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Universal Usability

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue August, August 1 - August 31, 2000 | BY Ben Shneiderman 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library


Responding to the needs of forgotten users


The following article is adapted from Ben Shneiderman's introductory remarks to the ACM Conference on Universal Usability.


In a fair society, all individuals would have equal opportunity to participate in, or benefit from, the use of computer resources regardless of race, sex, religion, age, disability, national origin or other such similar factors. -- ACM Code of Ethics

Some scientists and engineers have the chance to produce broadly beneficial technologies. Watt's steam engines, Edison's electric lights, and Pasteur's vaccines come to mind as 19thcentury examples. In the 20th century plastics, aviation, and medical imaging have brought widespread benefits. And now in the 21stcentury we have the opportunity and challenge to bring the benefits of information and communications to diverse communities of users.

The first step in technology diffusion is that early adopters seek out novelty and cope with difficulties. They proudly overcome the barriers and cleverly adapt themselves and the technology to make it succeed. As necessary refinements become integrated, late adopters and even resisters accept the technology and derive benefits. However, there is no guarantee that diffusion always proceeds smoothly. Some promising technologies like helicopters, solar power, and genetically modified crops have yet to be made sufficiently safe, economical, or useful for widespread diffusion.

Successful diffusion of information and communications technologies depends on carefully refined designs that shorten training, speed performance, prevent errors, and accommodate the constraints encountered by diverse users. Such refinements also produce predictable and controllable technologies that are safe, economical, useful and usable. These were the aims of the organizers of the Conference on Universal Usability who are passionately devoted to advancing information and communications technologies.

These goals are not yet attained even in highly developed countries such as the United States, and seem inaccessible for many countries that are struggling with basic needs and services. Low-cost is a key factor, but even if the technology were free and broadband connections widely available, researchers and practitioners would still have to substantially improve the designs to enable successful usage by a wide range of people. Lowering the barriers to entry by improved designs seems entirely feasible. Then the content can be tuned to the needs of users.

We have a chance to produce broadly beneficial technologies that will bring honor to our profession and benefits to our users. Users will have better access to healthcare information, skills training, job hunting, and shopping. They will more easily benefit from government services, neighborhood associations, and cultural heritage resources. More people will participate in online communities and political processes. Computing is not the primary goal, but information and communications technologies can be an important component of a well-considered infrastructure development effort.

We hoped that by bringing together academic researchers, industrial developers and government practitioners we can promote improved policies and refined designs. These designs will serve the needs of novices and experts, young and old, English and non-English speakers, and fluent and struggling readers. Improved designs will also benefit disabled users and users working under disabling conditions.

As the papers arrived and we read more about what researchers and practitioners were doing, our conviction grew that improvements were possible. In fact, evidence accumulated that designing for many different kinds of users often led to superior designs for all users. The skeptics who worried loudly about "lowest common denominator designs" and "dumbing down" of interfaces turn out to be wrong. Diversity promotes quality.

Maybe the outpouring of innovative ideas and the positive examples of success shouldn't have surprised us. After all pioneers such as Gregg Vanderheiden in the US, Allan Newell in England, and Constantine Stephanidis in Greece made this point a decade ago in dealing with designs for disabled and elderly users. In parallel with our mounting concern for these themes, the US Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Agency issued a remarkable report on The Digital Divide (http://www.ntia.doc.gov). They documented the growing gap between rich and poor as well as well-educated and poorly-educated users of the internet. This report produced strong responses from many sides including government agencies and corporate leaders. As researchers broadened their scope to examine developing nations the gaps became even more disturbing.

In trying to improve the experience for those with slow network connections, old computers, or limited knowledge we are finding research themes that challenge computer scientists who work on operating systems, networks, databases, user interfaces, graphics and other topics. By responding to the needs of the forgotten users we open up research topics that deal with multi-lingual interfaces, online help, content translation, and device independent output/input.

We hope that this conference will lead to future events and that the themes will be integrated into other conferences. In this way we will bring honor to our profession and perform a worthy service for the many users whose lives can be improved by universally usable information and communications technologies.




Ben Shneiderman is a professor in the Department of Computer Science, founding director of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory, and member of the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies and the Institute for Systems Research, all at the University of Maryland at College Park. He is the founding chair of the ACM Conference on Universal Usability (November 16-17). Shneiderman will be featured in an interview in an upcoming issue of Ubiquity.

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