Design choice is more than just about taste. It’s an accessibility issue.

This post was written as my contribution to Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD).

You can find out more from the GAAD website or searching the #GAAD hashtag.

The Day Job

I spend a lot of time dealing with the technicalities of making stuff work with Assistive Technology (AT). If I’m honest even more time in meetings dealing with the organisational politics surrounding it and giving talks on the technicalities whys and wherefores of making stuff work with screen readers, magnifiers and other ATs like Dragon and Texthelp. This is probably pretty familiar stuff to many of my readers and colleagues. It’s recognisably accessibility work and it’s work that I am proud to do.

The Second Job

However, recently I have been spending some spare time as a contributor to the Cognitive Accessibility Taskforce for W3C and this has caused me to reflect on my own needs and preferences for using technology. I’ve long been passionate about UX and usability and talked about the overlap between the disciplines but I’m currently reading a lot on cognitive load.

I have dyslexia and whilst I do make use of AT it isn’t my main way of interacting with technology. Often I am just using a smartphone tablet or laptop and interacting with apps and websites.

Poor working memory and difficulties with sequencing play a significant role in making life challenging. Both individually and collectively they reduce my ability to deal with and make sense of information – cognitive load – or in my case overload.

Up until about 18 months ago I was a pretty happy guy.

I liked my apps I loved my iPhone, iPad and my Nexus and Windows 7 felt comfortable and familiar.

Metro changed everything.

The new Microsoft UI that debuted with Windows phone 7 was certainly different. I wanted to like it but the more I used it the more I hated it. From the day glow tiles and unfinished words running off the screen to the flatness of it. It was just plain hard to use, downright confusing. I avoid using windows 8 touch screen UI for the same reasons.

iOS7 makes me want to cry.

It may well be the most accessible mobile OS in terms of inbuilt AT but it is a real step backwards for users with cognitive difficulties such as dyslexia.

Johnny Ive won his battle against the skeuomorphs and the resulting iOS 7 is flat skinny and by turns blinding glaring white with poor contrast and skinny fonts. The UI is confusing – and frequently pulls the rug from underneath you. You may have been bored with “lickable buttons” book binders and leather textures but at least I could make out when something was a button or required action.

Studies have shown that iOS7 places a higher cognitive load on users than it’s predecessor. I make more mistakes, recover from them more slowly and feel tired from the stress of the extra effort of using it.

7.1 has added the ability to reduce the glare and make the buttons more obvious, it’s an improvement but I still find it easier to use the unfashionable iOS6.

The App ecosystem exacerbates and amplifies the problem.

App developers and web designers are also following the trend so that their products have a consistent look and feel. Everywhere I look is going flat and skinny and my heart sinks every time I see an update.

I am not saying all flat design is bad.

Great flat design can be simple clean and satisfying to use but a lot of flat design feels abusive to me as a user and who wants to use an app or service that makes you feel stupid?

Look back to the POUR principles of WCAG 2.0

The POUR Principles are: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust . The W3C explain the principles here
If I can’t make out whether something is a button or cannot read stuff I can’t operate it as intended.

My plea.

Please do the stuff to make your product accessible to ATs and then think about the cognitive load you are placing on your users when you choose colour schemes and icon sets – what you think of of as the design is for me and millions of others like me an accessibility issue. If you really want to go with a certain look and feel – make it the default and offer user the option to customise it to meet their needs.

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Digital By Default

This week I spent a day and a half at the National Digital Conference (twitter hashtag #ND13).

It was interesting talking with civil servants, members of the third sector and businesses about their interests and efforts to growing digital engagement with the wider public.

This is part of a strategy called Digital by Default being led by the Government Digital Service (GDS). They put forward some compelling facts and figures on the benefits to individuals and society in general for their approach. They are responsible for the new UK government web site that recently won the Design of the Year Award.

Here are the GDS core principals:

A list of the ten Gov.uk design principles see text below.

1 Start with needs*
2 Do less
3 Design with data
4 Do the hard work to make it simple
5 Iterate. Then iterate again.
6 Build for inclusion
7 Understand context
8 Build digital services, not websites
9 Be consistent, not uniform
10 Make things open: it makes things better

The idea is to make services available primarily via the Internet. The web is the first point of call and the premise is that it will bring benefits for the user

We had some really interesting speakers on a range of topics from Martha Lane Fox, Lord Young, Phillip Blond and Emma Mulqueeny.

The First Major Topic Was Assisted Digital

This is what GDS say about Assisted Digital.

“The Assisted Digital team at GDS is working with departments to develop assisted digital support for digital services. This will give the 18% of UK adults who are offline access to digital by default services”

Read the Cabinet Office Assisted Digital Strategy

Assited Digital is NOT about accessibility the GDS believe that they have that covered in their strategy when they say “build for inclusion”.

And lets remember that digital accessibility only works if the users have the Assistive Technologies to interact with and the knowledge if how to use them.

