Saturday, March 03, 2007

Cognitive friction

The integration of technology into our daily lives is accelerating at an alarming pace. There are people with bionic arms that attach to their previously defunct nervous system; you can engage in a video telephone call with anybody in the world using Skype and a webcam; you have an unbelievable wealth of knowledge at your fingertips with the internet.


The internet was supposed to be an amazing breakthrough in technology that would allow people from all over the world to communicate with each other from the comfort of their desks. Google lets you search for anything and Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that has become an indispensible part of our everyday life. There is less of a chance of a Big Brother regime where history is being rewritten by the government but Orwell couldn't have imagined the Internet when he wrote 1984.

The Internet, and technology as a whole has a huge problem - it is not accessible. If you do not have good hearing, good motor skills, good eyesight, or are able to grasp new concepts quickly then the internet is totally useless.

I have good hearing, good motor skills, good eyesight, and I can grasp new technology fairly quickly so I hope that my postulations do not sound pretentious or ill-informed.


Text-to-speech technology is still rather primitive but it does work [note that this is the full video and not the crummy news piece that mocked the work that MS have completed]. It might be useful for text documents but what about reading an article on Wikipedia? There are roughly 100 words surrounding the content of the page that you don't care about and the TTS software is going to have to parse those each time.

The pointing device

The mouse is probably the worst device for people who have recently lost motor control skills - stroke sufferers being a good example; or those who have poor motor skills due to an ongoing disability. This YouTube video is a clip from 1984 demonstrating what it was like to use a mouse for the first time

Fitt's Law dictates that people with acceptable motor skills still take several iterative attempts to reach their destination on a computer dekstop. When will touch-screen technology become common place enough that using a this pointing device with two buttons can be replaced?

What does that mean?

What about people who have difficulties with picking up new ideas? The internet moves at such a whirlwind pace that when they have mastered one user interface paradigm it is already too late.


Who is designing websites for people who want the information presented to them in a clear manner? I read the BBC News website every day. The BBC is a publicly funded TV service in the UK. As such, they have the moral obligation to present their content to every group.

The BBC tries to do its best but it is still difficult to find the Accessibility information. Their webpage is extremely cluttered with hyperlnks everywhere. It is intimidating for anybody who looks at it for the firs time. I suspect that I use reflexive memory to browse their site. I just know where the links are. If you struggled to use a mouse or had poor sight then trying to navigate to the news for your local area then you would be better off listening to the BBC News channel.

If you were not able to mentally parse all of the information available on that page with ease then it would be a nightmare for you. Why don't the BBC offer a simple webpage with News, Sport, and Weather sections?

One click hyper links that clearly present the information on the page for people to see. Why is it difficult to find any information about the accessible services provided by the BBC? You can provide me with news content on my mobile phone but you cannot improve accessible access to your content?

Mac OS X

What about Mac OS X? I recently purchased a new iMac and when I popped in the installation disc I made a phone call and heard the system talking to me to let me know that I could setup the Installer to speak the text back to me. That was a good start but it needs to be much more.

There is a fantastic Systems Preferences Pane where you can turn on text-to-speech or change the size of fonts in the system. If you relied on these system services could you configure them by yourself? Where is the value in having a computer with accessibility options if you cannot configure them independently?

Cognitive friction

All of these issues can be grouped together into something that I've started calling cognitive friction. I imagine that I'm not the first person to coin the term but it is about time the people started to use it.

Do you have microwave that is easy to use? I know that when I had a microwave the options were Low Defrost Medium High Very High. So what? What does those mean relative to the 800W that I need. Look at your TV remote. What the bloody hell do half of those buttons mean? Come on! I've never touched some of the buttons on my TV remote due to fear.

Technology has a lot of answer for in the 21st century. Instead of making everything better why aren't we making existing products easier to use?


Stuart Morgan said...

"Text-to-speech technology is still rather primitive but it does work"

I wouldn't say text-to-speech is primitive; the current work in that area is largely focused on ways of improving tone and inflection, and is getting quite good. That link is a demo of speech recognition, which is a very different (and substantially harder) problem.

"Where is the value in having a computer with accessibility options if you cannot configure them independently?"

Unless I'm misunderstanding what you mean, this sounds like "If it's not perfect, then it's worthless". Yes, having end-to-end accessibility would be even better, but I don't think you'd find a single person who needs one or more of those options who would agree that there is no value in something that requires them to get help once over the lifetime of their computer rather than every single time they want to use their computer.

Desmond Elliott said...

I see where you are coming from with your second comment.

There is definite value in having these options but they would be many times more valuable if they were accessibly configurable out-of-the-box.

Apologies for getting TTS and speech-recognition confused in my post.