Individualization is the future of digital accessibility

The topic of universal design of graphical user interfaces is a good idea. The attempt is to apply general design principles in such a way that the content is as accessible as possible to the largest possible number of people. This may actually work. But what about the 10 percent of people for whom this works badly and the other 10 percent for whom it doesn't work at all? Before anyone asks, these are empirical values, not hard statistics.

Universal design is not an universal solution

There are some core problems that, in my opinion, cannot be solved with universal design.

  • Certain design principles can reduce the attractiveness of the GUI. For example, visually impaired people usually need good contrast and larger fonts. Clear boundary frames or color differences between the individual areas of a website are also helpful for the visually impaired, because you often don't know where you are at large zooms. The WCAG requirements are not sufficient for the severely visually impaired and are rarely met across the board anyway. Attractiveness shouldn't be the guiding factor, but let's be honest: neither customers nor designers always agree to it.
  • In my opinion, the entire area of cognitive disabilities and neuro-diversity cannot be covered with universal design principles. This is because the needs of these groups 1. are very individual and 2. can also contradict each other. That would be squaring the circle.
  • A super important topic from my point of view is the simplification of GUIs and texts. There is a lack of content in understandable language and most website GUIs are designed for digital natives. The automated simplification of texts is already possible (yes, ChatGPT should not be missing here), that of GUIs may be possible at some point.

These are just obvious examples. There are many more challenges that are not covered by WCAG and common best practices. Or that cannot be implemented with reasonable effort. For example, I prefer light text on a dark background and have always activated color inversion on all devices, with exceptions. Unfortunately, I come across websites that already have light text on a dark background, so my default settings invert them into dark text on a light background. User-defined settings that overwrite the entire layout are possible, but destroy the layout of the GUI, the perception of which can be important for me from time to time.

So it's simply impossible to create a GUI that works for everyone. It is equally impossible for the provider to provide a GUI in so many variations or adaptations that every individual can cope with it.

Numerous CSS media queries such as “Prefer reduced motion”, “Prefer high contrast” and so on were originally developed for such a purpose. Unfortunately, I didn't find any statistics, but at least from the providers I've checked so far, only Prefer reduced motion was used at all and very rarely and often incorrectly. Prefer reduced motion means that existing animations are stopped or hidden if the user has set this in their operating system. However, this does not work automatically - as many users seem to believe - but requires that the animations can be identified accordingly with CSS properties. That's why the so-called accessibility overlays, which often have such hide-out functions integrated, don't work. The overlay doesn't automatically recognize what animation or movement is and the operators are told that they only have to implement one line of code and everything magically becomes accessible. The overlay sellers are the alchemists of the 21st century.

I think that using appropriate algorithms, such things can be filtered out better and, above all, adapted to the challenges of the person. You know those PowerPoint effects that look nice the first time and are really annoying the fifth time? Wouldn't you be grateful if you could tell your computer to please filter this out? It should already be possible to filter such effects on the code base of websites without restricting the functionality of the application.

Personalization has long been standard

While web managers are growing gray hairs because apps on iOS, Android and the web version don't look exactly the same, individualization has long been established. Smartphones and tablets come in a variety of sizes, there are huge smart TVs, eInk readers of various sizes, there are large smart watches, there are talking assistants that can read websites out loud. There are countless browser extensions that can improve design or readability.

On the user side, the settings are used, at least on the smartphone. Almost all operating systems had color inversion before dark mode became a trend.

In my opinion, the future actually lies in these user settings. The operating system is configured to suit your needs and the GUI designs are overwritten. Or there will be browser extensions that partially overwrite the GUI designs. The browser reader options are a foretaste of this.

Will this make accessibility superfluous?

No, on the contrary: it is becoming more important. If we put the same energy into the customizability of the GUIs that is currently put into the supposedly same layout on all platforms, we would be two steps further.

In order for visually impaired people to be able to use bounding boxes or background colors, for example, the tools must of course recognize that these are delimited areas. This happens through semantic HTML container elements such as nav, content, footer and so on.

It can and does happen that certain elements disappear during adjustments, such as the OS's own dark mode. UI elements could stop working completely if their animated effects are blocked - many things are conceivable.

Even if individual settings can compensate for a lot, they cannot do everything. They are intended more as a complement to a universal design.

Apart from that, as long as such attitudes are not widely known, there will always be people who do not know these attitudes. At least the common operating systems are set up very differently. iOS is clearly ahead, while Google and Windows lag behind and are far from this level of customization.

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