A Challenge for Universal Access and Engagement

There’s a tendency to connect accessibility to physical handicaps. Maybe we need to expand our thinking

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Just out of curiosity, I conducted a little experiment in device accessibility:

I closed my eyes and tried to use my PC.

Of course it was more an exercise in futility.  I’m no touch-typist, so even with the raised features on certain keys I was useless on the keyboard.  With no indication of where my mouse pointer was or what it was doing, I was even more lost on the screen.  I didn’t even know where or how to start.

Welcome to the world of the sensory-deprived computer user.

Now, I could implement things that would help.  Audio cues.  Vibration.  Operating systems in fact do typically provide for accessibility enhancements.  Often though they require someone else to set up.

And, do they go far enough?  Most enhancements assume mild impairments, not total absence of one or more sensory characteristics.

I’m already severely nearsighted, and suffer some hearing damage, but that’s admittedly nothing compared to what others endure.  The panic of misplacing eyeglasses, and groping for them through the fog between me and the world, can’t compare to the every day ordeal of absolute blindness in a sight-centric world.  But I did have a brush with sight loss that has made me very sympathetic.

Several years ago I developed an inflammatory eye disease known as uveitis.  It starts as an extreme sensitivity to light and often develops into full blindness.  I wore a blindfold for two days to avoid the excruciating pain that even dim lights inflicted.  I had to go so far as to avoid glancing at the red LEDs of my alarm clock.

I was fortunate; with treatment I recovered from that scary episode and have only had a few minor repeats since.  Others aren’t so lucky… and I’m told that there’s still a possibility of completely losing my eyesight at any time.

That thought creeps in whenever I consider the intertwining topics of usability and accessibility.  If I went blind, could I adapt?  Design work would be out of the question… so could I still use my computer for, say, music composition?

Right now I don’t see how.  The typical digital audio workstation software is complex enough for the sighted– how could it be made to work for the blind?  Advancements in tablet technology tell me that, eventually, many if not all of the current hurdles could be conquered.

One drawback: there’s not as much money to be made accommodating the sensory-impaired and disabled as there is the mainstream.  Many overtures in this area will depend more on goodwill than a calculable return on investment.  But consider that solving usability issues for the most challenging customers could produce side benefits for everyone else.   Improve the experience for the hearing-impaired and sightless, and you may well solve focus/distraction problems for every user.

Nokia’s design chief, Marko Ahtisaari, thinks our personal devices are too immersive.  Too demanding.  Given the number of people I see texting as they drive these days, I have to believe he’s right.  We need new modes of engagement.

Ahtisaari hints at techniques and technologies to solve such dilemmas, and we can guess as to what he may be alluding.  In addition to novel UI and UX approaches, we can take more exotic elements into consideration.  Touchscreen haptics, magnetic tattoos, neural sensors– all viable tools to use in improving any person’s interactivity with the digital universe.

Some cities have added audio to their crosswalk signals.  The pitch and/or tempo changes as the available time to cross approaches its limit.  Little things like this go a long way to making a pedestrian’s walk safer and more enjoyable, and it works for everyone.  This is how we should approach user experiences in general.  This is how we help everyone navigate the physical world with equal ease, via a harmonized synthesis of the conventional and electronic.  Overlay the Internet on the physical world; augmented reality need not be limited to visual enhancements!

The future may see our various written languages converge toward universal gestures that can be interpreted on intelligent surfaces or even in the air itself.  Maybe it’s time we all learn sign language; speech may one day take a distant back seat to nonverbal communication.  This could lead to great interaction equalizers for the blind and deaf– indeed, the heightened sensitivity to touch that comes with such conditions could even confer an advantage.

So my challenge to designers and developers: tie on that blindfold.  Plug your ears.  Pin an arm behind your back.  Then project your mind forward… and start making things better.

Someday soon I want to try that experiment again, and just go to work.

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Editor-in-Chief. Making tech accessible since the Jurassic. Personal ramblings at texrat.net. Follow @texrat on Twitter.

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  • http://antoinerjwright.com Antoine RJ Wright

    I’m working on a spatial and time-degraded UI for my personal (digital) bible that addresses this in part. A by-product of the design actually makes it nearly color-neutral too. Kind of neat really, and if I can nail out the kinks, well, this would be something of a means of answering that challenge ;)

    • http://post404.com/ Randall Arnold

      Some developments are small but can have a big impact.  The audio for crosswalks that I mentioned, for example.  It’s just so sensible that when I first encountered it (in Helsinki, Finland) I had to wonder why it isn’t used EVERYWHERE.

