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More than Skin Deep (Book Review)

book cover

Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design

Shawn Lawton Henry, 2007

Universal access, universal design, and accessibility are finally getting the attention they deserve. Centers for the professional disciplines of universal analysis and design have emerged worldwide. For example, Japan has the Human-Centered Design Network and the International Association for Universal Design , both of which focus on issues of universal access. Europe and North America have similar organizations. Major corporations, such as Fujitsu, IBM, and Microsoft, have all published guidelines. Fujitsu’s extensive guidelines for web design and color selection tools are oriented to universal design. IBM’s elaborate guidelines contain introductions to the subject and thorough treatments intended for software developers (but apparently not updated since 2004). Microsoft offers a comparable set of guidelines on the Internet, and rates the importance of the guidelines and the disabilities that are affected, as well as providing a foundation for testing software. (The references in the sidebar will lead the reader to these and other sources of information.)

With all of these copious resources, do we need yet another book on the subject? The answer is definitely yes! Shawn Lawton Henry has provided us with a book that is readable, usable, useful, and engaging for practitioners in the usability analysis, user-interface and interaction design, and user-experience professions. First of all, let’s face facts: universal design and universal access are not on the tip of the tongue for the general public and even among many research and development professionals. Second, many of the guideline resources are oriented to software developers, not user experience professionals. Third, the integrated software methods and software engineering resources don’t yet treat the subject thoroughly. And fourth, until we see published a (ital)Universal Access and User-Centered Design for Dummies book in that ubiquitous series, we need cogent, thorough, readable summaries like (ital)Just Ask to guide us through the terminology, process, and techniques. The book seems to accomplish this objective. The author acknowledges that the book is oriented to electronic, computer-based information technology; for example, software-, hardware-, web-, and mobile-device-based products and services. Note that the book does not address compliance with legal or other specific accessibility standards. There are other specialized resources for these topics in the items cited in the references to this review.

Shawn Lawton Henry’s book even has two Tables of Contents: a summary for skimmers, and a detailed version. A reader can sense immediately that the author covers the essence of user-centered design and shows how to incorporate accessibility as an objective early and throughout the development process; in particular, how to involve people with disabilities in a project and how to interact with them. Such a delicate subject is important in the humane treatment of “subject-matter experts” to get their best possible contributions, feedback, and, in the end, solutions. The author takes the time to discuss what one should call their disabilities and where to find such people.

After introducing the basics, Ms. Henry covers topics that essentially are an introduction to user-centered design, briefly listing the key attributes of such classic topics as workflow analysis, user profiles/personas, and task scenarios. Especially helpful are user-group example profiles that she provides for retirees and college students, each of which includes accessibility considerations. For the example of retirees, age-related considerations include macular degeneration, cataracts, neurological conditions, and decreased muscle mass and bone density. The implications for design include the use of larger fonts, higher color contrast, larger targets, and keyboard functionality that obviates the use of a mouse. Similarly, the author provides good example detail in task scenarios for the same user groups. For retirees, she cites the task of changing retirement account investments and adds detailed commentary about the difficulties of reading small-sized text, finding small targets to select, and manipulating the mouse to select items.

In later sections on accessibility evaluation tools, heuristic evaluations, design walkthroughs, screening techniques (identifying potential accessibility barriers in product/service design), usability testing, etc., she provides further information, resources, and suggestions for adding accessibility considerations to what before may have been known steps in the development process but where developers did not know what specific accessibility issues can or should be considered.

Even without the focus on accessibility, the book is a useful review of key steps in user-centered design. Its focus on accessibility during the entire user-centered design process not only achieves the author’s stated objective of integrating accessibility throughout product development, but provides readers with a very down-to-earth, practical, and readable introduction to incorporating these concerns into daily professional practice, which is where many of us would like to be in our professional lives.

Oh, one other very practical detail: the book is available online free at