The frontiers of “design for all”

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Cristian Bernareggi, who works at Milan University in the ambit of research projects in the computer science area, describes us how a blind person deals with the current offer oh household appliances. A talk that manufacturers should take into account when designing new accessible products for every category of people.

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The household appliance world has undoubtedly made great strides in technology, satisfying even the most exacting users. However, there is an ambit where a lot can still be done, precisely in the designs that – upstream – take the different abilities into account.

Cristian Bernareggi works for Milan University, in technical- scientific ambit, at research projects in the computer science mainly concerning the accessibility and usability of software in the Mobile (smartphone and tablet) ambit. We ventured to explore the household appliance world with him, to allow blind or partially-sighted people to use them. In fact, only if they understand the real requirements of this important category of users, manufacturers will be able to meet better and better the needs of blind, visually impaired people and users with difficulties connected, for instance, with fine dexterity.

Cristian Bernareggi

Mr Bernareggi, technology has apparently made great strides. Could you tell us what solutions take into account the point of view of a blind or visually impaired person? What has been done and what instead should still be done?

If we refer to conventional household appliances of daily use – then oven, refrigerator, dishwasher, microwave oven, washing machine and coffee machine – they are generally equipped with some regulations, some knobs with pushbuttons, and in some cases with a LCD display where some values are visualized. It is also relatively easy to interact with the appliances without display because, if there is a knob that allows switching-on on one side and switching off on the other side, no big criticalities arouse. In fact, unlike what apparently might seem– and I speak from personal experience – managing a cooktop with adjustable flames is not so difficult. The flame is not a big problem: once you know where it comes out, moving your hand above the hob, to the approximate position of the flame, you can perceive whether you are too close to the fire or not, and some devices allow trouble-free cooking. They are obviously skills that a blind person must learn to be autonomous. Then, we can state there are traditional apparently complex instruments that are anyway usable.

On the contrary, a different matter concerns other instruments with regulations and pushbuttons whose setting up – for instance temperature or programme type– can be modified only watching the values visualized on a display, with neither a sound. In my opinion, and from the point of view of a blind person, they are the worst in absolute, and they are even worse when appliances remember the last setup: if they have not stored it, I can invent a strategy, like for instance to count how many times I must push to select the desired programme. On the contrary, if they recall programmes, this is very upsetting because someone else might have used that household appliance or maybe I cannot remember the last programme used. Finally, – in my opinion –instruments fully based on touch function, like induction hobs with touchscreen and display visualization, are even worse.

Then, on one hand we have some attempts of adapting these instruments to users, on the other hand there are household appliances that include some features like the vocal recognition; they are generally high-end products (brands such as Miele, Whirpool, LG Electronics), but absolutely with an approach that takes wide accessibility into account.

Third casuistry is instead represented by manufacturers that design household appliances intended for users with visual impairment, a design conceived for specific end-users. It can have advantages and disadvantages, in my opinion drawbacks prevail because costs are higher but the interaction model is optimal for that category of people. The most recent case I know is a British manufacturer of an induction hob with voice feedbacks (for listening) and pushbuttons instead of the display (Cambratech).

 

What are frontiers?

Two are the frontiers that might radically solve the problem: the first is through mobile devices, smartphone and tablet, which have already integrated vocal readers as standard – for both Android and Apple. Besides, considering they are already accessible and manageable for blind and visually impaired people, the frontier would be the capability of controlling household appliances through applications of this kind. As it happens, for instance, for thermostats or TV sets (like Apple TV), which can already be managed through Apps by mobile devices. The same might be feasible for devices for induction hobs, dishwashers or washing machines: this means relying on a controller that could be run by a smartphone, and might constitute a real advantage for blind or visually impaired people; as the smartphone is accessible with vocal identification, then it would be possible to pilot also most of household appliances.

Finally, a further step would be the possibility of controlling household appliances with the vocal input. Let us consider the scenario of Amazon Alexa or Google Home, which allow managing mainly the TV or the audio system, listening to music and being informed about the weather or the news: in the future, they might instead provide for a direct interaction with household appliances and then be able to set the functions of the household appliance through the vocal system, then with an interaction model that no longer depends on the visual channel but instead on the vocal-auditory channel. A medium-long term scenario that might revolutionize and facilitate people with visual impairment, people with motor disabilities, old people or users with scarce fine dexterity included.

 

What might still miss to reach all that?

In my opinion, on one hand a higher awareness, so that App designers take principles and usability of smartphone software into account. Besides, a market dynamics is necessary because these problems may concern not only people with disabilities but also all, and such instruments, in a domotics vision, might lead to great sale benefits. A guideline that in the future might be broadly extended because today integrating the vocal recognition engine might result in an extremely accessible household appliance design for all.

 

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