RECALL THE LAST time you took a trip out of town.
Perhaps you were traveling to a conference far from
home. Remember the many forms of transportation
you endured: cars, buses, airplanes, and trains.
Not only were you responsible for moving yourself
over a great distance, you had to move your things
as well, including books and baggage. Remember
the cramped spaces, sharp elbows, body aches, and
exhaustion. Feel again your desire to simply be at your
destination with your possessions intact . . .
Such journeys remind us of our physical
embodiment in the physical world, that much of our
lived experience is fundamentally physical, and that
we must contend with the world on
physical terms. As computing profes-
sionals, we might be tempted to forget
this, as our keystrokes summon data
instantly from across the globe. But as
humans, we still interact with that data
through physical devices and displays
using our physical senses and bodies.
We and the world interact physically.
Civilization’s story of technological
progress is in no small part the story
of an increasingly built physical environment, from the pyramids to roads
to skyscrapers to sanitation systems.
Much of our energy, collectively and
individually, goes into moving and
shaping material for such purposes,
altering the physical landscape and
our movement through it. Some of our
most thrilling experiences come by way
of changing our bodies’ relation to that
landscape: bungee jumping, skydiving,
scuba diving, and riding a rollercoaster
all provide radically new experiences
for our bodies in the world.
As designers and builders of interactive systems for human use, we also
play a central role in defining people’s
relationship to and experience of the
physical world. 2, 13, 30 When we design
things, we take mere ideas, things
without form, and embody them in
the world, whether simple sketches
or cardboard mockups. They could be
pixels on a screen or functioning digital devices. Regardless of the medium,
to design and build things is to embody
ideas that are then encountered and
By focusing on users’ abilities rather than
disabilities, designers can create interactive
systems better matched to those abilities.
BY JACOB O. WOBBROCK, KRZYSZTOF Z. GAJOS,
SHAUN K. KANE, AND GREGG C. VANDERHEIDEN
˽ Ability-based design is a new design
approach for interactive systems that
focuses on people’s abilities in context,
on what people can do, rather than on
what they cannot do.
˽ Ability-based design scrutinizes the
“ability assumptions” behind the design
of interactive systems, shifting the
responsibility of enabling access from
users to the system.
˽ People’s abilities may be affected not
just by disabilities but by disabling
situations; designing for abilities
in context leads to more usable,
accessible systems for all people.