What is Web Universality?

March 27, 2007

Topics: Accessibility, Web standards.

The idea that the web can be universally accessed is sometimes called universality. It essentially means that information online can be accessed (not necessarily used or understood) via whatever devices or access tool a user has available to them, regardless of bandwidth; older devices; mobile devices; non-visual devices. No element of the online document should depend entirely on a medium: they should make allowances for alternate means of access.

In principal, this concept relates very closely to web accessibility. Part of accessibility is certainly providing the ability for users to access information regardless of their access to tools, since some users with disabilities will be unable to use the more standard user agents.

It is not, however, equivalent to web accessibility.

Why discuss this again?

Some Other Discussions

There’s a long standing argument between accessibility specialists on whether or not accessibility should incorporate the principles of universality. The argument has been passed around for a long time with no particular agreement. The definition of universality as it applies to the web is not closed: the argument essentially revolves around differentiating between the idea that universality should be integral to accessible design principles. The goal of universality seeks to provide better access for everybody. It may not, however, serve the singular purpose of providing usable information for some users with disabilities.

A common thread in many of the articles referenced is the idea that universality is about making websites accessible to all people. That’s not really the interpretation I put on the word, however: making websites accessible to all human users is always the goal, however impossible. I don’t think anybody is arguing on the question of whether or not websites should be made accessible to all people: the question seems to really be about whether or not making a website usable on a mobile device (for example) is part of accessibility. My definition of web universality falls more in the vein of device-independence than in the vein of a universal human experience.

It’s not that device-independence makes inaccessible sites; it’s that device-independence doesn’t require accessibility for users with disabilities. It’s a fine line, but quite significant. The main question is whether you’re thinking primarily about human users or about machine readability.

Device-independent documents online may not require consideration of many of the features which are necessary to make information most accessible to users with cognitive difficulties, for example. These users may be better served by Flash animation or other interactive graphical interfaces — a format which is not device independent.

Is Web Universality an Accessibility Question?

Yes. Even though universality may not resolve the difficulties of all web users, it is still necessary to consider aspects of it during your development. Here’s the hard question: is it more important to make the essential information accessible to all, or to make the essential information understandable to all? Universality may make the information accessible; but not all individuals will be able to understand that information. Well-planned accessibility might make the information understandable by that group, but then make it inaccessible to another group.

In principal, knowing your target audience needs to be paramount. You need solid information about their needs, abilities, and the devices they’ll use to access your website. If you’ve successfully made your website usable by those who use it, you’ve won the battle. This is, however, a circular problem. You can never know who might use your website. Those who use it may be biased towards those who can use it — you may have already lost a part of your potential audience through an unforeseen accessibility or usability error.

What’s the Solution?

There is no solution. All you can do is be prepared to make changes as necessary in order to meet your audience on their terms.

The ideal solution simply doesn’t exist — a solution where some kind of XML (eXtensible Markup Language)-based data source could be interpreted in vastly different ways depending on the preferences and capabilities of the user isn’t really available. (One challenge being creating a way to identify the needs of a user without requiring them to have the cognitive abilities or technical knowledge to set their own preferences.)

Universality is measurable in a positive function. Hypothetically, you can demonstrate that every device with every piece of software can access your document. (Nobody does; and probably nobody ever will…but hypothetically….) Accessibility is not. Users with disabilities can’t be measured on an x=y basis: no two users are identical, regardless of equivalent disabilities. As such, universality is an effective basis to develop web sites on in any situation where you’re not expecting an audience which will require other specialized access methods. Your expectations may be wrong; and you should be aware of this and prepared for it. However, for the average site, making the choice to pursue universality with a strong awareness of accessibility issues IS an effective method of developing an accessible website.

It’s critical to note the inclusion of “with a strong awareness of accessibility issues” in that last statement. Universality, under my defintion, only requires that the information is made available to a device. Accessibility requires far more than that, including attention to color contrast, clear use of language amd appropriate alternatives to any media elements. Universality within accessibility is a worthwhile goal; but shouldn’t be mistaken as a method to provide perfect accessibility.

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10 Comments on “What is Web Universality?”

  1. Thanks for contributing! I like the comparison to voltage transformation. It’s true: what would ultimately be most valuable would be for the user agents to take on a greater part of the burden. They do a decent job, but could do so much more.

  2. This is not a provocative comment on a very reasoned piece. However is there not a // here with 110V versus 220V, so we do need to get the user agents, eg the 110 to 220 inverter, to do more. Okay most equipment now comes with 110-220 transformers but not with a univeral plug.

  3. And I think that’s where most accessible developers in “Camp One” really lie. What confuses the issue is when a developer seizes on the term “universal” and points out specialized use cases where accessibility creates a scenario where universality is not possible: when Flash animation or interaction is necessary, for whatever reason.

    But these are special circumstances: and without specific knowledge that these techniques will be important to your audience, more damage is done by using them than by avoiding them. For any general purpose site targeted at a broad audience, universality of scope provides a very high quality experience.

    Thanks, Mike!

  4. Speaking for myself, and perhaps for many people I know… we never leave accessibility behind. That is the first rule of making a universal site. If it’s not accessible to the disabled, it’s a failure.

  5. Got it. Irony πŸ˜‰

    I think that what many of those who protest the interweaving of universality and accessibility are protesting against is the conception that designers who are including universality as a part of their accessible development are doing this at the expense of disabled users. I think this is a misconception: that accessible web developers who focus on universality are including it in addition to their other accessibility considerations.

    The insistence that one should stop at accessibility is definitely the impression which is given, but I’m not certain it’s really what is intended.

  6. Ummm yes that was supposed to be a wink not a smiley but once you’ve hit submit there’s no going back. πŸ™‚ πŸ˜‰
    I can understand those who make a stand on accessibility, it’s right, it should be done but what I don’t understand is the insistence that you should stop there. Surely if you can provide an accessible foundation then building on it, as long as you don’t start drilling holes in it, shouldn’t be a problem.

  7. Thanks, Gill! We’re in the same zone of thinking, clearly. (Although, waddaya mean, yesterday? I posted this on Tuesday!)

    Reasoned is what I was striving for, so I’m glad to have been successful — at least that far!

  8. Crumbs, give us a chance, it only went on yesterday. πŸ™‚
    Well done Joe, that’s probably one of the more reasoned posts I’ve read recently in a sea of flame. I’m not ashamed to say I take the Universality approach but that always comes second to Accessibility.

  9. Doesn’t look like anyone wants to touch this subject for a bit I guess

    Yeah, I figured it would either be extremely controversial or nobody would want to touch it…I was hoping, perhaps in vain, for reasoned discussion…

    Thanks, Mike!

  10. Doesn’t look like anyone wants to touch this subject for a bit I guess (I’ve been monitoring it to see if there were responses). Good post, though, Joe.

    The best sites will have it all, like we want to see at Accessites: Stylish, Accessible sites built with universality in mind.