The Elegant Design Imperative

Key Takeaways

  • Designing for elegance hides the complexity of technology, enabling users to focus on what a device or service actually does.
  • Elegant design is accessible design, providing users who have varying disabilities with equal access to the power of technology.
  • As many as one in five users has a disability, and accessible design benefits the other four also.

It's Saturday night and I'm sitting on the sofa with my wife trying to stream a movie online. My hands are clutching a video game controller that also controls our personal cinema, and every button I push leads me further down a rabbit hole — but not to the wonderland I'm actually trying to reach. Sadly, this is every Saturday night, not just this one, and before I get to relax I must navigate a gantlet of features to do something that should be just a click away. A good user interface (UI) should make our lives easier. It's supposed to help us go places, but, like freeway traffic, it often slows us down and keeps us from going anywhere at all.

A good UI is not about complexity; rather, it is about simplicity and the design constraints required to elicit an elegant solution. The Model 302 Telephone, designed by Henry Dreyfuss and put into service in 1937, is elegant in both its form and its function, requiring no instruction manual to use. It remains in use in some places today.1 Ten years ago, the iPhone completely changed our notion of what a phone can be, not simply because of everything it could do but rather because of the ease with which a user could do those things. Its elegance masked its complexity. More often than not, the most important achievements in the history of engineering are great because of their elegance.

When designing an interface, we should look to elegance for inspiration, but most of the time we model the shelves of a "big box" retailer, forever trying to fit more into the interface. As David Gelernter wrote, "Elegance is important because it saves you twenty seconds — repeatedly. The difference between software that leaves you in peace and software that constantly takes little nips out of your thought process — twenty seconds here, twenty there — is the difference between a pleasantly productive environment and an irritatingly unproductive one."2

Not Just Frustrating, but Inaccessible

As bad as inelegant design can be for many of us, the software—and the UI—that takes little nips out of most users takes king-sized bites out of people with disabilities, limiting their productivity and putting them at a disadvantage in education, in the workforce, and in everyday life. Elegant design is accessible design. Software and UIs designed with a focus on elegance rather than the number of features can enable larger numbers of people to access the information and services they need to succeed in education and in the workplace, helping more people lead fuller lives. Accessibility is a civil right, and a recent unanimous ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court asserts that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees that public education must enable students with disabilities to make "appropriately ambitious" progress.

Unfortunately, societal pushback about this basic privilege is real. Many institutions have persisted in creating interfaces that are all but useless to people with disabilities. The notion that we would change what we do moving forward and also remediate what we have already built strikes many as a bitter and expensive pill. The narrative goes something like this: "Why should we go through all of this trouble for a vanishingly small minority of people? Why should we spend the money?"

The reality about disabled users is that they take on many forms. Some are blind, others are colorblind, some have low vision, some are deaf or hard of hearing, and some cannot use a mouse. Many of the limitations associated with disability are simply part of aging. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population has a disability,3 and it is estimated that by 2029, 20 percent of the U.S. population will be 65 and older.4 While there is clearly some overlap in these populations, a staggering number of people are not adequately served by today's information infrastructure.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2016 that persons with disabilities had roughly twice the unemployment rate as those without a disability,5 and as the workforce continues its move toward a heavy reliance on information technology, digital literacy will be required of nearly everyone. If nearly one in five people requires some accessible accommodation to access the world's information infrastructure, that is one in five people who may not be fully productive citizens, one in five people who may not be fully self-determined, and one in five people who may not fully contribute to the U.S. GDP. In this light, the reasons organizations should spend the money to design for elegance and accessibility become clear.

Accessible Design in Higher Education

A similar argument can be heard in the halls of academia: "If I have to make my interface accessible, I cannot possibly communicate the complexity of XYZ research, and thus the tool will be useless." Lost in this notion is the fact that a tool is useless if it is not accessible. More to the point, when we strive for the elegant solution to a problem, we impose constraints on the set of objects required to satisfy the solution in an effort to reach a state of refinement. If the elegant presentation of research on the web were given as much attention as the research itself, the benefit to future research, future generations of researchers, and perhaps humanity in general would be much greater.

