Whitney Quesenbury Photo

Designing A Web for Everyone

August 31, 2015 by UX-RADIO


In this episode we are pleased to introduce you to Whitney Quesenbery who has contributed impressive value to the field of user experience and research. She’s written three books, the last entitled “A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences, with Sarah Horton. this book builds accessibility into every part of a web site or app design so that everyone can use it. She is also dedicated to usability in civic life and has worked with a number of  notable organizations like Pearson, National Library of Medicine, and the National Cancer Institute to name a few.


Lara:  Let’s share with the audience how you got started. How you got interested in all of this.

Whitney:  I went to college and I thought I was going to be a University professor, teaching English literature or something.

So I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I discovered theater.
And one day someone asked me if I could write because I had some documentation to write on a product for a bank in New York. And I thought, “Yeah, I can do this. A little money, not bad.” And the next thing I knew I was turning down theater jobs because I was so entranced by this new thing called hypertext. This was before the web. I was amazed at how you could put information together and connect it up instead of each thing being some tough job to find, we could make it connect.

And we went on and did that and became the world expert on hypertext, which wasn’t saying much because I didn’t have that many years of experience. I did tech support, I did documentation, and I became the project manager. And when the web hit, all the original hypertext programs kind of died and in the face of it, and we had to really think about where we were going next.

So, that was how I got from theater to user experience, was just kind of following an opportunity that came along.

Lara: And it’s a great thing to fall back to, to look at the similarities between theater and UX.

Whitney: I do think there are a lot of similarities. For one thing, they’re both a live interaction with someone.

In both cases there’s a kind of conversation that’s happening between the people imagining the experience and creating the experience, and the people enjoying the experience. And in both cases the real experience happens when someone uses it. Not only is the audience having an experience, but the actors are also in the room with them. And there’s a feedback loop that happens, a story-telling loop where the actors influence the play, the audience influences the play, and it changes night to night. And, so maybe that’s why I was pretty comfortable from the beginning with the idea that the things we created in UX, the digital experiences, are also mutable and changeable, and respond to people and context.

Lara: Definitely. And I remember when I was in theater, and not having a speaking part and the director telling everyone that every single role is really important and it’s part of the whole system, part of the whole story. And I think that relates so well also.

Whitney: Absolutely, we know that all the disciplines that go into user experience are present in one person or a whole team of people; they all have to be there. If you leave one out, there’s a gap.

Some of the new apps have been really successful about turning things into a conversation like the way Simple has the “safe to spend” amount.

So it doesn’t say, “You’re overspending!” It says, “Your safe to spend amount is $58.25.” You’ve said. “I want to really save for that trip.” And it said, “I’ll help you do that. I’ll be part of your journey towards that trip you want to take, or that thing you want to buy.”
Lara: Sometimes it’s hard to come up with a story for a business case. If you’re looking at something serious like business accounting software we were talking about. That’s kind of difficult for companies to imagine that there’s a story there. What would you say to them?

Whitney: The task of doing accounting is not that interesting in itself. The task of doing accounting is part of a larger goal. And of course there’s a story.

The story might be where business and we send our staff around the world to work on our product. And when they come back we need to cover their expenses. So the business’ story might be I need this information in a proper way so I that could repay you. And the staff person’s story might be I’d really like to get paid back for all these expenses. And the accounting department software might be we have an obligation to make sure that it’s done legally.

But it’s really a conversation if you think about it. It’s the staff person comes in and they say, ” Hey, I’ve just been on a trip. Let me tell you about what I spent.”

Lara: Let’s talk about the conference User Friendly, the UXPA China conference. You talked about how you used stories and personas at your workshop for as well as incorporating accessibility into the early stages of design.

Whitney: Well, Dan Szuc from Hong Kong was helping organize the first conference, or speakers for the first conference.

