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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > May 2021

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Vol. 41 No. 4 — May 2021

Universal Design Assessment: We’ve Got a Checklist for That!
by Susan Chesley Perry and Jessica (Jess) Waggoner

The checklist is used by undergraduate student workers in the library to evaluate webpages for both usability and accessibility.
As CMSs such as Drupal and LibGuides make web publishing easier in libraries, many new library staff members are creating guides and other content for our websites, including our social media accounts. At the University of California–Santa Cruz, we have more than 90 web content creators on staff. We also have a strategic vision for the library website and library services in general, which emphasizes the importance of equal access to our services no matter the background of the user. Not everyone in our wide range of distributed web authors has extensive knowledge of accessibility or usability principles or how to make our web content accessible to novice researchers. This article explores how we created a universal design checklist for our library’s websites and how we use it with undergraduate student assistants.

What Is Universal Design?

The Center for Universal Design (CUD) at North Carolina State University defines universal design as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” ( For us, this means we want to make our website accessible and usable by all patrons, regardless of whether they are using assistive technologies (such as a screen reader), are new undergraduate students who are unfamiliar with academic library terminology, or are students who are accessing materials from home on an older computer with slow network speed. To achieve these goals, we adhere to the following list of core universal design and inclusive design principles:  

  • Equitable use
  • Flexible use
  • Simple and intuitive
  • Perceptible information  
  • Tolerance for user error
  • Low user effort

Why a Checklist?

Considering our context of multiple, distributed content creators, we wondered how we could systematically apply universal design principles to our website in an effective and sustainable way. Our solution was to design a checklist. The checklist is used by undergraduate student workers in the library to evaluate webpages for both usability and accessibility.

We selected a checklist as our approach for several key reasons. First, checklists generate consistency across reviewers; regardless of who is using it, everyone is measuring against the same criteria. Second, checklists are systematic and ensure that nothing is missed or forgotten during a review. Third, checklists are self-documenting, which means they do not require reviewers to create a separate report that explains the criteria they used and their findings. The reviewers simply return the completed checklist to the content creator.

Developing a tool solves only one part of the problem; one must also have the time and resources necessary to use the tool. This is where our library student assistants serve as a vital component to our approach. The library first hired a usability student assistant in fall 2018. We find that engaging students in web usability and user experience work is very rewarding for both the students and the library. Our student assistants are cognitive science majors at the university, and the library benefits from the knowledge they gain through their courses. In return, the student assistants receive work experience and the opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom. The students also expand our capacity for engaging in user experience work across the library. Using our checklist to review library webpages is one of the tasks our usability student assistants regularly perform in their role.

Checklist Highlights

The checklist is based on established writing-for-the web principles with a user-centered perspective. Many components are based on the recommendations articulated in Letting Go of the Words (Redish 2014). One of the initial sections of the checklist is user perspective. We ask the reviewer to identify the audience or user group for the page (students, faculty members, etc.), describe why the user might come to that page and the goal he or she is attempting to achieve there, and explain what the user is hoping to be able to do or find on that specific webpage. This section of the checklist is essential for grounding the reviewer in the user perspective and frames the work to be done in the organization section of the checklist. In order for a webpage to be organized in a functional way, we must first understand the user’s needs.

The checklist includes a significant number of items related to the webpage’s organization. We want the webpage content to be organized in a way that facilitates navigation of the page. Users should be able to find what they need quickly and effectively. Items in this section include the following:

  • The most important information is placed at the top of the page.
  • Headings are included to allow users to easily skim the page.
  • Content that’s relevant to only certain audiences is divided by audience.

The checklist also contains sections for reviewing links and buttons, the clarity of titles and headings, and language (e.g., voice/tone, jargon, opportunities for more concise wording).

Applying the Checklist

The flexibility of the checklist allows us to apply it in a range of review projects. We use it when we wish to review a single highly used webpage on our site or when a content creator asks us to evaluate a newly made webpage. We also use the checklist as part of larger usability projects wherein we evaluate an entire subsite that contains a number of webpages.