Some of this Assisted Access of this will mean Digital By Proxy as the “Default” services are accessed on behalf of citizens who cannot access them unaided.

Another core strategy is to teach digital skills to those that currently don’t have them. A large contingent of this group is made up of people with disabilities and the older population. Many of these people are effectively socially excluded. The idea is that they get help right now but they will be encouraged to become more and more digitally independent.

The thing that struck me was that whilst there was a lot of talk about the huge benefits of getting people online, how much money people will save, how it empowers consumers and makes access to government services and information easier and more streamlined but little thought on the other effects it might have.

To me it seems like we are missing a few pieces of the jigsaw:

We don’t routinely provide Assistive Technology to all citizens that need it.
Grant provision for AT whilst excellent in Higher Education and available in the workplace is missing for the wider population on disability benefits.

The Access to Work scheme is a net contributor to the treasury. Other Government schemes such as Motability have given many people much greater independence, so why not have a targeted scheme for access technologies along similar lines.
Without the AT and the skills to use it there’s a lot of wasted effort making stuff accessible.

Furthermore many of those that currently use face to face analogue services now value the human interaction – the visit to the Post Office or Council office might be the only human contact they have. Phillip Blond made an interesting point – isolation and loneliness has a more immediate detrimental effect than smoking.

I applaud much of what the government digital strategy is attempting but I will leave you with these questions:

If all we go digital does it not bring it’s own perils?

Is it not like squeezing a balloon – with actions (the stated benefits) in one direction causing reactions (challenges) in another direction?

Footnote

I’m a naturalised digital citizen – I’m connected all of my waking hours and my digital presence is awake even when I am not. I have many connections and virtual interactions. I can work from anywhere and yet I chose to brave the rush hour crush. Why do I do this?

There is something valuable about proximity and the spontaneity of old fashioned analogue contact. If all our transactions go digital the. We need to find another and better way of engaging with the socially excluded.

Hands squeeze a balloon and it bulges outwards.

Tribal warfare

John’s Nice Idea

Long standing accessibility advocate John Foliot often refers to people working in the accessibility world as members of the Tribe – itinerant, dispersed and yet connected with some commonality of purpose. John has a very positive outlook and it is one that I admire; he advocates finding solutions rather than pointing out problems, being a fireman taking action to prevent fires rather than a policeman arresting villains…

I admire all of this and subscribe wholeheartedly to this approach.

But it is not reflective of the reality in which we currently live and work.

What we actually have is a load of different tribes

Rather than harmony we have tribal warfare.

Tribes at warLet me give some context to my comments:

I recently attended a meeting of the eAccessibility forum at the Department for Culture Media And Sport (DCMS). It was intended as an opportunity to contribute to future legislation and policy to further digital inclusion for people with disabilities.

The session to explore the challenges and opportunities for accessibility presented by the rapidly changing technology landscape and to share ideas and potential solutions quickly fell apart.

One of the keynote speakers was harangued for being too personal despite advocating a broad brush pan disability approach.  She was advocating a rational, realistic and inclusive approach to the issues at hand.

The first person to stand up and criticise professed to have broadly the same aims as the speaker but attacked all the same only to get a smattering of applause.

For nearly two hours most of what I saw was people pushing their own personal agendas, complaining about this or that failing. Bemoaning that access was not 100% perfect. Wilfully misunderstanding and dismissing or ignoring each other.

It was like listening to a room full of broken records. The voices of the rational and reasonable (yes there were some there) drowned out in the clamouring.

Fragments of broken records

What happened to the concept of doing things for the greater good?

Or contributing for the benefit of all?

There was a fundamental lack of respect in the room which saddened me. Not from everyone but from enough to make the meeting unworkable as a useful forum.

Instead of thinking about the digital landscape in 5, 10 and 20 years time and what benefit we might bring to all people were fixated with their pet topics or asking for the impossible.

The one good idea of the whole event was tax breaks for accessibility.

This has some potential as a carrot to encourage businesses to do more.  We have the legislative sticks but businesses always look at the bottom line and incentives can and do make a difference.

He Who Shouts Loudest

After the event I sat mulling things over as to why people had behaved in such a way.  It occurred to me that this behaviour was not natural but had been adopted and learned.

Man with a megaphone

Advocates from disability groups had seen people have a measure of success by being vocal and forceful. So they assumed that this was the most effective approach to break down the barricades.

What this approach fails to recognise is that the war is over.

There may still be a lot to do but there is legislation in place and we were sitting in a government building being consulted and this is how people behaved…

It is no wonder legislators and companies shy away from us if we behave like terrorists.  Even the IRA recognised that the best way forward was to negotiate and compromise. Now one of their former number is the Second Minister in Northern Ireland.  They may not have everything they want yet and they may never but working peacefully and collaboratively has achieved more than all of the bombing.

What works for one group of users may not for another, the needs of businesses to pay their owners and staff and governments to run their countries mean that there will be no accessibility promised land.

