Universal web design vs affordance

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A problem arises when someone easily understands how to use an object, but cannot execute the action required to do so. Most people who use wheelchairs understand how stairs are used, but ‘affordance’ cannot help them climb a staircase.

According to Margit Link-Rodrigue, affordance allows us to look at something and intuitively understand how to interact with it. For example, she says

… when we see a small button next to a door, we know we should push it with a finger. Convention tells us it will make a sound, notifying the homeowner that someone is at the door. This concept transfers to the virtual environment: when we see a 3D-shaped button on a web page, we understand that we are supposed to “push” it with a mouse-click.

Take the wide, automatic doors in grocery stores. These can be understood and used by people with and without special access needs. This combination of affordance and all-embracing accessibility is referred to as “universal design.” In universal design, perceived affordance — that is, the implicit understanding of how to interact with an object — actually coincides with the user’s ability to execute the action. Universal design is, therefore, inherently accessible.

But Link-Rodrigue asserts that for some designers, universal design limits their creativity.

To be universal, they argue, the design must be approached from the “neediest-user” perspective. To design a phone handset inteded for both senior citizens and younger customers, we must design for the senior citizens’ needs first: large number pads, large display, etc.

And if we do that, younger customers, who expect “trendier” design, may not purchase the phone. This design approach results in a product that works for only one target group — we’ve achieved accessible design, but not universal design. And while accessible design is important, it doesn’t reach everyone in the same way, so we should logically strive for universal design whenever possible, and concentrate on accessible design only when necessary.

What then does this distinction mean in web design, where “universal design” and “accessible design” are often considered synonymous? Read the full List Apart article …

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