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Inclusive Design Guidelines for HCI

Editor: Colette Nicolle, Julio Abascal
Publisher: New York and London, UK: Taylor & Francis, 2001
Review Published: July 2003

 REVIEW 1: Rita Lauria

In Inclusive Design Guidelines for HCI, editors Colette Nicolle and Julio Abascal pull together a wealth of advice for human-computer interaction (HCI) practitioners and present a range of inclusive design guidelines that exist for HCI. Although the reading is somewhat tedious, the text does offer information rarely compiled in one volume. I cannot say that reading this work kept me engrossed for hours on end, but it did inspire me to read through the work in light of the invaluable material it offered.

Guided by an inclusive, or universal design philosophy, Inclusive Design Guidelines for HCI illustrates the "process of creating products (devices, environments, systems and processes) which are usable by people with the widest possible range of abilities, operating within the widest possible range of situations (environments, conditions and circumstances)" (3). Inclusive design is design for all, thus universal design. Universal design does not exclude or create barriers for use. In this light, ultimately what might benefit the few also benefits the many.

Let’s get more specific about what it might mean to say that benefits for the few can benefit the many. Consider designing for the handicapped or impaired. According to Charles Hitchcock’s contribution to the book, "Bobby: A Validation Tool for Disability Access on the World Wide Web," currently 750 million adults and children worldwide have some kind of disability or impairment (107). Outside of the fact that we can all become handicapped in certain conditions, say for instance, when the lighting is low, this 750 million people represents more than twelve percent of the world’s population, which is currently greater than six billion people. You might think that this slice of the planet’s human population has no bearing on you, or that designing for this segment is not relevant to your life. But think again.

Think about growing old. With the natural process of aging comes the development of age-related barriers, such as impairments to visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive capabilities. For example, the effects of aging affect visual acuity, like the ability to perceive detail in objects and backgrounds or the ability to perceive depth. Such failing capabilities can present challenges even to accessing and navigating the Web.

It goes without saying that as the population ages, the number of impaired and disabled grows. Inclusive Design Guidelines for HCI points this out, noting that this growing population is "in danger of being left on the side of the information superhighway" (107). This growing population, which someday may include each and every one of us because we all age, cannot be ignored.

Yet, the needs of this growing number of people and the fundamental principle of equal access to the information highway have not been fully realized either in principle or in reality. Although a locus of activity perhaps as fundamental to global communications as the telecommunication infrastructure that supports its practice is, the HCI design community lacks communication and coordination between its different sectors of activity. Thus, how can a paradigm of equal access be affected?

Reminiscent of the early 1960s, when international policy formulation in the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for space communication was embryonic and equitable access to the geostationary orbit and satellite communication was but a principle in the annals of international treaty law, the demand for global communication services sharply increases (Lauria-White and White, 1988). Precisely for this reason, technological and political constraints present challenges that need addressing.

Inclusive Design Guidelines for HCI seeks to address such fundamental ethical principles as equity by presenting a body of work that not only promotes equitable access through the elaboration of applicable methodologies and tools with which to work with them, but also by presenting an increased awareness of the rights of people with disabilities and the concomitant increased importance of design guidelines that can instantiate equitable access. The book comes with a European perspective, but the issues cut across borders to address the fundamental right of access for all.

The book is divided into six parts, with the first part serving as an introduction to the issues and the last part a comment on the future. Part Two concerns itself with general issues in the design process. For instance, Carlos A. Velasco and Tony Verelst write from their prior experience in the Information Society disAbilities Challenge International Association (ISdAC) and other European and national projects, exploring the processes that can influence the support and use of guidelines. Helen Petrie does a superb job explaining "Accessibility and Usability Requirements for ICTs for Disabled and Elderly People." She offers a functional approach that classifies impairments and disabilities across the categories of visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive capabilities. If you want to know exactly what happens to the functioning of any of these human systems as you age, simply consult the excellent tables at the end of her chapter for a breakdown of each physical capability, its psychological function, the common causes of the systems’ malfunctioning, the common effects of ageing on the system, and suggestions for design guidelines. The tables are informative, succinct, and very accessible for quick reference: a world of information at one’s fingertips.

In this part also, Floris van Nes recognizes the validity of design guidelines for what might be referred to as generic HCI. He calls for standardization of such guidelines, preferably at the international level, followed by legislation to support the standards. He believes that standardization of design guidelines for older or disabled people is necessary to really have sufficient impact. Knut Knut Nordby concurs in his "Markets and Regulations." He shows how market competition, liberalization, privatization, and deregulation of converging telecommunication and information technologies threaten the quality of delivery of services and facilities for older and disabled people. He calls for guidelines, standards, and legislation to protect against the negative effects of convergence.

