Category Archives: accessibility

ATM Accessibility (not)

I’m catching up on some older topics I never blogged about. This is one of my favorites.

The Consumerist posted a video of a blind user interacting with an ATM. As they said, “Overall, it seems like whoever designed the ATM didn’t ask a blind person to try it out first.”

Quotes from the video:
(Re: finding the headphone jack) “It was camoflagued, I swear it was camoflagued.”

Then the voice instructs him to press Enter on the keypad and pauses. THEN it describes the location of the enter key on the keypad.

Little Printer Concept

In the “why didn’t I think of this!” department, we have the Little Printer Concept by Berg.  It basically seems like a cash register thermal printer (in much nicer packaging) that sits in your home and prints messages, puzzles, etc.  

I could see this being very useful for older consumers who are resistant to technology.  Imagine printing medication instructions or doctor appointment reminders or any reminder.  Another use might be adult children using it to send their parents messages that they can rip and read anywhere.

I love the simplicity of the design and the fact that you can take the output anywhere you want (unlike a WIFI-digital picture frame or other “high tech” solution).  I really hope this product comes to market.  The video is definitely worth a look.

Hello Little Printer, available 2012 from BERG on Vimeo.

Speedometer Design

This page contains an interesting inventory of past speedometer designs from Chevrolet.  Quite a variety!  Is usability getting better or worse?

I like it when the design works such that the prevailing speed limit (e.g., 60 MPH) lets the needle be oriented in a cardinal direction (pointed up or left) like the one below:

(via Kottke)

Crowdsourced Usability III: Skype

The new Skype client for Mac has received some very loud complaints about the redesign mostly centered on usability.  Skype has heard the cries:

We want you to create the chat style for an upcoming version of Skype for Mac that will be enjoyed by millions of people around the world. We’ve put a template together containing everything that you’ll need to get started and build something wonderful.

The competition will run over three stages, each lasting three weeks. Two winners will be selected at the end of each stage: a judges’ choice winner that will be selected by our panel and a people’s choice winner, as voted for by Skype users. These six winners will go forward as finalists for the grand prize.

To make it easier, Skype is providing the template files (html, css) and a simulator that you can use:

Why not flex your human factors and usability muscles and give it a try?  They are offering some great prizes to the winners too!

Designer of movie UIs to design real UIs

We’ve discussed Mark Coleran before with his fantastical work with those fake user interfaces you see in movies (see movie below).   According to this Fast Company blog post he will have a hand in designing real interfaces.

But Coleran doesn’t just throw out the rule books on user experience and “human interface guidelines.” In fact, because many of his clients know his movie work, he spends a lot of time talking them out of doing something like Children of Men or The Bourne Ultimatum. “One of my biggest frustations is when people will say, ‘We have these specifications and requirements, now execute it just like we saw in the movie,'” he says. “What they don’t realize is that the requirements for those movie FUIs were completely unlike the ones that they’re dealing with. In a movie, you see an interface for at most a couple of seconds. In real life, every design decision has a consequence, and it doesn’t go away. It’s there day in and day out. Those human interface guidelines are there for very good reasons.”

Coleran Reel 2008.06 HD from Mark Coleran on Vimeo.

Designing Displays for Older Adults: Chapter 4 Cognition (excerpt)

Below is an excerpt of Chapter 4 from our book.  The book is available where fine books are sold or directly from our publisher CRC Press.  Until January 31, 2011, you can get 20% off the cover price when you purchase directly from CRC Press using this link and this code: 810DE.

Price: $69.95, Cat. #: K10089, ISBN: 9781439801390, ISBN 10: 1439801398

Chapter Contents (excerpt is bolded below)

4. Cognition
4.1 How Cognition Changes With Age
4.1.1 Fluid Abilities Perceptual Speed Working Memory Capacity Environmental Support Attention Reasoning Ability Spatial Ability Interim Summary of Fluid Abilities
4.1.2 Crystallized Knowledge Verbal Ability Knowledge and Experience Mental Models Interim Summary of Crystallized Intelligence
4.2 In Practice: Organization of Information
4.4.1 Page Navigation vs. Browser Navigation
4.4.2 Previous Knowledge and Browsing/Searching for Information
4.3 General Design Guidelines
4.4 Suggested Readings Reasoning Ability

Reasoning ability is the ability to tackle and understand novel situations. It is the ability that one uses when faced with a new television remote control, visits an unfamiliar website, or tries out a new computer application without reading the manual. Psychologists measure reasoning ability using abstract tests that require test takers to determine logical sequences in patterns. Figure 4.7 illustrates a sample item from such test. The task is to examine the figures on the test to discover the rule that governs the sequence of shapes and then select the correct shape in the sequence. The abstractness of the test is deliberate so that factors such as cultural background or language skill will not interfere with the results.

