was developed by the Department of Health and Human Services. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is involved in measurement and metrics related to voting, biometrics, and usability testing. The U.S. Access Board sets the standards for Section 508. And this doesn't even touch on state-level laws and policies related to interaction design. Many states now have laws related to the two big design-related policy topics, voting machines, and Web accessibility. Public policy is complex and it changes rapidly. Since magazine articles must be submitted a few months before publication, my hope is that none of this is out of date by the time you read it. I guess, if you work in technology, you are used to print publications being a little bit out of date.

back to top  What Can You Do?

This is the first article for this forum. In every issue of interactions, different authors will write about public policy issues that impact on interaction design. We will include policy issues from around the world. Policy is about being involved. After reading a policy article, I encourage you to contact those involved in writing it. Also, try to learn more about the issues. And if you have some knowledge on a given topic, get involved, talk to legislators in your country, serve on local, national, and international organizations that have advisory and standards committees. There is a great need around the world for knowledgeable interaction designers to engage with their local policy makers. Think globally, act locally.... I really like how that sounds for our community. Now, if I can just decide if it's better for the environment to eat organic produce or locally grown produce. I still haven't figured that one out.

back to top  References

1. Web Accessibility Initiative. "Why Standards Harmonization Is Essential to Web Accessibility." 2009;

2. Hochheiser, H. and Lazar, J. "HCI and Societal Issues: A Framework for Engagement." International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 23, 3 (2007): 339–374.

3. Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee. "Report to the Access Board: Refreshed Accessibility Standards and Guidelines in Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology." 2008;

4. U.S. Department of Transportation. "Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel." 2009;

* For more info, check out:


UPA Usability in Civic Life;

AIGA Design for Democracy;

back to top  Author

Jonathan Lazar is a professor in the department of computer and information sciences at Towson University, where he serves as director of the undergraduate program in information systems and is founder and director of the Universal Usability Laboratory. Lazar has published five books, including Web Usability: A User-Centered Design Approach (Addison-Wesley, 2006), Universal Usability (John Wiley and Sons, 2007) and Research Methods in Human-Computer Interaction (John Wiley and Sons, 2010). He currently serves as national chair of the ACM SIGCHI U.S. Public Policy Committee.

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