Dr Ian Pitt headshot

Insight Society: Universal Design and the importance of an accessible digital world

Submitted on Friday, 22/09/2023

Dr Ian Pitt is a Funded Investigator at Insight and lectures in Usability Engineering and Interactive Media in the School of Computer Science & Information Technology, University College Cork. He is the leader of the Interaction Design, E-learning and Speech (IDEAS) Research Group at UCC, which is currently working on a variety of projects relating to multi-modal human-computer interaction across various application domains. His research interests centre around the use of speech and non-speech sound in computer interfaces, and the design of computer systems for use by blind and visually-impaired people. Here he describes the importance of Universal Design in ensuring that the digital environment is open and accessible to all users.

‘In recent years, there has been a welcome increase in the amount of attention paid to Universal Design, that is, the design and composition of digital and other environments so that they can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, ability or disability, etc.

‘A fundamental problem in designing digital systems that are usable by all, regardless of ability or disability, is ensuring that those developing digital systems have access to the right guidance, tools and support. Producing designs that work well for (e.g.) people who are blind, deaf or have limited mobility requires extensive knowledge not just of digital technology but also of psychology, physiology, etc.. It is unreasonable to expect that software engineers and system designers should be expert in all of these fields.

‘For this reason, much previous effort has been devoted to the development of tools to guide system designers and help them make appropriate choices. These typically takes the form of guidelines, ranging from brief lists of high-level design goals to multi-volume reference works; design frameworks, which take the designer step-by-step through the analysis of users’ needs and the design of systems to meet those needs; and metrics, which can be used to assess whether a prototype system meets its design goals.

‘However, none of these approaches is perfect, and they are mainly used by multi-disciplinary teams working on large projects. Smaller companies and individual developers rarely have the time or resources to design in this way.

‘As the web becomes more widely used – including for essential tasks such as making a tax return – it is important to ensure that web pages are accessible to all. Most web pages are developed by individuals or small teams using a Content Management System (CMS), which enables people to develop fully-functional web pages without the need for advanced programming skills, and without having to write code directly. A modern CMS will automatically include mark-up to assist blind people and those with other special needs, without the developer having to explicitly cater for such needs or be aware of the technical requirements.

‘However, web pages produced by a CMS frequently offer poor accessibility, particularly where a page is highly interactive. For example, the ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) standard defines a way of marking-up web pages so that people who cannot see the screen can easily determine the status of a widget (e.g., active or disabled) and are made aware when something on the page changes. Used judiciously, ARIA mark up significantly improves the accessibility of web pages. However, many content management systems automatically add ARIA mark up to almost every interactive element on a web page, potentially resulting in a deluge of feedback that renders the page all but unusable.


‘How do we address this issue? Updating computing courses to ensure that developers are aware of accessibility issues is a start, but digital products are increasingly being created – using content management systems and similar tools – by people who may not have taken such courses. There is an urgent need to develop content creation tools which allow people to produce more accessible digital products without the need for specialist skills and knowledge, for example, by making greater use of AI.’