Can mobile devices be more accessible? YES!

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If you’ve been following me on Twitter, I mentioned why I haven’t been posting much. Basically, what happened was I tore a hole in the tip of my thumb. I was grating carrots for a nice salad I was making, and the piece of carrot slipped out of my hands and I grated my thumb in a box grater. The good news is that the grater I was using is actually quite sharp, so the cut was fairly quick and somewhat painless. The bad news is that I tore a chunk out of my thumb. It’s completely gone. Needless to say, it was bleeding like mad. I did go to the emergency room and got it taken care of, so that turned out ok. But now that I am essentially thumbless, it has definitely changed the way I interact with technology. Join me after the break for more on this!

Lets get something clear right away. I do still have my thumb so I’m not technically thumbless. I can’t possibly know the full extent of what it’s like to lose a limb or anything like that. But this limitation has definitely opened my eyes to some things.

Apple has popularized the touchscreen, though the technology has been around for quite some time. Nowadays, touchscreens are everywhere. Even in products you might not expect, one can find a touchscreen. But what happens when your sense of touch goes away?

ImageTablets may be more resistant to my particular condition. But the pain is definitely felt on smartphones. One of the main benefits of smartphones is being able to use them with one hand. The phone is cradled in your palm, while your thumb does all the work. Clearly this won’t work for me.

The obvious solution is to just switch hands. And that’s probably fine for me. But where does that put people who have more permanent issues. Touchscreens are a nice innovation on mobile phones, but they come with some hidden requirements. The lack of haptic feedback can create problems even for people without my kinds of issues. Furthermore, the lack of haptic feedback requires people have good enough vision to see what you’re interacting with.

So how can this be fixed?
The first, most obvious solution would be to provide some form of physical controls. I’m not suggesting that it includes some sort of Blackberry-style of keyboard. But there could be some new form of physical controls. Think about how video game controllers have few buttons, yet allow for a wide array of interactions. It’s this idea that a simplified physical interface can serve multiple interaction schemes that could be applied to mobile devices.

With a different control scheme, it would necessitate a different user interface style. Touchscreens are different from desktop systems. The touch interaction means that persistent on-screen cursors are not necessary. You touch the thing you want to interact with, instead of clicking with a mouse and cursor. But if we move back to a more indirect form of interaction, such as with the game controller-esque idea, we might need to bring back cursors or pointers.

I do realize that this idea still requires touch interactions of a different form, so another way to deal with this is a much deeper integration of voice UI. Voice controls still need work. But assuming the technology is improving, voice controls could be the next big thing. I told my friend this one day. At some point, most UI’s will simply disappear. Most interfaces are far too cumbersome. For example, think about how many physical steps are involved with trying to boil a pot of water. One could simply tell the stove to boil the pot of water, and have the stove figure out the rest. Voice can help you cut through everything. This is the promise of voice controls, cutting through all forms of physical interaction to get to the result with more speed and more convenience. All it needs to do is work reliably, which it doesn’t quite do just yet. Anyone who has used Siri knows what I’m referring to…

With these ideas in mind, perhaps the whole form factor of so-called smartphones should be revised as well. Between new physical controls and alternate voice controls, perhaps the display goes from a physical screen to something like a micro-projector. Or better yet, taking a cue from Google Glass, some form of interactive heads-up display. The drawback with using a projector is the lack of privacy. I’m not going to judge what people do with their phones and tablets, but I’m fairly certain that it includes things that you don’t want to project for other people to see.

In closing, today’s mobile devices have come a long way from the gigantic plastic brick phones of the ’80s. But for people with certain physical limitations, there is still quite a long way to go. This is what I’ve thought of based on my current situation, but now I’d like to hear what you think. Leave your comments below!

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Can mobile devices be more accessible? YES!

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