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Universal, ubiquitous, user-interface design for the disabled and elderly

Aaron Marcus


How many of you have friends or relatives who are seriously disabled or elderly? Chances are you know someone or may be in frequent contact with someone in either category. In the HCI community, we often tend not to make either a center of study; we focus more typically on youth, speed, or early adapters of constantly changing technology. Yet, some occasions in life remind us to pay more attention to more diverse groups of people. I had such a wake-up call by being invited to participate in the first International Conference for Universal Design in Japan (November 30-December 4, 2002), which took place in Yokohama [10].

For the first time in my experience at a major design gathering, particularly one aimed at user-interface design, numerous attendees had dramatically compromised physical movement and senses. My own reactions to being in their presence covered a common range and sequence: first nervousness, embarrassment, and pity, and then awe and respect, and, after a while, simply the enjoyment of being in their presence and the gradual comfort with communication and interaction through greater familiarity.

The conference, organized by Dr. Satoshi Kose, a senior research fellow at the Building Research Institute of Japan, and his committee, follows several previous international universal design conferences in 1998 and 2000 sponsored by Adaptive Environments [1], an educational nongovernmental organization. The next universal design conference, which will be held in Havana in January 2004, will focus on relating technology to developing nations, in which 80 percent of people with disabilities worldwide live.

What is Universal Design?

Universal design—in this context, user-interface design for the disabled and elderly—is not a new concern for interactions and HCI. However, time and technology make this a fitting moment to focus our attention to universal design. The Universal Design conference in Japan, attended by almost 700 people from 20 countries, was particularly notable. The conference was fully supported by Crown Prince Tomohito and by 29 corporate sponsors (including Fuji Xerox, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, National/Panasonic, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Ricoh, Toshiba, Toyota, and Victor/JVC). Clearly, these corporate groups have heeded the call and recognized the economic good sense of paying attention to the needs of these user groups.

I want to focus on some facts and issues of user-interface design for the disabled and the elderly prompted by the presentations at this conference. I refer to remarks of several invited speakers because their presentations do not appear on the CD-ROM proceedings available from the conference organizers.

Two keynote speakers—Valerie Fletcher, executive director of Adaptive Environments [1] in Boston, and Roger Coleman, head of the Helen Hamlyn Research Center at London’s Royal College of Art [8]—surveyed trends from North American and European perspectives and included global data in their remarks. Although data across nations are hard to compare, because of varying definitions of disabilities or lack of data collection until relatively recent times, or both, some important observations nevertheless can be made.

Scandinavia and Japan appear to have been leaders, along with some groups in the United States, in calling attention to design for the disabled and elderly. The universal design movement started in the United States; in Europe, the movement is called "universal access" or "usability for all." Whatever it is called, considerations of demographics alone will bring this subject inevitably, and unavoidably, to the front burner of professional attention everywhere. The heritage of better medicine and relative world peace means that in many countries people are living longer. Today, Japan leads the world in the percentage of senior citizens, about 18 percent, which is expected to become 25 percent in 2014. By 2050, about 33 percent of Japanese may fall into that category, and most of the other countries in Europe and North America, as well as some other countries, will be at the level of 25 percent. Interestingly, India is estimated to be an exception, with only 15 percent of its citizens elderly. Several effective presentations about the elderly at the conference included a dramatic visual display of the typical, inevitable increase in the number of disabled among most countries’ populations as age increases. No wonder Japanese corporations are concerned about developing mission statements, philosophies, principles of practice, and lines of products and services targeted at the disabled and elderly.

A basic economic message promoted by the universal design movement is that goods designed inclusively for all people inevitably lead to products and services that benefit not only the original target markets but other, mass markets as well. As a result, the prices of the products and services can drop dramatically.

In the past, universal design focused on "barrier-free" design, but several speakers spoke about promoting a wider and deeper approach that brings universal design concerns more into the realm of most designers for most people, not just exotic techniques for a specialized target market. One of the primary challenges for universal design is to sell the return-on-investment (ROI) so that it makes sense to mainstream manufacturers of software and hardware. With some attention, it appears likely that one can make this case by building on previous ROI work (see, for example, [7]).

Intriguing products were to be found in the exhibit area, including a working mobile phone that automatically displays Japanese hand-sign communication based on MimeHand2, a conversion from spoken or written input Japanese text using software developed by Hitachi. Other exhibits showed unique, high-legibility and -readability fonts and mobile phones with large-size fonts, all of which are designed for those with limited vision, such as persons with macular degeneration.

Section 508

Ken Nakata, senior trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, who was an invited speaker at the Universal Design Japan conference, has worked extensively on litigation, investigations, and policy involving the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). His presentation summarized U.S. disability rights, laws, and information technology.

