Access by Design

Access by Design

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In: Reviews > Book Reviews

By James McNally

Published on September 26, 2005

book cover: Access by Design Sarah Horton’s new book Access by Design: A Guide to Universal Usability for Web Designers is organized around a principle that she calls “universal usability.” As the Web has matured, designers have had to learn many new skills like graphic design, information design, usability testing, how to address accessibility issues and supporting standards. Horton’s term encompasses all of these things in a philosophy that considers access for all users as the bedrock of effective Web design.

Quick-and-Easy Accessibility Advice

Many books I’ve read that attempt to tackle issues of accessibility are heavy with discussions of legislation or the nature of various disabilities. While these kinds of books are sure to be more comprehensive than Horton’s, one potential advantage of this book is that it’s organized around various elements of site design, allowing the reader to jump in and find advice quickly.

…But It’s A Bit Too Basic and Repetitive

Unfortunately, most of the advice is pretty basic, with the bulk of the book containing information all but the most casual reader of Digital Web Magazine will already know. There is also an alarming amount of repetition. This is slightly more forgivable when redundancy occurs across chapters—after all, this is the sort of book that encourages the reader to dip into different sections. But when it occurs within paragraphs, it borders on maddening:

“Broadly speaking, whenever markup is used improperly on Web pages, the Web is weakened. Since structured documents are its basis, the Web is less robust—less effective—when structures are misused. On the other hand, pages that are coded properly strengthen the Web. The Web is at its best when structural markup is used mark up page elements and CSS is used to position the elements on the page.” (p./files/includes/10.css0)

This gets even more frustrating when followed by “In A Nutshell” summaries after every single point. And in the appendix, all these points are repeated yet again.

Curiously, Horton includes chapters on “layout tables” and frames only to make her first point of advice in each chapter—avoid using them. Somehow, she manages to fill out a chapter on each, which takes some of the edge off her warnings.

Where Are the Code Samples?

In most chapters, there are very few code examples but lots of pretty screenshots of Web sites. Since the book seems aimed at a novice audience, I think a few more code examples would have been useful. The URIs of the sites and any software tools mentioned are also relegated to an “Illustration Credits” section at the back of the book that many users might overlook. I almost did.

The Override

Many authors of books on accessibility seem to enjoy telling us that Web users can change the way our carefully designed sites look by using personal style sheets, changing the font or text size or turning off images. When it comes to principles of usability, while I see some value in Horton’s mantra of “allow the user to override,” I also wonder if this will distract and frustrate designers into imagining endless scenarios that may never occur.

But I have to wonder how many Web users actually change their browser’s /files/includes/default.css settings. The problem facing designers is slightly different if few do. By the same token, a prevailing resistance to change means that many users do not use the latest browser versions. I think it’s more important to take older browsers into account rather than spending time worrying if the user is going to override your style sheet.

Doesn’t Address Software for the Disabled

When I read a book geared toward accessibility issues, I expect to read about the nuts and bolts of the software that disabled Web surfers use. How do screen readers work? What sort of pointing devices do people with mobility impairments use? And how will these devices mess up my existing layout?

It would also have been valuable had Horton addressed some of the accessibility challenges of so-called Web 2.0. Tags, for instance, are emerging as an entirely new way of organizing Web content and it would have been interesting to hear what effect they’re having on users of screen reader software. In areas like this, I recommend relying on knowledgeable accessibility wonks like Joe Clark, whose Building Accessible Websites (New Riders, 2003), though two years old, is still the gold standard for books about Web accessibility.


Though the book is filled with many valid observations, I find it hard to recommend. First of all, anyone who reads a Web publication like Digital Web Magazine has been exposed to this information for many years. And even for the complete novice, there is just not enough practical help (a lack of sample code, for example) to make the book a worthwhile purchase.

While repetition can be a good learning tool, in this case, it felt like it was being used to pad the book’s length. And for a book ostensibly concerned with accessibility, there was precious little about how the tools that the disabled are using to surf the Web work.

This is not a bad book. It’s clearly written and contains some useful information. But in the rapidly evolving field of Web design, the information is not fresh, comprehensive or practical enough to be of interest to any but the most casual Web worker.

Access by Design: A Guide to Universal Usability for Web Designers
ISBN 032131140X
Sarah Horton
New Riders, 2005, 288pp.
$24.99 US

Related Topics: Accessibility, Usability, User-Centered Design (UCD)

James McNally is a Toronto based freelance writer and web designer. He is desperately clawing his way back into a new media career. His personal weblog is at