For some, technology is a mild annoyance, an inconvenience that is grudgingly accepted. There are many others for whom many technologies are completely inaccessible. Some people cannot use many technologies that most of us take for granted. This may be due to disabilities, injuries or unusual working environments. Often, poorly designed hardware and software needlessly compounds the problem and often, hardware and software aids are not as helpful as they claim to be.
Standard interfaces are not sufficient
The standard human computer interface consists of a keyboard, mouse and monitor. For many people, this interface is not sufficient. Sometimes the standard setup can be improved using add-on devices and sometimes entirely new interfaces must be used.
Designing for the Visually Impaired
Visually impaired people will have difficulties with monitors and keyboards. The keyboard problem is relatively easy to fix. Many people, with practice, can touch type without having to look at the keyboard. All keyboards now have tactile key guides on the F and J keys (and the 5 key on the numeric pad) to help visually impaired people find the home keys.
There are several ways to help the visually impaired with monitors. First and most low-tech is to fit a large lens over the entire monitor. Alternatively a large monitor could be used. A more hi-tech solution would be hardware or software magnification of certain parts of the screen. Hardware cards that perform this task are expensive and dedicated software applications that do this are notoriously buggy and poorly integrated. It is best if this is handled by the graphical operating system. Microsoft operating systems currently have screen magnification support as well as other features aimed at the visually impaired such as mouse trails, high contrast and large type colour and font schemes.
For the totally blind none of these systems represent an adequate solution. Alternatives are speech synthesisers or braille terminals. Both of these have the problem of translating visual information to text. Modern operating systems are graphical and direct manipulation is the standard method of human computer interaction. Speech synthesisers are adequate for old fashioned command prompts and text based applications (for example word processors) but neither of these systems can adequately represent folders, mouse movement and so on. What's more, braille systems - while being natural to many blind users - are very expensive - typically more than the cost of a PC. Speech synthesisers can tend to be slow and use up a lot of system resources, even on modern machines. Once again the best solutions need to be tightly integrated with the operating system. Even Microsoft has some way to go before its systems are simple to use for seriously visually impaired users.
Another barrier to easy use of technology is when it is placed in an unusual environment. Often the user can be 'disabled' to some extent by their environment. One example would be a computer in a car garage. The typical user of this computer would be a mechanic. Take the computer out of the office and home and into the real world and it starts to suffer. A standard keyboard may get dirty and sticky and difficult to use. The mouse would suffer more as grease gets into its moving parts. This may make the mouse unusable. Many systems rely on the mouse and so would become unusable too. The technology must be tailored to its environment to be fully useful. In this case a specialist keyboard would be used with a flat keypad and wipe clean plastic protective cover. The mouse could be replaced with a trackpad or stylus. Alternatively the system could be rewritten so as not to need a mouse at all, relying only on the keyboard.
Design for Real People
The above examples illustrate a rather sad point about current design of technology: That systems are all too often not designed with real people in mind. They are designed for the ficticious 'Joe Normal' and often anyone not conforming to this ideal will have great trouble using the technology. The major players in the technology field are just now beginning to realise that designing for more general use is a good thing. Sadly however this is most likely due to increasingly strict government legislation rather than any genuine change of attitude.
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