Digital and physical design for disabilities and the elderly is lacking

Some years ago when my mum was in the early stages of dementia, we bought her a wired house phone that was simple to use. It had big buttons that you could program, and you’d write the name of the person on a label next to the button. Easy! However, she was having trouble using it. So I went to see what was happening. I asked her to press the button to call me. She picked the phone up, and pressed my name, rather than the button next to it. It was a key insight – an insight that seems to be lacking from the design of any phone for the elderly that I’ve seen. Put the name on the button, not next to it.

The best desk phone I’ve ever used was in Australia. It was about 30 years ago. It had an LED display, with physical buttons above and below. When you picked the phone up, the bottom left button could be e.g. ‘redial’. Once you were on a call, the function could change to ‘hold’. The point is as much a general usability one as for old people – you didn’t have to memorise functions, or arcane sequences of button presses in different circumstances. All of the office and home phones I’ve used since then have been harder to use.

It got to the point where mum couldn’t use a manual can opener, so I bought her an electric one. She couldn’t use that either, as it was too fiddly to get the can in the contraption at the correct angle.

Can opener

My dad is in a care home (he’s 90). He’s had a few digital radios, but he can’t figure out how to store stations, or which station he has allocated to which button. Now he has an Amazon Echo, so all he has to do is say ‘Alexa, play BBC Radio Five Live’, and it plays. All he has to do is remember the names of the stations he likes, which he can do.

Digital radio

My dad has an Android phone. I regularly download and set up apps that he wants to use. I was finding that the app icons would regularly get shuffled around the screen, or disappear entirely. He disclaims all knowledge as to how these mysterious events occur, but no-one else is coming along and sabotaging his screens. I’ve now installed a replacement desktop that locks the positioning and installation of apps, and the problem is solved. The default desktop doesn’t allow for that.

Sometimes, I’d phone dad, and I could hear him, but he couldn’t hear me. I figured out that he’d pressed the physical volume control all the way down, but of course, I couldn’t tell him that. I then installed an app that locks the volume control to only change media volume, not calls. Problem solved, but the OS didn’t natively allow for that. The Amazon Echo also provides a solution in that I can ‘drop in’ from my phone wherever I have a data connection. I can just talk to him, and he can talk back, without him having to tap, slide, press, rotate, or otherwise contort a button, or even having to understand what the ringing sound is about.

Sometimes it does take a few goes before he correctly answers his phone. Is it tap or slide? Slide in which direction? He’ll use his fingernail, which doesn’t work, so he’ll press harder, or slide onto the ‘reject call’ button.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines document explicit best practice to optimise the usability of web sites for people with a range of disabilities. Compliance in some jurisdictions is a legal requirement. A lot of effort has been put into understanding the needs of people with disabilities, and how to address them. There must be people doing something similar for other digital and physical products, but they aren’t easy to find.

It goes without saying (although I’m saying it) that there are a lot of old people, and a lot of younger people who have cognitive and physical disabilities, who would benefit from products designed to meet their needs. I’m sure there’s a huge market opportunity for a specialist designer/manufacturer to own a large share of the market. It would take a lot of money and effort, but the rewards are there to be had. A brand name known for effective design in this area would surely be big.

Any takers? Don’t forget my 10%.

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