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Tech Q&A

Sarah Horton

Describe your latest project.
I just finished a book called Access by Design. I've been interested in how the web can adapt to meet different needs and circumstances. Like most designers, I started out designing web sites that could not be adapted or modified by users because that aspect of the web seemed to run contrary to all I knew about design — how could I allow users to view pages in Comic Sans type when I knew that that was bad for them! Then people started talking about how that very flexibility and user control made the web accessible to people with disabilities. That's when I think I finally "got" the web. I stopped trying to nail down designs and began to focus on universal design and usability.

The book's title, Access by Design, describes the philosophy, and its subtitle, A Guide to Universal Usability for Web Designers, describes the practical applications. The book is for web designers who want to incorporate access into their design approach. Much like our physical spaces that are designed and built to provide universal access, our web sites can offer the same, if not more, opportunities for access because the web is flexible. Users can adapt their web experience to meet their needs and preferences.

The book begins by laying out the fundamental characteristics of web access, and defines the attributes of the medium that enable access. The introduction is followed by fifteen chapters devoted to different web elements, including text, graphics, interactivity, editorial style, and page layout. The chapters contain best-practice guidelines for universal usability, defined, elucidated, and illustrated. Ben Shneiderman wrote a terrific foreword, and so many individuals and organizations contributed examples that illustrate the guidelines.

I am very excited about this book, and hope people find it useful!

What inspires you to sit down and write?
In the heat of a book project, deadlines are my best inspiration. Given my schedule, I usually do not have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. Initiating this book project was inspired by something more profound, however. I had been wanting to write this book for several years but had been putting it off because of the demands of my job and single parenting. Then, my brother, Matt, died at forty-four of brain cancer. When he died, I felt compelled to do the things that were important to me, the way he did while he had the chance, rather than continuing to put them off. So I got my son a puppy and wrote a book proposal. The proposal became Access by Design, which turned out to be just the book that I wanted to write, and the puppy, well... she's not quite the best friend I had envisioned for my son, but we love her, anyway.

Talk a little about your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
I don't have a recollection of being positively influenced in any substantial way by a childhood teacher. I do have some negative memories, such as Mrs. Supernaut, my elementary school music teacher — somehow I became a musician despite her teaching. My parents were both elementary school teachers and, now that I think about it, I expect their influence was stronger than that of my actual school teachers. I am the youngest of seven, and my parents made sure music and reading were constant elements of our home life.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
I read a lot of Dr. Seuss. I always liked What Was I Scared Of?, even though those pale green pants got to me every time. I love the Lorax, even now — "I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees." I especially like the message the Lorax leaves behind: "Unless." The first set of books that I really consumed were the Chronicles of Narnia. After reading those again and again, I became an avid reader.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
Well, given my current project, I think the web makes people's lives better. To paraphrase Don Norman, the web makes us smart. The web allows us to find our own answers — the cheapest plane fare from Boston to Portland, the best coffee in downtown Portland, the origins of Powell's Books. For instance, I have a terrible time with idioms — I say things like, "a drop in the hat" and "a drop of the bucket" — but I can Google to find out the correct usage. There's no counting the things I have been able to accomplish because of access to the web, which is why I believe so strongly that everyone should have access.

If you could be reincarnated to live for one day the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
Only one! I would want to choose the life of an explorer — someone who goes places that I can't go on my own. Shel Silverstein, maybe, as a writer — I would like be able to think with such profound whimsy. I would like to know as much about typography and poetry at the same time as Robert Bringhurst, and to be able to say so much as simply as W. H. Auden. But now I've cheated... it's too hard to choose just one.

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