Figure 4.8 Reasoning ability

The link between performance on such tests and performance in a novel interface may seem distant, but they do share a common mental ability. When users pick up a new mobile phone or try to use a ticket kiosk in a foreign train station they are carrying out mental processing similar to answering the reasoning test: examining the options on the screen and then trying out different options to discover the next logical step. Unfortunately pure reasoning ability (as best as psychologists can measure it) also shows decline with aging with declines starting as early as age twenty (Figure 4.8).

Generally, making displays easier to use involve reducing the level of uncertainty about what to do next in the task so that reasoning ability is less of a factor in success. This could mean being more specific about the purpose of each task step and the consequences of actions as well as informing the user of their overall progress (for example, making explicit the number of steps remaining). Using icons that are less abstract and more representative of their function or task can also reduce the level of uncertainty.

However, it is rare to encounter everyday situations where one has no prior knowledge or experience and pure abstract reasoning is required. Instead, users usually always bring some amount of information or experience to these situations and use their prior knowledge to gauge expectations and guide behavior. This “mental set” is a particular way in which people approach and solve problems that is informed by prior experience or knowledge (everyday intelligence or cognition). This is why creating displays that act in ways users expect will reduce the need for reasoning ability. Spatial Ability

Spatial ability helps a person mentally manipulate location-based representations of the world.  This ability is important for reading a map of an unfamiliar city or trying to orient oneself by using the navigation system in a vehicle car.  In these kinds of tasks, users transform, rotate, and manipulate the physical environment in their head.  People also need spatial ability when they create or manipulate mental models.  A mental model is a mental representation of a physical system—a map of sorts.  For example, some people have mental maps of the layout of their childhood home or neighborhood.  The mental map allows them to navigate the area quickly and may even facilitate the discovery and usage of “shortcuts” that speed navigation.  In one test for spatial ability, the cube comparison test, the respondent has to decide whether the two cubes shown represent the same cube, but sitting on another face, or a completely different cube.  Arriving at an answer quickly depends on the respondent’s spatial abilities.

Researchers have found that spatial ability is critical in the use of some kinds of computerized interfaces and tasks such as browsing the Web.  For example, imagine the situation where a user browses a deep hierarchy (e.g., the online store).  At a certain point, the user needs a mental model or map of the system so they know where they have been.  The presence of the map allows users to more easily navigate the information hierarchy because it precludes the need for the user to create their own mental versions, but such a map is harder to create for older users.

Designing Displays for Older Adults: Chapter 3 Hearing (excerpt)

Below is an excerpt of Chapter 3 from our book.  You can read an excerpt of chapter 1 here. You can also enter to win one of two copies.  The book is available where fine books are sold or directly from our publisher CRC Press.  Until January 31, 2011, you can get 20% off the cover price when you purchase directly from CRC Press using this link and this code: 810DE.

Price: $69.95, Cat. #: K10089, ISBN: 9781439801390, ISBN 10: 1439801398

Chapter Contents (excerpt is section 3.8)

3. Hearing
3.1 How Hearing Changes With Age
3.1.1 Pitch Perception
3.1.2 Loudness
3.1.3 Sound Localization
3.1.4 Sound Compression
3.1.5 Mp3s, Cell Phones and Other Compressed Audio
3.1.6 Background Noise
3.2 Interim Summary
3.3 Accessibility Aids
3.3.1 Hearing Aids
3.3.2 Telephony Services
3.4 Interim Summary
3.5 Human Language
3.5.1 Prosody
3.5.2 Speech Rate
3.5.3 Environmental Support
3.6 Interim Summary
3.7 Designing Audio Displays
3.7.1 Voice
3.7.2 Context
3.7.3 Passive Voice
3.7.4 Prompts
3.7.5 Number and Order of Options
3.7.6 Alerts
3.8 In Practice: The Auditory Interface
3.9 General Design Guidelines
3.10 Suggested Readings

3.8 In Practice: The Auditory Interface

The textual representation of the menu shown in Figure 3.7 appears to be a very simple menu, certainly more simple than some of the nine-option menus some companies offer.  However, this menu becomes deceptively complex in an audio format.  Remember, the listener cannot glance back to any part of the menu that he or she misses, and must hold each option in memory while comparing every new option to find the “best” selection to complete the task.

In this menu the user is greeted, and offered a positive message.  What follows should be either an instruction with how to proceed in the system or the most common choice.  Here, the user is directed for a very particular activity – a loan advance (and probably not the most common option chosen) – to visit a website.  The wording of this information is lengthy and confusing and there is little information on how to access the website or what one should do with no internet access options.  This first option sets up confusion and delays the understanding of subsequent options and commands.  However an audio menu cannot be paused to let the user mentally catch up.

The next information is a command to choose an option; however this is not directly followed by options.  Instead, the listener is informed about their privacy rights.  This is another interruption in user expectancies for the system.  This is followed by a very typical menu of choices organized in a way that is useful to the bank.

