New universal symbol for communication access

The Communication Access symbol is good thinking. Disability services organisation, Scope led the development of the new Communication Access symbol (see right) which lets you recognise businesses and facilities providing access for people with a disability.

You get the right to display the Communication Access symbol by completing a Communication Accessibility Assessment and by being ready to work with people with communication disabilities.

I believe the symbol is an important aid to communication for two reasons: one is practical (for people with a communication disability) and another is ethical(for everybody).

The practical reason is simple. Businesses and services connect quickly and easily with people with special communication needs. It saves time, energy and money. It builds trust. It also sets the standard and, let’s assume for the moment, best practice for public interaction and support for disabled communicators.

(I’m looking forward to more detail on how it will be applied to web communications.)

Everybody’s problem

The ethical reason is an issue for us all. Stated simply:

Unless we understand each other, and understand each other as comprehensible, we won’t treat each other with the proper respect.

We’ll only solve our communication problems if we see them as human problems in the context of a particular situation – disability.

We can’t solve these problems if we see them as merely “disability problems”; they come about when we see “them” (disabled communicators) as being somehow unlike “us” (able communicators). It’s sloppy thinking and it’s not good enough.

The Communication Access symbol is one step in addressing everybody’s communication problems.

What hospitals, airports & cities can learn from websites

Three authors from such diverse professions as healthcare and urban design draw on ideas that have been closely associated with, and further developed in, the field of website design: service design, usability, user experience and human-centred design.

Customer experience in hospital

What would hospitals be like if they were run by Disney? This fascinating thought experiment has occupied the mind of Fred Lee, a former hospital executive who consulted on healthcare with Disney. In this ABC podcast interview external link icon Fred explains Disney’s view on customer experience (the experiences a customer has with goods or services providers). And here’s more about his book, If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9 ½ Things You Would Do Differently external link icon.

Usability saves time at airports

 Last year over five billion people travelled by air, each one of these people arrived at the airport and made their way through the necessary stages of waiting; check-in, security, customs, boarding. On average, each passenger will have spent 42 minutes doing nothing but waiting. Not eating or reading or relaxing, just waiting.

Think about how much better the world would be if we could save just 3 minutes of waiting at airports. Find out how PhD student Anna Harrison uses ideas on human-centred design to analyse and redefine existing approaches to check-in and boarding: Airports – where you go to wait external link icon.

Urban design as service design

How did the data on cholera in 19th century London affect the design of its infrastructure? These days masses of phone data are collected as we move through urban environments. How can this be used to design better cities?
In this ABC interview external link icon, Urban Infomatics Design Lead at Arup Michelle Tabet  explains how data is being used to design successful urban projects. Find out more about Michelle’s design ideas: Urban design is service design external link icon.

“There’s no humanity in technology”

Ismail GulIsmail Gul is a Technology Researcher at Enabled Gaming and a long-time, avid consumer of recreational and communication technology. Ismail (Izzy) is a neighbour and he shared his thoughts on computer accessibility with me over a Turkish coffee one recent afternoon.

Izzy is an optimistic, passionate proponent of the computer’s potential to connect and make people’s lives better. It’s a testament to his character that he remains a ‘technology optimist’ – especially since the makers of computers, operating systems, applications, games, mobile devices and music players treat him so badly, so often.

Izzy has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA external link icon). “When the brain sends the signal for the muscle to move, the nerves don’t receive it. Over time, the muscles weaken from disuse,” he explains. Bottom-lip joysticks control his motorised wheelchair, and the mouse pointer on his desktop computer and smartphone.

For Izzy the best applications and websites use onscreen keyboards, selecting keys with a mouse pointer. Mouse control is better for games, though this is rare. He’s also had some luck with voice control (more later).

Accessibility is getting worse

I ask Izzy about his experiences accessing websites, applications and, his main love, games. He reckons, “accessibility is getting worse,” rather than better.