ADA laws affect private businesses as well as governmental organizations, whereas Section 508 (the Workforce Investment Act of 1998) affects only the federal government. However, because Section 508 affects the development, maintenance, and procurement of all electronic and information technology (EIT) used by the federal government, it has attracted the attention of software and hardware developers that hope to sell to the federal government. The federal government alone buys 10 percent of all EIT produced in the United States. Of importance is that citizens can now file complaints and discrimination lawsuits regarding technology procured after June 21, 2001. Such lawsuits may require replacement of expensive technology. Nakata cites the following examples in a presentation handout:

  • Example 1: A large federal agency buys a new e-mail and electronic document system for $100 million before June 21, 2001. The system is completely inaccessible to people with disabilities, and the agency has an employee who cannot use the system for her job. Assume it would cost less to replace the whole system with another $100 million system than to make it accessible. The agency would probably not have to fix the system as a "reasonable accommodation" to the employee, but it may have to provide individual assistance to the employee.
  • Example 2: Same facts as Example 1, but the system was procured after June 21, 2001. In this case, Section 508 may authorize a party to a lawsuit to replace the entire system.

Nakata also provided some detail on the relationship of Section 508 to ADA as well as some case examples to clarify what might or might not be covered by Section 508 on Web site design. The opinions of the U.S. Department of Justice on the applicability of the ADA to Internet activities of private businesses are available on the Web [11].

In general, Section 508 creates a strong incentive for businesses to make more usable, useful products. The hope of government planners is that Section 508 requirements will become familiar to most developers and become mainstream attributes of accessible, usable products and services benefiting all consumers.

Other Resources

If you want to inform yourself of all the opportunities and challenges, there are many resources to which to turn. You may wish to begin with a search through the proceedings of the Universal Design Japan conference as well as past issues of interactions and CHI conference proceedings.

Consider, also, relevant proceedings from previous Universal Design conferences, and those of the well-known and well-attended conferences for the disabled at California State University at Northridge [2], which regularly attract about 4,000 people. Also, check the appropriate chapters of compendia such as the two different handbooks of human-computer interaction, one edited by Helander et al. [4] and the other written by Jacko and Sears [5]. Also look for User Interfaces for All, edited by Stephanidis [9]. Another likely resource is the new international journal Universal Access in the Information Society, which has just published a special issue edited by Jacko and Hanson [6] on universal access and inclusion in design.

A Web search-engine query will return you countless hits, but these are good sources to start with that focus on user-interface development issues. One other, more general, resource in the United States to note is the Berkeley Center for Independent Living [3], which has pioneered in helping the disabled to live full lives and instituting many innovative social and technological techniques. All of these specific resources are cited in the references.


In her moving remarks at the conference, Valerie Fletcher commented that universal design must come to mean design for all people, not just "special" people with unique needs. We are all vulnerable at some point in our lives, we are all going to age, and many of us will become significantly limited in our physical and mental abilities in that process. She states that the only realistic stance toward inclusion for people with disabilities is to identify a design framework that applies to everyone. Special solutions are inevitably too costly and potentially discriminatory. Universal design anticipates diversity of ability and results in sensible, efficient, and realistic solutions for user-interface design. She urges sharing awareness and information now, so that we will have an opportunity to avoid perpetuating discrimination by design and incorporate solutions into development.

Time is flying, technology is marching onward relentlessly toward ubiquitous, networked, "smarter" objects and associated services for communities of all kinds. It’s not too late to start now to inform yourself and to get to work developing the future of ubiquitous, universal user-interface design. Consider it an investment in your own future self, as well as a profitable and beneficial activity for humankind.


1. Adaptive Environments,

2. California State University/Northridge (CSUN) Center for Disabilities,; conference proceedings,

3. Center for Independent Living, Berkeley, CA,

4. Helander, M.; Landauer, T.K.; and P. Prabhu, P., eds. Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction, Elsevier Science, B.V., The Hague, Netherlands, 1997 (ISBN 0-444-4828-62).

5. Jacko, J., and Sears, A. Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction, Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, New York, 2002.

6. Jacko, J.A., and Hanson, V.L. Universal Access in the Information Society 2, 1. Special issue on universal access and inclusion in design, Springer Verlag (http://link.springer-de or, 2002.

7. Marcus, A. Return on investment for usable UI design. User Experience 1, 3 (Winter 2002), pp. 25-31. Usability Professionals’ Association (

8. Royal College of Art, Helen Hamlyn Center, London, United Kingdom,

9. Stephanidis, C., ed. User Interfaces for All: Concepts, Methods, and Tools. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New York, 2001 (ISBN 0-8058-2967-9).

10. Universal Design Japan Conference,

11. U.S. Department of Justice. Briefs on the Internet, Americans with Disabilities Act, and private business available at


Aaron Marcus
Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A)

©2003 ACM  1072-5220/03/0300  $5.00

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