Simple user interfaces for advanced search technologies

I’m fond of reading. Reading is important in my work as a researcher and as leisure time entertainment. However it is not always easy to find the good books, even with help from a librarian or typical Internet based search systems. I was therefore very excited when I was asked to work with a Norwegian version of Whichbook. provides readers with an enjoyable and intuitive way of finding books to match their mood. Try this service if you haven’t already used it!

Universal design

Book readers have different assumptions and needs. One of my characteristics is that I’m blind. I’m using a Braille display and synthetic speech, not a standard computer screen. Other persons are using different assistive devices, mobile phones, keyboards instead of mouse PDAs.

“The Web is designed, in turn, to
be universal: to include anything and anyone.” (Tim Berners-Lee).When designing a new web system it is important to allow for different input and output. This is not very difficult. It is however not just a triviality for the result to be an intuitive and easy to use service.

My role in the Whichbook project has been to provide as good accessibility as possible. I manage a team of experts, and we’re able to give the developers good advice. Our knowledge is based on international standards/guidelines (e.g., but
the most important method in our approach is user testing. Technical guidelines are not enough when designing user interfaces for human beings!

Two interfaces for similar data is originally designed in Flash. The search interface consists of several sliders. This is a very successful solution for the screen and mouse user, but not however very accessible, e. g. for blind persons. It is possible to develop fairly accessible Flash, but HTML is preferable when designing for all. An HTML alternative has been available for years in the English system, and our goal was to improve this version.

Normally I do not recommend two versions of a web. In this case however the existing interface was very successful for a lot of users and the only part of the system which had to be different was the search interface. The results (books, audio books and filmed books) are similar. The danger of having two versions is obvious:When updating one of them, the other is forgotten.

What has been important in the accessible version?

When focusing on accessibility very small adjustments normally make a lot of difference. These adjustments do not often change the visual presentation. Some typical examples are: alternative text to images, labels in forms (used to allow screen readers to announce fields correctly), the element order in the HTML code and extra table mark-ups.

Our work is also to figure out appropriate navigation, structure, colour/ contrast, tab order, button sizes etc. to make the system usable by persons with disabilities.We only have one experience from all of the projects we have been working on. These changes benefit everybody! Clear and intuitive structure and navigation are preferable for the computer expert, the blind researcher, retired people – everyone! The difference is that some users are able to use even badly designed software and web pages.

When it is possible: use standards! In this system I believe that the standard forms with appropriate labelling, clear language and standard controls are a key factors for success! People do not have to learn new techniques.What is new in this system is the ingenious search approach, not striking technology.

The Norwegian version – www. – will be launched on September 26. User tests and our expert evaluations are more than promising, and I’ll probably be one of the most active ‘ønskebok’ users myself!

researcher, MediaLT