Design Considerations
One Size Fits All?

The Case For Personalized Web Design

On the web, as with clothing, one size does not truly fit all. People with moderate or severe cognitive disabilities, for example, may benefit from designs that are radically different from the designs for more general audiences. People with low vision may benefit from sites designed especially for their needs, with extra large fonts, high contrast, narrower page formats, and so on. Some people who are deaf may benefit from signing avatars (animated people using sign language), and people who are blind may benefit from simplified page designs.

Some accessibility experts have advocated for specialized designs for each type of disability. This type of specialization, if done correctly, could take into account the various needs and preferences of users in ways that one-size-doesn't-quite-fit-all designs simply can't. Some have created sophisticated methods of storing user preferences in databases. Some have created pre-fabricated templates to be used for each major category of disability. Some allow users to switch style sheets "on the fly" as they view the web page. Some of these techniques have met with success. Others have not. In all cases, the intention was good, whether the result was or not.

Perhaps the strongest argument for the personalized design approach, is that it seeks to create web content that IS truly accessible for everyone. Personalized designs attempt to do what a single design can rarely, if ever, do: meet everyone's needs ideally, and not just minimally.

The Case Against Personalized Web Design

Despite the wonderful possibilities of the personalized design movement, there are several problems with this approach. The biggest problem is that personalized designs are difficult to create and maintain. There is a large up-front investment in time and effort to design different versions of web sites for each of the major types of disabilities. The following issues would need to be considered:

  • If someone needs to update a page, will this update be reflected on all of its various versions?
  • What if one of the versions has extra icons and illustrations for people with cognitive disabilities? Will these icons and illustrations be updated at the same time that the text is updated?
  • Who creates the icons and illustrations to begin with?
  • Are there multiple versions of the text for different reading levels and abilities? How would this be updated?

These issues become quite thorny when analyzed carefully.

Another problem with the personalized design approach is that it still leaves out some types of disabilities. It is entirely impractical to attempt to design a web site for every type of disability imaginable. There simply are too many types of disabilities.

Finally, even people with the same type of disability often have different preferences. Some screen reader users like the navigational links at the top of the page. Others like them at the bottom. Some people with low vision prefer black backgrounds with yellow, enlarged text. Others prefer white backgrounds with black, enlarged text. Some people who are deaf prefer to read text. Others prefer to see sign language. It is impossible to say that any one design accurately accounts for all the preferences of any one type of disability.

Conclusion

The goals of the personalized design approach are laudable: to accommodate everyone. When the necessary resources are available, this approach can be worth the effort from the perspective of the user. More often than not, though, those extra resources are not available. This is when a single design, meant to accommodate the widest range of people possible, is simply more practical. Neither approach is trivially easy. Both require thoughtful planning, but the single design approach is the most reasonable option.