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Last Updated: Friday, 24 June 2005, 15:20 GMT 16:20 UK
Time to get used to usability
The world's ageing population makes accessible design an imperative, argues Bill Thompson.

Carer helping old man walk, BBC
We need to be sure everyone can use new inventions
Earlier this week Cambridge University hosted an open day where academics and some of their industrial collaborators talked about design, technology, usability and the problems that seem to emerge whenever teams of professionals from different disciplines try to work together.

Most universities do this sort of thing pretty regularly, partly because their funding from the government relies on getting partnerships in place, and partly because it gives researchers a chance to present their work to a broad audience.

There were certainly some cool technologies on show, including a system that looks at facial expressions and tries to decide if you're happy, sad, concentrating or irritated, and a user interface that lets you control the music you're listening to by clicking your fingers in a particular place.

Microsoft Research showed off its SenseCam, which takes 2000 photos a day as you go about your routine, providing a permanent record of what you've been doing - and with whom.

The privacy implications may be scary, but I'm enough of a geek to love this sort of thing.

And some research done jointly by Microsoft and Addenbrooke's Hospital seems to show that it can reduce anxiety in people with severe memory impairment, giving them a way to review their day and consolidate their memories.

Help desk

It was valuable, as always, to see the sorts of things that are going on in the labs simply because the stuff that's been invented this year will form the basis of mass market technologies in 2010.

But the important message from the day was not about the toys but their users.

It was made very clear to all of us that if we don't do something soon about making our websites, consumer goods and other technologies more accessible and straightforward to use for people across the ability spectrum then we are heading for serious trouble.

Bill Thompson
We can't allow our lack of interest in accessibility to go on a lot longer - independent living is an aspiration for older people today but it will be an imperative in 2050 because there will be nobody there to offer support.
Ian Hosking from Scientific Generics didn't argue about social justice or equal rights as a basis for inclusive design - he's just worried about his own old age.

He has been looking at the "potential support ratio", which measures how many people aged 15-64 are there to provide support - in principle - for each one of us over 65.

In 1950 the ratio was 12:1, in 2000 it dropped to 9:1 and the projection is that by 2050 it will be only 4:1 for the world as a whole.

This demographic shift creates an urgent need to improve the general usability of both computer-based systems and physical objects. We will all suffer if we don't have cars, computers, kettles and washing machines that older, infirm people can use by themselves.

Cash call

Hosking was amplifying a point made earlier in the day by Prof John Clarkson, who heads Cambridge's Engineering Design Centre.

Prof Clarkson looked at the market for usable products, pointing out that the number of people who don't count as "able-bodied" is large and getting larger.

These people have a lot of money to spend, at least in the developed world. The estimated 54m people with disabilities in the US spend $1 trillion a year - and even in the UK there are 10m disabled customers who have 10bn to spend.

It's too easy for designers and their managers to treat accessibility as an unnecessary and expensive add-on that reduces functionality, but that's no longer an option.

Yet while we talk about the need for accessible and universal design the pressures imposed by quarterly accounts, fast product lifecycles, and price pressure often mean that there's no space for any real design effort, never mind design for inclusivity.

Ring pull on can, BBC
The simplest things can be tricky for some to use
Part of the problem is that creating a new product or service, whether it's a physical object like a DVD player or a web-based tool, requires cross-disciplinary working and this often fails to deliver.

Basically, we're not very good at getting people to work together in teams, and we're not very good at encouraging respect among the different disciplines who come together to form these teams.

There's a major project on distributed working taking place within the collaborative Cambridge-MIT Institute.

David Good from the CMI talked about their findings so far, and the difficulty of ensuring that people who are working together actually understand each other and appreciate the value that other professions bring to projects.

He's optimistic that solutions exist to the bigger problems, but I've worked in enough teams, some distributed, some not, to be rather more sceptical about their chances.

The image that stays with me from the day came from half-way through Prof Clarkson's presentation when he showed us a video of a middle-aged man trying to open a sealed plastic packet of fish with only his hands.

There was a little tab that you can pull to open it, but it was slippery and too small to be gripped.

The plastic was too tough to be pierced with a finger. It started off funny, and rapidly became tragic as the frustration levels built up.

In the end we stopped watching and moved on, but Prof Clarkson warned us that "it goes on a lot longer".

We can't allow our lack of interest in accessibility to go on a lot longer - independent living is an aspiration for older people today but it will be an imperative in 2050 because there will be nobody there to offer support.

It's time to take usability a lot more seriously.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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