Izzy easily reels off several frustrating examples. He cites a recent update to the Facebook chat interface. He says prior to the change,

It was easier when I could open the chat interface in a separate window because I could position it wherever I want. Since the update, a chat window just pops up at the bottom and stays there. You cannot move it. When chatting with multiple people it’s even worse because then you have heaps of little chat windows popping up at the bottom.

“It’s the most used website in the world and with an upgrade that’s meant to make it better,” Izzy laments, chat has become harder.

Another example is a trick that’s become a trend: moused-over images expand and ‘come forward’. Looks really cool… except when your mouse pointer strays over an image sitting (usually) above the keyboard – the image sits over and in front of the keyboard preventing mouse cursor clicks on the keys it is masking.

These issues aren’t trivial or limited to outside Australia. According to ABS data there are 4 million Australians with a reported disability external link iconand just over half access the internet mostly for general browsing, email and chat external link icon.

The ideal user interface

Why don’t companies check before making these changes? “Money… it’s expensive and the cost is jacked up when you use the term disability,” Izzy says without rancour. “Ignorance of muscular disability issues as well,” he adds.

I ask Izzy what he does when he encounters these problems. He replies wryly, “I put up with it and find workarounds… sometimes people respond when I email them, usually they don’t.”

The best example of an accessible game is Guild Wars part I (he hasn’t played part II yet). Unlike most online games, Guild Wars I can be controlled with a mouse (apart from naming characters) and allows you to minimise, maximise or close all of its windows.

The few good experiences aside, Izzy says there are worrying trends driving resources and innovation away from accessible technology: more touch screen-based devices and a lack of open source solutions (“Linux is like a desert”) For Izzy. these trends are exacerbated by “everything moving to the web and streaming”.

One promising advance is voice-controlled software. Izzy’s tried Game Commander, Tazti and Voice Attack. Each has its pros and cons and are still works in progress.

To Izzy’s mind, there’s no single solution, “the ideal user interface is a combination of voice, mouse, onscreen keyboard and eye tracking.” After a pause he adds, “but this is expensive.”

An amazing world opened up

A mobile smartphone is a recent accessibility success story. Izzy researched smartphones for a year before settling on Google’s Nexus. I’d have loved to have been at the Broadmeadows phone shop when he arrived to test it and found himself instructing shop assistants on the finer points of its use.

The Google Nexus’ main advantage is that it doesn’t have hardware buttons like other Android phones. This means it connects to his wheelchair and can be mouse-controlled. Being able to keep up with family and friends while he’s out of the house has improved his quality of life. As Izzy puts it: “an amazing world opened up to me.”

This leads us to the topic of embedding accessibility into the design of software and online services. Izzy’s advice for designers is “Keep it Simple, Sweetheart”:

Designers need to have empathy for… be mindful of people in my situation… Take every scenario into account and test, test, test. Software development companies should include people with disabilities as part of their development teams when testing software.

Content chaos

Web content doesn’t escape Izzy’s laser-sharp analysis, either. If early websites looked crappy, at least they were simple. “I visit websites and there’s links everywhere,” Izzy rues, “I go to a news website and it’s just chaos,” he says.

I agree. Not for a return to the early days of the web, but as a reminder always to create simple usable sites for everyone. As someone said, “I’m not interested in the simplicity on this side of complexity. I’m only interested in simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Sit down and just ask

How will making the web more accessible also make it usable for everyone? Developers and designers should start by asking questions. Izzy says,

Some developers might be afraid to ask questions… they should be afraid NOT to ask questions.

When Izzy says, “there’s no humanity in technology,” it’s not trite or abstract. It’s a commonsense reminder to design for inclusion.

I feel proud and a little despondent to report that after we spoke, Izzy emailed me: “I’ve never really had anyone sit down and just ask me what my problems with technology are 🙂 ”


**Thanks Izzy for your generosity both in answering my questions and reading over this post. Find out more about Izzy on SBS Insight episode: Breaking Point Tuesday, 4 Sep 12 external link icon (start at 26’30”).