This sampling of topics illustrates the breath of this work as it investigates various issues related to design problems. These topics include, but are not limited to, finding sets of guidelines that are relevant and adequate to the actual design; choosing guidelines that best fit the characteristics of the design; checking the soundness and reliability of such guidelines; finding an adequate design methodology compatible with the use of guidelines during the different stages of the design process; coping with the huge number of guidelines that are available; and using available and convenient design tools that facilitate intensive implementation work.

As an example, Hitchcock’s chapter, "Bobby: A Validation Tool for Disability Access on the World Wide Web," discusses a validation tool called Bobby that helps content authors develop accessible sites. Bobby grew out of the Center for Applied Special Technology’s mission to create more opportunities for access to the Web for people of all ages with disabilities, including sensory impairments, physical challenges, and learning disabilities. The aim was to innovatively use computer technology to build universally designed products. The Bobby application, named after the English detective, or cop, on the street, is able to find relatively simple accessibility problems. Bobby can check the elements of a web page for adherence to all acceptable HTML elements and can determine the approximate time it takes to download all images, applets, and objects on a web page. In essence, Bobby analyzes web pages, acting as an accessibility-checking mechanism and interface.

As a free service, content developers can run their pages through Bobby at www.cast.org/bobby for an efficient and easy-to-use check. Bobby returns a detailed analysis, specifies each barrier to access, and suggests how to eliminate it. Any site that passes muster with Bobby can display the Bobby Approved icon on its pages. Bobby serves as an example of a fun, free, and efficient validation tool, an access evaluation tool that flags accessibility problems and gives suggestions on how to fix them. While Bobby does not repair such problems, it does provide an easy way for designers to incorporate and implement complex accessibility guidelines into their designs. Inclusive Design Guidelines for HCI discusses this and similar tools for making the design process not only a professional, technical endeavor but also a social and ethical activity.

Part Four includes a series of existing guidelines as well as guidelines for specific application areas. Clas Thorén discusses "Nordic Guidelines for Computer Accessibility" while Engelen gives an historical account of the World Wide Web and the international development of guidelines through the Web Accessibility Initiative. Jan Gulliksen, Susan Harker, and John Steger report on the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the current work being done on accessibility of human-computer interfaces while David Poulson and Neil Waddell describe a design methodology and manual aimed at making designers justify and document their design decisions about not only the technology but also about users. In so doing, designers are guided in the process of asking the right questions in the design process.

Part Five offers five chapters related to specific application areas. Good design and accessibility for various telecommunications devices and services is covered – for example, the problems that the elderly or disable face with public access terminals like ATMs. Ease of mobility and the design of intelligent transport systems are explored, as well as is the range of products and services in the home automation sector. Finally, general design guidelines are applied to the specific context of computer-based instruction and learning materials towards ensuring that people with disabilities obtain maximum benefit.

While not comprising the entirety of chapter topics in Inclusive Design Guidelines for HCI, these examples serve to show the breadth of activity in the HCI community as well as the need for coordination of these activities with other sectors of what constitutes a global telecommunication network. Although I do not naïvely suppose that a forum which could serve as a nexus of concentrated activity to promote the coordination and cooperation between the HCI segment of the global telecommunication network and its other segments could develop overnight, I believe that the need does exists for the development of some coordinating arm in the near future to serve this function if indeed equitable access to the information highway is to be achieved.

Although not advocating an exact analogue to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), I believe that HCI design practices and outcomes are sufficiently complex to necessitate a similar if somewhat less centralized agency. The ITU represents a dynamic and ongoing exercise in international cooperation. The purpose of this organization, the oldest of the United Nations’ specialized agencies, is the coordination of global telecommunication. While this institution dates back more than one hundred years, it still effectively serves as a coordinating context for the varied technological developments of telecommunication.

The body of work related to human-computer interaction seems to need some similarly devoted forum that can serve as a nexus of communication and coordination in order that the myriad levels and activities of its work across multiple sectors can effectively develop and innovate. I would encourage the authors of this work to harmonize their diverse efforts into achieving such a development: the institutionalization of a coordinating forum for the multiple, related activities of human-computer interaction.

Lauria-White, Rita and Harold M. White, Jr. The Law and Regulation of International Space Communication. Boston: Artech House, 1988.

Rita Lauria:
Rita Lauria is a Research Associate of the Media Interface and Network Design (M.I.N.D.) Labs, an international consortium of networked researchers under the direction of Frank Biocca who probe the development, design, and effects of advanced telecommunication media, including but not limited to human-computer interaction, and interface and network design. Her research program is Virtuality and Presence of Mind in Virtual Environments. She previously reviewed Brenda Laurel's Utopian Entrepreneur for RCCS. 

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