And it was just a great group of people. I just loved it. And it was in Beijing, the next year it was Shanghai and I went back. And I’ve gone back every few years since then, but not every year. The conference is huge because it’s hard for people who live in China to get visas to travel outside of China.
And so this is the big conference, it’s the big practitioner conference and there’s something like eight workshops everyday or ten workshops everyday and then plenaries in the morning. It’s a big gathering.

Lara: Do you see any of the Euro IA community there as well?

Whitney: Absolutely, people come from all over; they have people from the UK and speakers from Europe and speakers from the US. I think they are looking for who are the people doing exciting things and, bringing them into China. We really are kind of an international community and it’s nice to make it fully international to be able to include everyone.

Lara: Definitely. So are you presenting at this one?

Whitney: I’m doing two workshops. One is on story. I’m creating stories for your personas. That is, what can you do to use your personas once you’ve made them? I think a lot of people make personas and then they don’t know what to do with them next. We have three exercises that we’re doing, different things you can do with your personas to help inform design more and to help evaluate design.

And the second one is, based on the new book called A Web for Everyone. And we are going to look at eight personas for people with disabilities who use the web. And think about not only what we need to do with design for them but also who are they similar to? What are the things that someone, say someone who is fatigued easily — what do they need and who else might need that? So where can we find the places where good UX for everyone equals good accessibility.

Lara: While we are on the topic, I really liked what you said when we talked earlier when you were talking about beginning the design with a broader beginning. Like, thinking about it in terms of all people, not just people with special needs.

Whitney: Who we do our user research with is part of how we scope our projects. And if the people in your head you are designing for are narrow, they are people just like you and maybe just like you but they live somewhere else. Then you are going to get a product (an app) that works for people just like you.

But if you start to think about a broader range of people, people with different capabilities, people with different perspectives. Maybe people that don’t love technology as much as we do, or maybe they love it more. Maybe people who use different technologies. Then all of that thinking goes into your work.

So I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we get a broader range of people into our research. And that may mean giving up statistical significance in favor of breadth of input. It might mean making sure we can do user research with people maybe who maybe interact differently with the web, who are blind, who speak a different language, who use different things than a mouse and a keyboard.

And how can we make them part of our work so that we are just not thinking about them at the end. Because we know anyone from usability to user experience to user research to content strategy to IA, whatever discipline you are in, we know that getting the thinking in the beginning is what makes it come out right at the end. 

And the more people you know in relation to the thing you are working on, the design you are working on, the more all of those influences filter into your design.

Lara: Right, to see what is visible and to make that visible, but also to hide the mechanics of things yet in a positive way.

Even with forms we need to question every single field. Is this crucial. Is this necessary? Why is this necessary? How can we make sure that we’re communicating that to the user in the correct context?

Whitney: And don’t collect data we’re not going to do anything with. In this day of the NSA, we have to be really thinking hard about what data we’re collecting, and what we’re going to do with it. Because don’t ask the question just for fun.

You’re wasting server space, you’re wasting user time, and you’re eroding trust with every question you ask. Someone has one more excuse to leave. Let’s not encourage people to be fatigued and leave.
Lara: The easier we can make forms the better. And there should be an action to how we’re going to use that information for every every single field, we should know that when we’re building and designing the form.

The immediacy of feedback is so crucial. Even within that individual field instead of getting to the end and hitting the submit button and then seeing every different place with red text, where you have to go back and fix it.

Whitney: When I’m filling out a form to get a mortgage, my goal isn’t to fill out the form. My goal isn’t even really to get a mortgage, although that’s my immediate goal. My goal is to have a house.

And so if you can think about the house goal, what’s that goal? When I worked with the Open University, we worked on the online course catalog, and people’s goal isn’t to study chemistry. It might be to be a scientist, or your goal might be to go to university because you want a better job.

And so when we flipped the information around and said, “What will you learn here and what will this help you become?” And people when we did usability testing, people really latched onto that goal and they would say, “Huh. You mean I really have to study this because that will get me there.” Not, “Ugh, I don’t want to have to study chemistry.”

Lara: It’s an emotional motivator.