Three good reads

  • You know those articles you keep coming back to? This is one. In internet time it’s an oldy, but a goody. Writing in Smashing Magazine, user experience expert, Louis Rosenfeld explains why web projects fail and how to fix them. (Hint: manage visitor tasks.) Stop Redesigning And Start Tuning Your Site Instead
  • A lot of what’s written about search engine optimisation (SEO) is blarney. Age journalist, George Wright, attempts to unblarney it. What drives people to your website isn’t tricks- rather a focus on structure, content and understanding the words your site visitors use. Taking the snake oil out of SEO
  • Ouch. Damning usability assessment of Microsoft’s new operating system from user interface (UI) researcher, Jakob Nielsen. He writes: “Windows 8 encompasses two UI styles within one product. Windows 8 on mobile devices and tablets is akin to Dr. Jekyll: a tortured soul hoping for redemption. On a regular PC, Windows 8 is Mr. Hyde: a monster that terrorizes poor office workers and strangles their productivity.”  Windows 8 — Disappointing Usability for Both Novice and Power Users

Steve Jobs Read this


Designing services for customers: lessons from a 6 year old egg delivery boy

He likes money, my 6 year old son Romy. Or, at least the potential for money to awesome-ise his life. He soon realised his parents weren’t just going to give it to him. Now he’s discovering his inner entrepreneur.

Romy’s first foray into the world of business is a plan for local home egg delivery. Helping him design his services got me wondering:

how does someone who’s never read a business book or had advice, go about designing their services?

It’s not every day you have such a novice subject. Before I reflect on his service design, let’s look at Romy’s business proposal.

Hatching a business

Romy’s idea is good one: home-grown eggs delivered directly to neighbours. The goal is extra pocket money. It’s achievable because the model is part of our core business as we have experience with chooks and, broody hens aside, production will be mostly trouble-free. Also, it has low overheads, consistent customers, and good personnel in the form of an energetic delivery boy.

Chicken feed

That’s the idea, the goal and the model. What should Romy do next?

  • decide how many extra ‘layers’ he’ll need
  • how much grain
  • how and when to deliver the goods

These were Romy’s main concerns. His natural inclination was to solve production and service problems. In fact, he was ready to go out and buy some new chooks (ie. have me do it). Romy was interested in how it was going to work for him – which is valid but his first order hadn’t come in yet. He needed to get out and talk to some people.

Crack the egg

You may be thinking: “he’s only 6, he can’t be expected to think about anyone else, let alone potential customers.” Six year olds are narcissists I grant you. But his reaction tells us something about what’s at the top of our minds when we design services. Maybe many of us haven’t outgrown our inner 6 year old. The service design mindset begins by asking questions.

Romy and I started by brainstorming some questions:

  • are you interested in getting an egg delivery?
  • do you know anyone else who may be interested?
  • how many eggs would you like – 6 to 12?
  • how much would you spend per egg – 40c to 55c?
  • when would you like eggs delivered – Friday or Saturday?

With the results of this survey Romy can start servicing his customers. In a sense, his business didn’t exist until he asks those questions. Although these questions get you into the right service design mindset, they’re really just basic marketing. The next step is to bake the souffle; to deliver better customer experiences.

Baking the ‘customer experience’ souffle

Service design’s purpose is to make your customers’ experiences better. How your customers perceive their every interaction with your services is their customer experience. Romy can’t rest on his laurels – he has to build ‘asking questions’ into his business and provide his (profitable) customers the information they want. Romy needs to ask them about their egg delivery problems and priorities.

For example, the next survey could rank their concerns and he could provide a newsletter to address the main ones, such as:

  • report problems
  • get recipes
  • pay for eggs
  • change the number of eggs delivered
  • change the day eggs are delivered
  • have a break from ordering
  • give feedback
  • return egg cartons

Now that Romy has taken the first step in designing his services he can start to improve those services incrementally by focusing on his customers’ experiences.

So wish him well for the ongoing success of his business endeavour… you never know, you may work for him one day.