What is Everybody Technology?

Robin Christopherson addresses an audience about technology

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet, will be speaking at RLSB’s forthcoming Everybody Technology event on 30 November. Here he lays out the argument for Everybody Technology and urges developers to design with ‘extreme users’ in mind.

Until quite recently, technology (gadgets and appliances from phones to fridges, from computers to cars) were designed for the 80% and no more. The 80% are those customers with working legs, arms, eyes and ears; customers that have no problems interacting with gadgets designed by people with 20-20 vision and fingers that work just fine. Thanks very much.

The 20% – those with an impairment of some kind, dyslexia, or age-related condition that affects dexterity and the ability to learn or remember – had to rely on very expensive specialist gadgets that were designed specially for the ‘old or disabled’ and often based upon outdated and less sophisticated tech.

Meanwhile something exciting was happening. A movement towards more inclusive tech was emerging, spearheaded by Apple and their mobile iDevices. Strange as it may seem for solely touch-screen devices to herald an age of more inclusive ‘Everybody Technology’, but it did.

What is Everybody Technology?

For a device to approach the golden goal of being truly inclusive it needs to embody several key elements.

It needs to be:

  • A mainstream device at mainstream prices, aimed at the broad customer base; it is not primarily designed for the niche disability or elderly markets
  • Providing the full range of functions expected of a mainstream device but with a wide choice of input and output methods (to cater for a wide range of differing abilities) that afford access to all, and not a sub-set, of those functions

Does a device such as an iPhone meet these criteria?

We would argue that it does.

It’s a mainstream product that has at its heart a brain (the operating system iOS6) that has been developed in such a way as to support a multitude of input and output methodologies – many of which are built-in out of the box.

We’ll start with a list of those options that come as standard:

  • Vision solutions: larger text , magnification and screen-reading (with Bluetooth support for a range of Braille displays and keyboards)
  • Hearing solutions: custom vibrations, flash-alerts, mono-audio and support for a range of Bluetooth digital hearing aids
  • Motor solutions: AssistiveTouch enabling multi-touch gestures to be assigned to custom single-finger (or mouth/headstick) gestures and support for other specialist headsets and switches
  • This built-in intelligence has made possible a huge range of third-party solutions that combine with the iPhone to make it a truly inclusive example of Everybody Technology. Apple didn’t have to build a device that included every last input/output method used by people with different disabilities – we aren’t asking that of mainstream device manufacturers – they only had to build in a few of them and make the rest work by providing the necessary ‘hooks’ (drivers and APIs).

As a result we see iDevices forming the heart of many more complex solution for users with really very severe and often multiple disabilities. But those users are still using an iPhone or iPad with all the power and price advantages of such a mainstream device, and have only had to buy relatively inexpensive specialist peripherals.

Add to this an app ecosystem that is based upon an accessible toolbox, and hence has resulted in huge choice for every user, and you have a platform that really delivers for a really diverse customer-base. I know the iPhone isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely pushing the boundaries and reaping the rewards as a result. Sales are soaring not only in the shops but in the vast bulk-contracts in the federal and education sectors in the US and elsewhere where there is a legal requirement to buy devices that are inclusive.

So this is the vision of Everybody Technology.

“How can I make products more inclusive?”

Work with disabled users and think of them as ‘extreme users’. Design for them and it will be supremely easy for your mainstream users.

Not all devices can be as smart as a smartphone of course. A can-opener doesn’t have an operating system but you can still give it the ‘extreme user’ treatment throughout the design process. A modern fridge may well have a touchscreen but is it reasonable to build in drivers for a digital hearing aid? Maybe not, but it’s important to ask yourself that question. By considering everybody you’ll consider the full set of possible input and output methods your customers use and decide which are impossible to include (for this product iteration at least).

One final point on the plethora of electronic devices we use every day – just as Google Glasses may well turn out to be a peripheral that links to an Android smartphone rather than being a full computer within a pair of specs, so semi-smart devices (such as microwaves, bathroom scales or blood-pressure monitors) can leverage the power of these all-pervasive smartphones to be the voicebox of a device that would otherwise be mute, or the remote control of a device that would otherwise be too fiddly to use.

If it’s too costly to put speech or voice recognition on every fridge, ATM or TV set-top box, then simply include the right ‘hooks’ to talk to devices (such as an iPhone) that already have those capabilities. A few pounds (or even pence) to include a Bluetooth chip and a tweak to the software to enable that device to talk to a smartphone (which already has that connectivity potential) and you open up a world of choice for disabled users who already have an inclusive device they have set up just the way they need it.

Design for the 100%

So don’t design for the 80% and throw some crumbs at the rest in the form of expensive, feature-poor, ‘specialist’ devices. Build in inclusion as much as you can, and link to inclusive devices where you can’t. Design for everybody by embracing the principle of Everybody Technology.

Robin is Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet.

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After Cambridge University, Robin worked as an IT instructor for the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and became a founding member of AbilityNet in 1998. Now globally acclaimed as a leading expert, AbilityNet specialises in accessibility auditing and disabled user testing, as well as designing attractive websites that are both accessible and easy to use by all.

Despite being blind, Robin uses technology very effectively using speech output to access computers, the internet, his iPhone and many other technologies to assist him in his work. He has a first-hand appreciation of the importance of good web design practice to accessibility.

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