Book review: Universal Usability

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Jonathan Lazar makes the point, in the preface of this book, that universal usability helps all users. Computer interfaces that include usability features come with a solid business case to support e-commerce spend, as they improve hit rates and support access across a variety of technologies including mobile devices.

Universal Usability is a collection of essays covering various aspects of inclusive computing, including a variety of case studies, screenshots, diagrams and photos illustrating good and bad design.

After the scene is set in chapter 1, chapters 2, 7, 8 and 9 discuss the needs of children, focusing on children with and without learning difficulties. Chapters 3, 10 and 12 cover usability principles for the ageing population. Chapters 4, 5 and 6 present research and projects relating to navigation for blind users.

The needs of other user groups, those with amnesia and spinal cord injuries, are discussed in chapters 11, 13 and 14. Chapters 15 and 16 cover the digital divide and ensuring low-income users have equal access to community and health information. The final two chapters cover case studies relating to ensuring accessibility of US Census information and online texts as part of a digital library. The book concludes with a useful chapter on future usability trends and issues.

The chapters follow a standard format, setting out a case study, presenting conclusions and then considering implications for designers, researchers, users and policymakers. The authors also include detailed lists of references. This layout makes it easy to navigate through the book to find sections of interest.

The editor has drawn together academic, but practical, projects that show how usability affects the users interaction with computer systems, and covers some ways to address that. The tone of each case study stresses that the perfect system should not be the end goal: success can be achieved by a series of incremental steps, and system designers should not be put off including usability features because a full and comprehensive suite would be too complex or expensive.

For example, research presented in the book shows that blind website users often find that their screen reader technology conflicts with web applications. Rather than redesign an entire application, effort should be focused on ensuring page navigation and forms work with screen readers, as these are two of the areas which are relatively easy to solve.

Universal Usability refutes the claim that interfaces cannot be built for certain user groups. Each case study shows that by including the end users in design groups, technology can be adapted to support them in the most appropriate ways, often including a high degree of personalization. It is a dry book to study cover to cover, but it should be required reading for anyone working within the field of web design or accessibility.

  • This review has been accepted for publication in The Computer Journal
  • JONATHAN LAZAR (Ed), Universal Usability: Designing Computer Interfaces for Diverse Users, Wiley 2007. ISBN-13: 978-0-470-02727-1. £34.99. 610pp. Softbound
  • Elizabeth Harrin, The Computer Journal 2007; doi: 10.1093/comjnl/bxm114

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