Whitney: Absolutely. What journey is the person on? And you know the university is on a journey with you. And I think part of what a website or a form or an app anticipates what you want all of the sudden they’re like, “They get it, they know what I’m doing.” And you trust them more.

And now you trust because they entered into a conversation with you even though that conversation may have been designed 3 years before by people they’ll never meet.

Lara: I really like the story you were telling about the opera singer. I would love for you to share that with the audience.

Whitney: Sure, one of the things we do a theater as we try to never let the backstage appear on-stage. You want to preserve the illusion. And I went to an opera at The Met, actually.

And there was a big scene with a battle going on and all the extras matching around and singing, and the orchestra going wild, and the hero sat at the top of the stage singing and singing and singing and at the end he’s killed threw a spear through him. And that’s an effect. He wasn’t really killed. There wasn’t really a spear that went right through his body. And so how did they do it? It’s an effect. It’s strapped on. And when did they do it?

So we went back the next day, and we put our holes around our eyes and just watch this guy and what happened was a stage hand slipped up behind him, walked out behind him and helped him clamp this thing on, and the reason that nobody saw it was that it was timed so that it all happened at a moment when we were watching a canon go off at the other side of the stage.

In magic they call this misdirection so they took advantage of a moment when the whole audience was looking left to do something over on the right. Now think about a website that preloads things based on where they think the user is going. That’s kind of misdirection as well. It’s about creating an illusion that we know that we’re having that is happening. We’re creating an illusion of a conversation, or an illusion of immediacy to fill the gaps where there isn’t real immediacy.
Lara: Well, let’s talk a little bit about your new book and about accessibility. I know you touched on it in the beginning, but what inspired you to begin writing this book?

Whitney: Well, I was one of those people who thought accessibility was a good thing and someone else would do it. And as I been working elections, I really started to see how important it is because whatever one thinks about access to computers or games, people can’t access information about elections, or maybe there’s an online registration or voter registration form but if 10% of the population can’t use it then that’s not fair. It gets into serious stuff like civil rights.

So that made me take accessibility seriously. And as we worked on the book Sarah and I spent a long time talking about whom the audience for this book was. And we finally decided that the audience for the book was people who were already thinking, “Yup, I’m going to make what I’m working on accessible” but they wanted to know how. And much of the work on accessibility is all about checklists and rules and people’s eyes glaze over on that.

And so we wanted to write something that would help people build accessibility into their work, so if you’re a content strategist, you might be thinking about how to write headings, how to structure the information so that it has good headings and good information structure. That helps everyone. It helps visual readers, cause you got the visual of headings.

But if it was headings are best they could be coded correctly, and now screen readers can read them. And if you’re working with people who don’t read as well, they can read the headings and get the gist of the page. So all those little decisions, we focus the book not on disability but around user experience. We came up with a framework we call the Accessible UX PrinciplesSo “People First” is the most important one. Then having a clear purpose, building a solid structure, making the interaction easy, and making the way finding helpful. Making the presentation clear and the language plain and the media accessible all helps us add up to universal usability and creating delight. Not just getting past the barriers, but actually creating something that’s delightful for everyone to use. Good UX and a good accessibility are pretty darn close to the same thing. 

Lara: Let’s dive a little bit deeper into that so that people understand it better. You have a headline that gives you the gist of what it is, it’s informational. But how do you take it to that next level when you’re programming it to make it readable and accessible?

Whitney: OK. So if I had a heading on a page, right? I could make it visual by making it large and blue and putting a line under it. But if I hadn’t marked it as a heading, maybe it’s a second level heading so it’s an H2. If I marked it as an H2 then the technology knows how to read it. The browsers know what it is, and by the way, search engine optimization people say that you want to have good headings, and those headings need to have good keywords in them because search engines assume that the things that are marked as headers are more important than just text.
So a screen reader or any kind of assistive technology that is specialized technology that helps people with disabilities it’s really just another browser, right? And now we’re saying that there’s one more technology that needs to be able to read the code and have the code – the semantics of the code match the semantics of the content.