      Yellow traffic lights that blink a few times just before they turn red are another great example.  Small change, but it could help keep drivers from running red lights and risking accidents.

      This is one way we need to think as designers and developers: have I explored all the senses with my UX/UI?  By default we seem to focus largely, and naturally, on sight.  So close your eyes: how do you now interact with your ecosystem?

      Other advances will of course be huge, and I’ll explore them very soon.  ;)

  • http://www.villeaho.com/ Ville Aho

    Marko has been talking about devices that would give us our “head up” back. I think WP7 is a step to the right direction but I’m still waiting for more. Better audio guidance integrated into BT headsets would be nice, e.g. “you got a new email from John”, or “Your wife liked your photo on Facebook” etc.

    • http://post404.com/ Randall “texrat” Arnold

      Absolutely! We really need to get creative here, but then again, few suggestions I hear raised are really new. Science Fiction introduced them decades ago. ;)

  • http://twitter.com/Inacurate Inacurate

    I’m very split on this subject so I typically, and I know this is hard to believe, remain quiet on it as my views are not in the majority and are “considered” wrong.

    Below link is a game entirely done with just audio, no meaningful visual clues to go by.


    • http://post404.com/ Randall Arnold

      Thanks for the link.  I like that developers are experimenting this way; it can open minds to the possibilities.

      But I’m curious about your comments.  “Split” on the subject?  As in being somewhat opposed to improving general usability/accessibility?  I would be stunned to find that the case…

      • http://twitter.com/Inacurate Inacurate

        First, website feedback. This reply, on Firefox 7.0.1, the text field is cut off at the bottom of the page unless I collapse other comments.

        I most certainly want UI/accessibility improvement but at the same time, I sometimes view trying to improve those similar to trying to stop natural selection.

        ***Below &  including this line —— I cannot see on my screen as I reply to your individual comment.***

        We live in such a “PC” world now, it’s a little overboard in this area I think.  Where does the line stop?  It’s unfortunate, but at the same time a real world fact, that not everyone has the capability or skill to utilize a service, feature or luxury.  Should a developer or manufacturer of a product be on the hook for making sure they do not discriminate, even passively, against such a someone?  If we’re talking say, a luxury, non critical to survival product, should a person with an impairment making use impossible, be a demographic?

        I hate even asking the question, as to the perception it gives of my stance.  For survival critical items, it’s not even a question. Whatever can be done, should be done regardless of cost.  When it comes to say, high-end mobile devices, video games, or any product that can be identified as “luxury” and not needed for survival, should it still be done regardless of cost?  People are afraid to say no to someone with an impairment, and in most cases no should never be said.  But in some cases, it’s a fair response and I think in our PC-focused society here in the States, it’s helping to enable an “entitled” feeling in some people with impairments, when common sense says they should not even be considering the use of such a product.

        This isn’t an attack against any such person of course, but simply the raising of the question: When is it enough?

        • http://post404.com/ Randall Arnold

          (I sometimes see the Disqus problem too.  It’s random for me and probably a theme bug)

          It seems you and I are definitely on opposite ends of this.  You ask “why?” while I’m asking “why not?”

          And I don’t ask that question in a “political correctness” mode.  In fact I may abhor PC as much as if not more than you.  IMO it’s phony, and often a deliberate attempt to distract people or diminish a real problem by substituting a straw man.  It’s a sometimes subtle evil.

          Instead, I approach usability and accessibility from an altruistic “just do the right thing” standpoint.  I approach this subject with the mindset of wanting to create a world where a totally blind person could get up in the morning and spend the day exactly as a sighted person.  Of course that’s not realistic, at least now, but that’s what I would *strive for* as a developer and designer and only retreat from that goal where I had to.

          As I wrote in the article, this is personal because I still run the risk of going completely lind.  Considering that has nothing whatsoever to do with political correctness– it’s self-preservation.  And personally, I don’t care about natural selection; if I go blind, I want to still have a viable life.  Yes, that’s completely selfish.  But my potential blindness doesn’t work against survival of the species– it’s the unfortunate result of an infection that lies dormant and could randomly come back to kick my ass at any time.  It could happen to ANYone, fit or otherwise.

          That thought, and other events in my life, make me highly empathetic and sympathetic toward people who face challenges doing things you and take for granted every day– and inspires me to lean toward “help them experience my world if they want” as opposed to “just let them suffer, sorry”.