Aaron Gustafson on Accessibility, Usability and the Golden Rule

Meet Aaron Gustafson: web standards guru, founder of Easy! Designs, author of Adaptive Web Design, A List Apart contributor (oh, and HOW Interactive Design Conference speaker). Suffice it to say, we’re super impressed with Gustafson’s web design credentials … particularly by his dedication to making the web a beautiful, friendly, accessible place for the widest group of users.

In a recent phone conversation, Gustafson spoke with great enthusiasm of his adopted hometown of Chattanooga, TN (home of a burgeoning tech scene and superfast fiber-optic internet), about the Golden Rule and about why designers really need to understand code.

Gustafson is a self-taught developer who started working on the web in 1996, when he created web pages for a print magazine he designed. Subsequent career moves took him to Connecticut, where he worked as a contractor and full-time employee for large companies and an ad agency. He launched Easy Designs in 2004 and has since been designing, developing, speaking, training and writing about the web.

The experience you’re designing is created in every keystroke, and I want to be as close to that as possible. WYSIWYG tools are great, but you need to understand what’s going on under the hood. If you rely on the tools to do things when you don’t understand what they’re doing for you, you end up with problems you don’t know how to solve, you end up spending hours debugging something you don’t understand.

What are you up to these days? Give us a little background on your career and your work.

I came out with a book last year called Adaptive Web Design from our own publishing company called Easy Readers. Things have been pretty busy since then. We saw a massive spike in inquiries for consulting and training. I love production work and love building things, but I also really like the teaching aspect of what I do. I like to introduce people to concepts that they’re not familiar with and see them start to make connections. Between speaking at conferences and workshops and training, it’s been great for us.

Through your work with the Web Standards Project, your writing and your contributions at A List Apart, you’ve been a tireless advocate for accessibility. What about that issue makes you tick?

It comes down to my personality; I was taught early on to follow the Golden Rule. It informs me from a technical standpoint, and it’s a guiding principle in the way I conduct myself in life.

We need to put ourselves in users’ shoes and do everything we can to make sure users have access to information and services we’re providing.

Everybody thinks accessibility is for blind people—it’s about language comprehension, it’s whether English is your second language, it’s for people who have physical challenges in surfing the web or using a touch-screen device, it’s about browsing on a small screen or using a legacy browser.

Accessibility is about usability, about treating other people with compassion and dignity. We don’t know what’s on the other end of the wire. We don’t know that the person who’s using a 6-year-old Blackberry, just because he loves the device, has $1 million to spend on our services.

Your conference session is about Progressive Enhancement. Give the folks following along at home a quick and dirty explanation of that approach to web design.

Progressive Enhancement is about creating a great user experience irrespective of technology. It’s a philosophy that affects everything about the site: planning, information architecture, design, programming.

The idea of Progressive Enhancement is about building layer upon layer in creating that user experience, and it uses the fundamental underpinnings of web technology to achieve that. Browsers are instructed to ignore what they don’t understand and they’re given specific instructions about what to do when encounter something they don’t understand. In CSS you can define those specific instructions—and when you’re aware of this, you can create an experience that advances depending on the device or version.

[From here, Gustafson launched into an analogy using a peanut M&M; it’s better that you see it for yourself than that I describe it.]

Often, web designers create for the latest iterations of browsers and OS, leaving users with older versions in the dust. Why is that? Is it a matter of time, cost and priority? Or a bit of technological snobbery, perhaps?

In a lot of cases, people get drawn to the sexy stuff—and that’s not unique to web design. There’s a misconception that supporting legacy browsers is boring, annoying and that it adds to the cost. But it’s not a big deal. Supporting IE6 is a maybe a matter of an afternoon of work, because we build following PE and are smart about how we apply our styles. Sure, there are some older browsers that are hard to debug, but you learn from experience and the next time you’re building a site, you instinctively avoid doing the things that caused you problems before.

Ideally, designers create sites with a specific target audience in mind, and that audience is usually pretty narrowly defined (in terms of the technology they use to access a site). When is it appropriate for designers to consider a broader audience — what kinds of projects need to be developed for older technologies?

My feeling is that any site that’s out there on the open web should be accessible to any device. It should just work. I’m not saying that the site experience should be the same, but it should still be a positive one. Where I make exceptions is when you’re dealing with intranets or web-based applications that someone has to sign up for, where there are terms of use and system requirements.

That said, the ability of an application or website to continue to run when Javascript execution fails or halts—that’s a testament to the robustness of the system. Like when Gawker Media launched a new platform, there was a Javascript error in the code and the sites failed to load. These are content sites, they’re not web applications. Yes, Javascript can make an experience really sing, but the fact that it couldn’t even load the page without Javascript makes for a really bad user experience.

I worry that we’re putting too much of a tax on the user—when you’e moving all the calculations and processing to the client side instead of your server, there are some pages that will just crap out if their device doesn’t have enough processing power.

Looking at the web’s current landscape, what has you most excited? What are you seeing now that’s really cool?

I’m excited by the possibilities of mobile—we have an awesome opportunity to reach people via this device that they have on them all the time. There’s a lot of really interesting things we can do and ways we can interact with these devices.

Catch Aaron Gustafson and a whole host of other supersmart web design and usability experts at the HOW Interactive Design Conference, October 28–31 in San Francisco. Seats are going quickly, so register soon.