Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Designing for Inclusiveness

As part of some background research into the use of mobile devices in education, this morning I was reading a book called "design meets disability". The lack of capitalization is how the title is written. The author is Graham Pullin, publisher is MIT Press (2009).

There is a chapter that I found disturbing and I'm processing it aloud here. The chapter is called "expression meets information". The author makes several claims, which I paraphrase (hopefully I have not inadvertently mangled his intent - if so the fault is mine):

  • The design of assistive devices for disabled people is often focused on the technology and coming up with a "one size fits all" device.
  • Mainstream culture on the other hand now demands flexibility and customizability in electronic devices.
  • Notions of the individual self, culture, and other factors are not sufficiently addressed in the design of assistive devices.
  • Using assistive devices to communicate as *individuals* - which the mainstream community takes for granted (facial expression, tone of voice, body posture, choice of word and gesture) is not integrated into design as a primary requirement. Perhaps at all.
  • The creation of assistive devices is or should be a very interdisciplinary activity: intercultural communications and diversity, attitudes, qualitative design methods, ethnography, computer science, engineering, and others.
One of Pullin's main points seems to be that while we as a culture value diversity, and design for it in many technological devices (sometimes rising to the level of becoming Bloatware), we toss all thought of encouraging individuality out the window when it comes to devices for the disabled. 

And to muddy the waters, he points out that the notion of individuality is very personal (hopefully that phrase is clearly redundant) and sometimes people don't want the latest and greatest "improvement". He uses Stephen Hawking as an example, claiming that the ultra famous physicist has declined an update to his voice synthesizing software, stating that the robotic voice has become "his voice". 

Pullin supports a paradigm shift, that comes back around to the role that computing professionals can play. The author suggests that there is no clear divide between the disabled and not disabled, but that we all exist on a continuum of ability - and that that understanding is what should drive our designs. It isn't just HCI Expanded. (HCI = Human Computer Interaction)

I'm still not sure why I was so disturbed reading this chapter. Perhaps it is the idea that as we work harder to create the "best" assistive devices, we may be doing more damage than good? The author doesn't say that, but that is something I read out of his discussion. I'm going to have to wrestle with this one. There are a lot of things that Pullin does not say outright, but dangles in front of you to consider.

However, and Meanwhile, there is a huge opportunity for interdisciplinary minded computing professionals who want to work in the field of device creation, whether for fun, work or daily living. Software engineering Reqs and Specs would screech to a stop and reconsider traditional approaches to data gathering. It means a whole new way of thinking and working across disciplinary boundaries for inclusiveness. 

The author provides an interesting example to demonstrate that the desired end result is reasonable and doable. He points out that audio books were originally created for the vision impaired, but have now become wildly popular with the mainstream community. Many people like the medium of listening to books. This application crossed over. Whether by accident or intent I do not know. But, what if we always created our work with this idea in mind? 


  1. You've basically come to the same conclusions/feelings that were part of my recent dissertation work. A lot of AT work is about fixing a specific problem and not about what the actual end users want. In the case of people with reading dis...abilities, the stigma associated with weaker literacy skills leads many to hide or control who knows about their disability. For them, a good technology would support reading but should not broadcast that they have a disability. There's a lot of identity politics involved.

    Plus, I'll have to take a look at Pullin's book now.

  2. Hi Kate,
    In your research did you come across any studies that you would recommend that discuss the use of modern (i.e. within the past few years)mobile devices in education? I would be interested in particular in any studies that examine how a device can be used cross - population; to use your words "good technology" experiences that we can learn from? Did your dissertation look at that aspect by any chance?