A democratic society provides an even playing field for all its citizens. If we are not providing accessible pathways to information for all users, then we must admit that the playing field is strewn with rocks and gopher holes and that we are selectively excluding people from equal participation. Despite achievements such as sequencing the human genome, we do not possess the will to allow everyone to reap the benefits of many breakthroughs.

The Intersection of Form and Function

Finally, there is the cry from the design community that a focus on accessibility will lead to an ugly UI because it limits the choices of colors, fonts, and other design elements. Accessibility and elegance are correlated with good design, however, and we need look no further than the Shaker architecture and furnishings of the 19th century to bear this out. Shakers designed everything for a single intended use and avoided elaborate detail in everything they did. They so heavily constrained their designs that the end result was a form of elegance that still influences American architecture today. If we apply the Shaker mentality to UI design — finding every extraneous and showy thing in a design and cutting it out — we will find that we are one step closer to the elegant and therefore accessible solution. Google's homepage is an example of this design ethos writ digitally. It presents the user with a box to type in and two buttons to push; more often than not, the user is transported to the wonderland they are actually trying to get to. Not surprisingly, Google is also the most visited website.

Changing Paths, Changing Minds

So, how do we effect change? Maybe all we need to do is climb into the skin of someone who is hampered by poor design and walk around in it for a bit. Think of the worst battles you have had with an interface, maybe trying to learn some feature of spreadsheet software or use your TV remote control — those moments that you wanted to smash the device with a hammer. Apply an exponential constant to that level of frustration and you have the default experience that people with disabilities face every day. Today, most users are lucky — if they don't like one product's interface, they can get another. But for the disabled user, the market just isn't there.

Another way to change perceptions is to understand the basic requirements for disabled users. For people who are either not sighted or have poor eyesight, screen readers are required to read everything a sighted user would read on screen. Web pages present a lot of visual cues that a screen reader will miss unless it is told explicitly not to miss them. If you activate an iPhone's accessibility mode, you can watch the screen go dark and listen to prompts to try to get a sense for what it's like to be blind on the information superhighway. You will likely find that most sites are poorly structured and difficult to navigate.

Different challenges exist for those who can't hear. Much of what we consume is video content, and most of it lacks captioning of any kind. Imagine a deaf student who is assigned to watch an uncaptioned video for a class assignment. What information could they possibly get from such an exercise?

Users with limited mobility face yet other issues. Think again about remote controls and wonder how things would be different for a user who doesn't have thumbs. Users with limited mobility or who are otherwise unable to use a keyboard or mouse require accommodations to access the web differently, usually by voice. If you try to navigate the web with voice commands only, you might get a rude awakening. Siri might be good, but she is far from perfect.

Good technology should stay out of the way. It should work without imposing a burden on the user so that we may one day see computer-human interfaces so intimate that users might reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.6 For that to become true, however, we must pursue elegance and therefore accessibility.

Building Bridges

Since 1863, the Brooklyn Bridge has conveyed people across the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan. An elegant example of suspension bridge architecture, it's beautiful in both its form and function. It meets the needs of all people and functions according to its purpose—it helps people go places. Similarly, websites and mobile apps are bridges to a vast universe of information, but frequently they are poorly designed and ultimately fail to function according to their purpose. Because they are often inelegant and inaccessible, they prevent too many people from going anywhere at all. The democratization of information will only occur when everyone has equal access to information. For that to happen, we must cast out messy and unwieldy designs in favor of elegant and refined ones.

Notes

  1. David Hillel Gelernter, Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010).
  2. Ibid.
  3. "Nearly 1 in 5 People Have a Disability in the U.S., Census Bureau Reports," The United States Census Bureau, July 25, 2012.
  4. Kelvin Pollard and Paola Scommegna, "Just How Many Baby Boomers Are There?" Population Reference Bureau, April 2014.
  5. "Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary," Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 21, 2016.
  6. "Vision 21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace," proceedings from the Vision 21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace symposium, Westlake, OH, March 30–31, 1993.

Andrew Browning is web services manager in the Office of Information Technology at UCLA.

© 2017 Andrew Browning. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.