So if the content is meant to have an explanatory header, it gets marked with a heading tag in the HTML. Think about how you visually scan a page. You look at the page and you can scan down the headings. Or maybe you’re even in a more flexible thing like where you can collapse the headings and see just the headings and open and close the ones you want to read. That’s kind of what a screen reader does.

One mode it can work in is the user can say, “Read me all your headings.” They can jump from heading to heading very quickly. They’re scanning with their ears. Another step might be thinking about how to make sure that the areas of the screen are marked up. Maybe you have a big mega menu at the top of the page.

Well, nobody wants to listen to that over and over again. So is there a way to skip over it? You could do that with anchor link. Or you could do that by marking that whole section as navigation. And now someone can say, “Oh, I don’t really want navigation. Take me to the next section on this page. And once you done that you can adjust so if someone has a tall, narrow screen or a short, wide screen you can adjust the presentation to fit the page as well.

So you can think about someone with low vision who needs to make the text really large for instance to be able to read it. And all of the sudden they can. All of your presentation is in the style sheet, and maybe black text on a white background is really hard for them to read, they can change the colors to work for their eyes. Programs like readability use this to be able to smooth away all of the backgrounds. A lot of sites, if you go to print view, it takes out all of the stuff around the edges and just leaves the middle of the content. Well, that’s great because it takes away distractions.

So if you’re someone who is distracted by all the colors of the ads around the edges you can now focus on the text. That kind of flexibility to user context helps in lots of different ways. But wouldn’t it be nice if the software could say, “Would you like me to show you this part of the screen alone?” Or, “Let me jump you to the right to that part of the screen” even if it’s a long page.

Lara: Before we end today’s interview I wanted to ask you, “What advice would you give to designers today, whether they’re just getting started or making a career transition, or they’ve been in the field, what would you say to them?

Whitney:  Well, I’d say two things. I’d say that when you get started, I think a lot of your attention goes into your own skills and discipline and making sure that they’re on top of the game. But think about the people who will use what we create.

So if you start your work from people, then I think everything else happens on its own. You can learn the skills but find ways to make sure that you’re staying engaged with the audience. Whether that’s through quick feedback sessions, or big usability tests. It doesn’t matter. As long as you and your whole team have a way of stay engaged. It’s probably the most important advice I could anyone.

Lara: And what do you foresee to be one of your most valuable contributions that you’d like to leave to society?

Whitney: Gosh. I think it’s the notion that what we do is important. That when we’ve gotten what we wanted, people who got into web and digital early kept saying, “This is going to change the world.”

And we have changed the world. But you know, just like Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility. Now we have to think about our stuff not as toys but as things that change people’s lives. And think about how we can do that for the better, and I hope that the things I’ve done have been a part of helping us think that way.

Lara: Well, thank you so much for being on UX radio today.

Whitney: Well thank you, it was great talking to you.



Whitney is the co-founder of the Center for Civic Design. She is passionate about making interactions with government effective and enjoyable, giving design literacy to elections and other government workers, and on a mission with Dana Chisnell to ensure voter intent through design.
She also provides UX consulting at WQusability including user research, usability, plain language, accessibility. I love learning about people around the world and using those insights to design products where people matter.

Whitney is the author of three books: A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences (with Sarah Horton), Storytelling for User Experience (with Kevin Brooks) and Global UX: Design and Research in a Connected World (with Daniel Szuc)

And in her ‘spare’ time she publishes, presents and teaches workshops on personas, usability and user research, plain language, and accessibility.

Whitney served on federal advisory committees for voting system design and Section 508.

Before she was seduced by a little beige computer into software, usability, and interface design, Whitney was a theatrical lighting designer on and off Broadway, learning about storytelling from some of the masters.

Connect with Whitney here:

Image of book cover A Web for Everyone by Sarah Horton & Whitney Quesenbery


Whitney’s Book List include:



Awards and accomplishments