100% accessibility of 100% of the web and Media for 100% of all the disability groups is a pipe dream but…

We can still make things a lot better

This is why we need to lay down the megaphones we use as weapons and start thinking about a pragmatic inclusive approach to technology and accessibility.  Think about what the challenges are for business and align with them to achieve far more for a wider group of people than ever before.

Kew Gardens Tropical Extraveganza

Deep purple orchidsYesterday I was lucky enough to visit Kew Gardens to see the Tropical Extraveganza exhibition.20120220-111935.jpg

The displays of tropical flowers and orchids were quite simply beyond anything I have ever seen anywhere.

I went a bit snap happy with my iPhone camera and thought that I would share some of these pictures.20120220-112004.jpg

If you get a chance to visit Kew Gardens in the next couple of weeks I strongly recommend that you take the opportunity.

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These Vandas are very fleshy and opulent.  I have some similar purple ones at home but have never seen colours like the orange and yellow ones below.20120220-112056.jpg

Vandas are epiphites something I did not appreciate when I first had one so I watered it to death.  You can see the green roots on these plants also photosynthesise.

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 I wish I had the space to hang a display of plants like this.20120220-112225.jpg

This orchid below reminds me a bit of a narcissus.20120220-112156.jpg

 

As you enter the greenhouse you are confronted with towering displays of orchids.A pillar of orchid blooms

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But its not just orchids that were on show there was a profusion of other plants too. 

  Floating flora20120220-112344.jpg

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Each Year I Spend A little Less Time At BETT

For the best part of a decade the coming of a new year meant only one thing work wise: the BETT trade show for education technology.

It was by far the most significant marketing event in the company’s year and you could be guaranteed to find all of the major players in assistive technologies gathered at the show. It marked an opportunity to catch up with industry colleagues, have meetings with people that you had been meaning to have since last BETT and a chance to gossip and size up the competition. Not only that but you would also be able to find all sorts of exciting gadgets and interesting ideas for making education more engaging and fun.

Or at least it used to be like that. Certainly during the last couple of years of working at iansyst Ltd we were questioning the value of spending such a large slice of our yearly budget on this one show. Building stands and coordinating marketing materials, personnel and the attendant travel and hotels all costs significant amounts of money. It is very difficult to track whether or not the investment in such trade shows is really worthwhile. But the Assistive Technology industry keeps coming back year after year.

This January was the second time that I had attended BETT as a visitor and not as an exhibitor. I had made two short visits the previous January to catch up with former colleagues and has a nose around to see what was new. The relief of not having to man the stand was palpable, I could freely wander around and do my business as I chose.

However this year I spent a total of 2 1/2 hours at the biggest education technology show in the world. In fact I probably spent half an hour too long.

Why is that?

Aside from catching up with colleagues there was very little innovation on show. Yes there were new versions of most of the familiar assistive technology software, yes Microsoft and all the big technology players had flashy stands and Google was notable for the increased presence but there was very little of interest.

Most of my colleagues were too flustered or tired to be able to have a sensible conversation, and finding somewhere comfortable to have that conversation was nigh on impossible. The real innovation is elsewhere, if you want to understand what really ignites interest in young learners and what the really important technology trends are you should not be going to BETT.

Why not check out events that really focus on innovation and engagement in the technologies that will be shaping our lives in the coming decades? Next year I have resolved not to go to BETT and spend the time at more focused events like Learning without Frontiers and the fantastic mobile conference run every November by Tomi Ahonen and Ajit Joakar.

The BETT show like the CES show in America has seen its glory days in years gone by, whilst these shows are still very large they are growing less significant year by year. CES used to be the most important trade show in the electronics world every year, it has been supplanted by Mobile World Congress. Everything is mobile, everything is personal and these old shows don’t reflect that.

Mobile Money It’s not Just Tomi Ahonen Who Says it’s Perfect

Last week I went to a fantastic conference on mobile run by the University of Oxford.

Co-hosts for the day were Ajit Jaokar and Tomi Ahonen.

There were tonnes of great speakers including Peter Paul Koch who runs Quirks Mode – talking about the importance of having good relations with webdevelopers.

Not only did we hear about all sorts of fantastic mobile apps, smart cities of the near future and how we might use white-space spectrum to enable smart devices but one of the recurring themes was how your mobile phone will soon replace your wallet.

Mobile money is not just convenient for you it is potentially very exciting for banks, marketers and all sorts of other entrepreneurial people.  Currently there is a mad dash to see who will own this space with Google Wallet being one of the prime contenders.

Connecting your identity with your wallet and knowing your location will allow companies to accurately target you with personalised offers that really will consign Groupon to the spam bin. Dave Birch went even further to say that beyond Mobile Money identity is the next commodity.

Highlight of the day and was Tomi enthusing about his favourite subject. Here is the video sorry there is only 9 1/2 minutes but that was all i could take in one go on my phone.