All review projects begin with a conversation between the student assistant, who will be conducting the review, and the supervising librarian. We discuss the user perspective portion of the checklist and articulate the needs, goals, and expectations of users who visit the webpage (or webpages) under review. This frequently involves a review of our user personas and sometimes requires an additional consultation with the creator of the webpage. The student assistant then completes the rest of the checklist independently. When he or she finds content that does not comply with the standards outlined in the checklist, he or she documents this using annotated screenshots. He or she writes suggestions for improving the content. The completed checklist is reviewed by the supervising librarian and then shared with the content creator.

Our Patron Borrowing Categories webpage is frequently used, but it was very lengthy and difficult to understand. The usability student assistant reviewed this webpage using our checklist and found a number of opportunities for improvement, particularly the organization of the content. The student recommended making the content collapsible so that users could quickly seek out their specific group and click to view the content for it (see Figure 1 on page 25).

We also applied the checklist to multiple webpages within our special collections and archives subsite as part of a larger usability project for that library department. Eight webpages were included in this review. The completed checklists for these webpages, including screenshots and suggestions for revisions, were a substantial 37 pages in length. The special collections and archives department has used the checklist findings and suggestions in its work to redesign its entire subsite (see Figure 2).

The reaction from our content creators upon receipt of our review findings has been entirely positive. All library content creators are familiar with the checklist, so they have a solid understanding of how we will evaluate their content. Content creators also appreciate the perspective of our undergraduate student assistants who conduct the reviews. While we, as library staffers, might believe we have excluded jargon from our content, our undergraduate students are much better arbiters of this.

Specific Accessibility Items

Many of the concepts on the checklist are targeted at all users, whether they identify as someone with a disability or not. There are a few items that are required to make the page usable by those with specific needs (such as color blindness) or by those who have screen readers. The accessibility portion of the checklist comes from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1. There is also quite a bit of overlap between usability and accessibility, and Figure 3 on page 27 provides an example of an issue that can exist in that overlap. The author of the first page had listed links to additional information for each point by using the word “more” as a link. Making the linked words more meaningful (as on the second page) is easier for users to understand, and it also works better for screen readers that skip to the links on a page.

Tips to Apply at Your Institution

Here are a few tips that are helpful but not required if you’re customizing the checklist for your library. Find students with cognitive science or human-computer interaction as a major or academic interest. This gives the students an opportunity to apply the skills they’ve learned in a professional setting. It’s also helpful to use students or new staffers who don’t have a lot of inside library experience because they observe the site as a novice user. Another tip is to inform web authors that they will likely have to make changes to their pages based on the results of the evaluation, and they should add time for those edits to their project plan. You can also incorporate elements and guidelines from your parent organization into the checklist. For example, if the city or your institution has a style guide with rules for official names of departments, add those items to the checklist or remove items that don’t pertain to your library. Feel free to make it your own.


We have found our approach to be highly valuable in helping the library attain its goal of a more usable and accessible website. Employing a checklist ensures a consistent, more objective approach to our assessments. Engaging undergraduate student assistants in reviewing gives us the capacity to conduct this work at a larger scale. Similar to most of you, our library buildings have been closed due to the pandemic. Our website is now the main entry point to the wide range of collections and services we offer to students and faculty members. This year, it’s even more important for us to have a site that’s usable and welcoming to new patrons who have never set foot in our buildings or visited our help desk. Our library staffers recognize this challenge, and they welcome the feedback and participation of our undergraduate students who are running through the checklist. The program is helping us create a culture of accessibility and usability within the library.


Redish, Janice. Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works, Second Edition. Waltham, Mass.: Morgan Kaufmann, 2014.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Overview.

Library Juice Academy: Introduction to Accessibility and Universal Design in Libraries. Instructor: Carli Spina.

Jess WaggonerSusan Chesley PerrySusan Chesley Perry (left) ( is head of digital initiatives at the University of California–Santa Cruz. Her department runs the library website and coordinates the development and maintenance of the library’s unique and locally created digital resources. She holds an M.A. in library and information studies and a B.A. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin

Jessica (Jess) Waggoner
(right) ( is the web services and user experience librarian at the University of California–Santa Cruz, where she focuses on web services, system design, and user experience. Her professional goals include maintaining a user-centered approach across projects and embracing iteration. She holds an M.L.I.S. from the University of British Columbia and an M.A. in education with a focus on instructional technologies from San Francisco State University.