However, how a bank organizes choices (by departments or their computer system) is probably not how a user organizes them.  These general categories defined by the bank are :  User Account, Salary Advance, Loans, Mortgages, and Other.  If it is true that users think of their mortgage as being separate from a “loan,” then it would make sense to list the part (mortgage) before the whole (loans) to keep users who think of their mortgage as a loan from choosing “loans” before they hear the mortgage option.

A more useful order would be to group the portions of this menu into categories: rhetorical information, instruction, and responsive information.  All rhetorical information (welcome, thanks, privacy, etc.) belongs up front.  Be cautious, however, as lengthy rhetorical information can produce inattention in the user, and they may tune out for the instruction and responses.

The following steps constitute one example of a re-design and testing plan.

  • Step 1: Make a list of all options currently offered or desired in the phone system
  • Step 2: Examine previous phone system data and select the 4 most commonly chosen options
  • Step 3: Create representative tasks for most common options and for least common options
  • Step 4: Recruit older users and perform a card sort with all options. Have users write the expected functions under each option. What kind of functions and information do they expect to find under “Account Options?”
  • Step 5: Compare the number of groups and options within each group to the 4 most commonly chosen options
  • Step 6: Create new interface with top 4 options, with user-defined functions under each option.  Include other top level options under “Other”

Another design recommendation is to include natural language triggered by user responses.  For example, if a user presses 3 or says “Loans,” the response from the system could be “Ok, you said loans, right? Let me get that.” (The system should listen for a “no” at this time).  This allows the user time to think and provides environmental support by reminding the user of the next step.  This is desirable despite the time it adds.

Figure 3.8 Redesign of the telephone menu system

The re-designed menu in Figure 3.8 shows significant improvements over the first system.  This menu offers more options (7), but they are presented in a manageable way.  First, the menu offers voice response and monitors for response during presentation of the options.  If the system thought the user said “loans,” it replies with “That was loans, right?” If the user then says “no,” the system repeats the original menu with a natural language introduction.  “Ok, let me say the options again.  Insurance,….” The system offers an explanation for its actions that prepares the user for a response (and prepares them for the result of their response,) such as “I’ll need to ask you a few questions so I can transfer your call.”

Second, notice that the menu changes based on non-response.  Rather than repeating the same options that produced no response from the user, the interface tries different tactics.  If no voice responses occur, the system offers button press options, but does not clutter the initial interface with these less natural inputs.  Last, notice how the options with button presses change as they progress down the line: the first two options include extra information: “You can say ‘new account’ or press 1.  Quotes press 2.” Then the reminders to say or press disappear, as the user is only interested in the options.  This is a nice implementation of menu simplification via natural language and a good example of how to move from overall context to list format.

The benefits of such a menu are many and extend beyond the hearing chapter of this book.  Such improvements are helpful for working memory, language comprehension, and decision making as discussed in Chapter 4.

Online Map Readability: A Comparison

Justin O’Beirne presents an extremely thorough and interesting analysis of why Google Maps appear more readable than its competitors. I’ve noticed this as well. It’s one of the major reasons I still prefer Google Maps despite some very compelling features of Bing and Yahoo maps.

One visual trick that Google applies to maps is a localized de-cluttering around major cities.

This is made much more obvious when we view city labels by themselves:

Redesigning the airline boarding pass

Designer Tyler Thompson gets frustrated with boarding passes and attempts to redesign them.  I recently had a very similar experience with a boarding pass: my first flight was delayed and my connecting flight was taking off in minutes.  As I sprinted through the airport I glanced at my boarding pass only to stop dead in my tracks as I had to devote all my attention to examining it for useful information (I missed my flight).

Old boarding pass
Mock up
Mock up

Almost Here: Designing Displays for Older Adults

After a long process and over a year of work, Anne’s and my book on user interface design for older adults is almost available!  The cover of our book has been finalized (shown below).  The book will be released September 21st, 2010 and will be available where fine books are sold or directly from our publisher CRC Press.

Price: $69.95, Cat. #: K10089, ISBN: 9781439801390, ISBN 10: 1439801398, Publication Date: September 21, 2010, Number of Pages: 232

We’ll give away a few copies of our book and in a future post provide an excerpt when we get permission.  Unfortunately, the book is not scheduled to be available in electronic format but we hope that will change. An ebook will also be available (thanks Peg!).

Here is our description of the book:


  • Contains state-of-the-art aging research written in an accessible format
  • Includes four chapters of worked examples that put design suggestions into practice
  • Focuses on designing for the aging population
  • Explores the “hows” and “whys” of designing for an aging population


A distillation of decades of published research, this book is a primer on age-related changes in cognition, perception, and behavior organized into meaningful principles that improve understanding. It explores the complex set of mental and physical changes that occur during aging and that can affect technology acceptance, adoption, interaction, safety, and satisfaction. The authors apply these theories in real design exercises and include specific guidelines for display examples to bridge theory and practice. It opens the way for designing with an understanding of these changes that results in better products and systems for users in all life stages.