ERCIM News No.39 - October 1999

User Interfaces for All

by Constantine Stephanidis

This ERCIM Working Group was initiated in 1995 against the background of European R&D activities which had analysed the requirements, identified the viability, and demonstrated the feasibility of constructing ‘user interfaces for all’, i.e., interfaces which address the individual user requirements of potentially all users.

It has been successfully argued that alternative, technologically more powerful and methodologically more systematic approaches are needed to tackle the problems of accessibility and quality of interaction for all potential users in the emerging Information Society. The challenge of this ERCIM Working Group is to plan a path that, apart from meeting certain technical objectives, will bring closer together researchers and teams working in the different ERCIM organisations (but also organisations beyond ERCIM or the European boundaries), who share common interests and aspirations, and would like to contribute to the endeavours towards making the emerging Information Society equitably accessible and usable by a diverse user population with different abilities, skills, requirements and preferences.

The proliferation of computer-based systems and applications in every walk of life and the anticipated widespread use of emerging telematic services has introduced new dimensions to the issue of human-machine interaction, necessitating the design of high quality user interfaces accessible and usable by a diverse user population. This user population at large, includes people with different cultural, educational, training and employment background, novice and experienced computer users, the very young and the elderly and people with different types of disabilities. Thus, it has become increasingly important to design human-machine interfaces, which not only support more efficient and effective user interaction, but also address the individual end user needs and expectations, while exhibiting a wide range of ‘intelligent’ and ‘co-operative’ behaviour.

The field of HCI is particularly important to the issue of accessibility of Information Society Technologies by the broadest possible user population, as citizens in the Information Society experience technology through their contact with the user interface of interactive products, applications and telematic services. In the past, accessibility was primarily concerned with the selection of suitable equipment to enable alternative computer access, for people with disabilities. As a result, it was mainly considered as an afterthought and reflected a reactive approach, whereby Assistive Technology solutions addressed problems introduced by a previous generation of technology. This reactive approach entails primarily adaptations, which facilitate access to the interface via suitable mechanisms, (e.g., filtering), dedicated interaction techniques (e.g., scanning) and specialised input/output devices (e.g., Braille displays, switches, eye-gaze systems). Typically, the result of adaptations includes the reconfiguration of the physical layer of interaction, and when necessary, the translation of the visual interface manifestation to an alternative modality. For example, access to a Graphical User Interface by a blind user requires “filtering” of the contents of the screen, using appropriate software (e.g., screen reader), so as to present them in an alternative modality (e.g., tactile, audio). Despite the short term benefits that such a posteriori adaptations may bring about, there are serious shortcomings which render this approach inadequate in the long run; the programming-intensive approach towards accessibility increases the cost of implementing and maintaining accessible software, while rapid technological progress may render adaptations harder to implement, or obsolete by the time they are delivered.

The principle of Universal Access, which is gaining increased attention and support in recent years, articulates a new notion of providing access to all users. Along these lines the concept of User Interfaces for All has been introduced to convey a proactive approach to ensuring accessibility and high-quality interaction in human-machine communication, specialising and applying the principles of Design for All (or Universal Design) in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. The driving force behind the concept of User Interfaces for All has been the establishment of the theoretical grounds and the development of technological solutions that will facilitate the construction of user interfaces of services and applications, which are inherently accessible and usable by all potential user categories.

In this direction, the ERCIM Working Group on User Interfaces for All has initiated activities aiming to consolidate current practice and experience in the area of universal design. In the short- to medium-term, work can be directed towards the identification of key accessibility criteria or requirements to be met by products and services. These activities can be consolidated into an appropriate form that would guide subsequent efforts by both industry and academia, towards information products and services accessible and usable by the broadest possible end-user population. Furthermore, such activities can help industry to gain a renewed focus on the issue of universal design, and facilitate justification for the costs and benefits of alternative technologies. Additionally, they can stimulate new developments, and establish the ground whereby universal design informs and improves practice.

In this context, emerging technological advances can be exploited to design systems and tools which refine and extend the current state of the art in interface design, and support the development of user-tailored and (technological) platform- independent interfaces. This implies the development of user interfaces which can utilise the broad range of lexical interaction technologies and benefit from user-adaptability at design time and / or system supported adaptation at run-time (i.e., adaptive behaviour) according to the particular end-user abilities, requirements and preferences.

Given the trend towards interaction-intensive paradigms for human-computer interaction, future developments in user interface technology are expected to offer more opportunities and more empowering solutions. The introduction of 3D graphics, 3D audio technology, frame-works supporting large-scale collaboration and communication between users, interaction techniques based on alternative types of input (e.g., kinaesthetic), as well as issues related to ergonomics and human factors evaluation, can significantly contribute to the enhancement of the current state of the art in user interfaces. The interfaces of the future have the potential to provide the user with a virtual space, which will enable more flexible and natural communication with the computing environment or with other users, providing input and perceiving feedback by utilising proportionally all the available senses and communication channels, while optimising human and system resources. Meeting such a goal, however, requires considerable knowledge and understanding of user abilities and requirements, as well as of user tasks and the overall context of use. Furthermore, expertise in methods for describing and integrating this knowledge in the user interface design process is also necessary (user modelling, for instance, can play a crucial role in this respect).

An example of a successful case in developing a user interface that follows the concepts and principles of User Interfaces for All, is the AVANTI Web Browser (see figure), which provides accessibility and high quality interaction to different user groups, including people with disabilities. The distinctive characteristic of the AVANTI Web Browser is its capability to tailor itself to the abilities, skills, requirements and preferences of individual users, the different contexts of use, and the changing characteristics of run-time interaction between the user and the system, employing adaptability and adaptivity techniques. The AVANTI Web browser was developed in the context of the ACTS-AVANTI AC042 project co-funded by the European Commission. The partners in this project’s consortium were: ALCATEL Italia - Siette division (Italy) - Prime contractor; IROE-CNR (Italy); ICS-FORTH (Greece); GMD (Germany); VTT (Finland); University of Sienna (Italy); TECO Systems (Italy); STUDIO ADR (Italy); MA Systems and Control (UK).

avanti web browser

This ERCIM Working Group has held a Workshop on the topic of User Interfaces for All each year since its establishment in 1995. Four workshops have been organised to date (the electronic proceedings for all four workshops are available from http://www.ics.forth.gr/ ercim-wg-ui4all/): 1st ERCIM Workshop on “User Interfaces for All”, Heraklion, Crete, Greece, 30-31 October 1995; 2nd ERCIM Workshop on “User Interfaces for All”, Prague, Czech Republic, 7-8 November 1996; 3rd ERCIM Workshop on “User Interfaces for All”, Obernai, France, 3-4 November 1997; and, 4th ERCIM Workshop on “User Interfaces for All” Stockholm, Sweden, 19-21 October 1998. The workshops have attracted an international audience of researchers and practitioners sharing the vision of an inclusive Information Society and offering alternative perspectives into the issues involved and the possible approaches that can be taken to address them. The 5th ERCIM Workshop on “User Interfaces for All” is scheduled to take place in Dagstuhl (more information available from http://fit.gmd.de/5-UI4ALL-Workshop/call.html), Germany, 28 November - 1 December 1999.


UI4A web site:

Please contact:

Constantine Stephanidis - FORTH
Tel: +30 81 39 17 41
E-mail: cs@csi.forth.gr

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