By Stewart McCoy

Universal Design for Web Applications (Book Review)

Those who have heard of universal design (UD) are probably familiar with it in the context of architecture and industrial design, whereby buildings and products are designed to be more usable and effective for everyone. More recently, UD has become associated with the development of standards-based, accessible Web design and development.

In this new context, UD is an important concern for technical communicators because it increases people’s capacity to access content when, where, and in what format they need it. Clients such as doctors, engineers, and business and financial professionals are among the non-traditional beneficiaries of UD. For doctors, this means having legal and medical documentation, as well as patient information not only available at all times, but accessible at all times. If a doctor needs to access information on a smartphone or netbook, the information needs to be designed with UD in mind. This way, information renders appropriately on the machine, device, or platform accessing the information.

For technical communicators who hold titles such as usability expert, content management specialist, and information development specialist, Universal Design for Web Applications is a standards-based volume that provides an argument for, and roadmap to, implementing UD.

This book is not for beginners, but rather for those well-versed in Web design. Wendy Chrisholm and Matt May generally present UD in terms of best practices, so this book does not aim to serve as a step-by-step tutorial for implementing UD. However, for practicing Web developers and designers, Chrisholm and May offer advice on how to evaluate the latest technology in terms of accessibility, and many sections of the book point to online references for further reading and explanation of UD techniques. The book addresses current major design and development concerns, from UD for metadata to Rich Internet Applications (RIAs).

The bulk of the book is formatted like a reference guide, providing examples of UD scenarios and then pointing the reader in the direction of other resources, all while framing various techniques as best practices. Each chapter is broken down into sub-sections that address the different accessibility aspects of different media types. For instance, the chapter dedicated to video and audio provides a brief history of Web video and audio, and situates the history in terms of UD by explaining how the proliferation of codecs, increases in Internet bandwidth options, and the emergence of advanced players on more powerful machines and devices has made video and audio available to more people while making the implementation of UD more difficult.

Throughout the book, Chrisholm and May emphasize the mobile and accessibility as their criteria for UD, explaining that the “techniques for making web applications work on mobile devices overlap so often with the techniques used to make content accessible to people with disabilities” (3). More and more, the Web is being accessed on mobile devices. So while most people think of UD as catering to the disabled, Chrisholm and May stress that UD is more about inclusivity, and that extends to mobile users, and other non-minority populations. There a many situations in which users are accessing information with devices that aren’t mouse-driven; Web sites that are strictly mouse-driven, and not designed to degrade gracefully, exclude an entire subset of users. Chrisholm and May point out the not-so-obvious: “You may want to use information sightless even though you aren’t blind,” (13) or use voice input while you’re writing a book, voice output while you’re reading web pages, or have access to large-fonts while you’re reading your mail (13). Case in point: Universal design isn’t just for the disabled; UD is the bedrock of good information architecture, and is integral to reaching more people.

If you are an experienced Web designer or developer who is working to make your content accessible to a broader audience, or if you are working for a private, non-profit, or governmental agency and need to address federally mandated accessibility guidelines, this book will provide you with an excellent foundation for implementing UD into your Web projects.

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