As someone who is technically blind without my eyeglasses or contacts for correction, sometimes I feel like the forgotten user. The spectrum of usage for sight usability seems to be there is the perfect experience designed for those with 20/20 vision and on the other end, tools and code to make web pages accessible to those who can not see.
I’m in the in-between stage. With correction, I can fumble my way through.
I have bi-focal contact lenses in both eyes now. I used to have one eye for close up work and one eye for distance. Now, my brain has learned to adapt to my bi-focal contacts and one eye isn’t working harder than the other one. Even with my high-end contacts correction, I still need reading glasses, although with the latest upgrade to my contacts, it’s less of a dependency.
My eyeglasses have what is called “progressive” lenses. Rather than a line in the middle, like the old bi-focal lenses, I simply have to tilt my head at different angles to see close or far away. With my latest prescription, I can now see the TV set with better clarity, whereas before, I struggled. for years, I kept asking for correction that would enhance my ability to see my laptop and PC’s so that I could do my work. The sacrifice I’d made was not being able to read road signs and signs in airports. This is why I bring my husband to conferences with me or have someone nearby. They are, knowingly or not, my “Seeing eye person.”
Cell Phone Usability
As a new owner of the Google G1 cell phone, I’ve finally been given a real gift! I’ve had about 7 cell phones, replacing them every year because after using them for awhile, realize I’m limited because they’re not designed for sight impaired users who are in the “in between” stage. I always needed reading glasses to read the keys. Font sizes are a constant problem. Entering data into fields? Forget it. I couldn’t see either the field or the keyboard. At night, a cell phone was useless to me. For starters, even if the keyboard lit up, it was never light enough for me. Some keyboards have keys that are so tiny that I wonder how anyone can feel them. Some keyboards have poor contrast between background and the color of the letters and numbers on the keys.
I was thrilled to have finally found a sales person with poor eyesight, who found the G1 to be the best phone for her personal use. She walked me through some of the features and I became very excited about the phone. For starters, it has a separate key for every letter, rather than 2 or 3 letters and a number on each key. There is a separate line of keys for just numbers. The alt key is easy to find. There is a caps key, space bar and delete button, just like on a laptop. The contrast is best on the black phone with white keys, which is why I bought that one.
When you surf the web, the G1 pops up with a tab that allows me to magnify a web page or make it smaller. I can increase font sizes. This has been the first time I’ve ever wanted to view web sites on a cell phone, and it’s simply because the Google G1 phone invented a way for me to see them.
The design has a side hand rest with buttons and nifty menu tab. The best part, of course, is the touch screen. For sight impaired persons, the touch screen is a blast! It’s responsive. Colorful. Fun to use. For me, in certain situations, an image is better than words, so the icons are the right solution. I just press on an application icon on the screen. I can add “shortcuts” to my screen the same as we do on our laptops. With their Open Source Android technology, the number of free applications for use with the G1 is enough to make anyone happy. I loaded up stuff for me and my kids.
Many people become dependent on their hand held devices and I was envious. They use them for tracking every possible little thing. I wanted, and needed, to do that but no cell phone was usable enough for me. Writing notes on paper pads was easier than trying to use a tiny keyboard. I once tried adding a separate keyboard to a Palm Pilot…what a mess that was! I wanted the ability to type without a stylus, but with a separate keyboard, I needed a place to set it up. Finding the right keyboard for the right Palm was also annoying.
My personal experiences got me thinking this week about another side of usability. Adaptability. We do this without really thinking about it. If something doesn’t work for us, but we really want it or we paid money for it or it’s all we have, we will find ways to adapt.
Just because we can’t use something doesn’t mean it is not usable.
For example, I’ve been struggling with the Wii Fit exercise program. It’s designed for people with working bodies. I had surgery in January for a torn meniscus on my right knee and then 3 weeks ago, re-injured it in a fall. In pain now for over a year, I’ve put on weight and am frustrated with the limitations brought on by the injury. While there are knee therapy exercises, I wanted a full body program. Yoga seemed like a gentle choice and Wii Fit offers it.
The Wii can track how you’re doing. It offers feedback. It can tell when you’re off balance, fidgety, fall off the power board, tense and other things. It doesn’t say, “Awww, you poor thing. That injured knee you have is really making it hard to do this exercise, right?”
So, I adapt. I ignore my “trainer”, who isn’t programmed to know my limitation. I keep doing what I can because stretching, breathing and working the muscles, even awkwardly, is still good. It doesn’t mean the Wii Fit is not usable. It means I adapted to it, rather than it being designed to work for me, a target user.
Is this something we’re not considering in our web page and software development practices? How about our marketing? I know I absolutely don’t look like the woman who is about to have an orgasm driving her “responsive” car, but hey, I can adapt. I can pretend to be her. I can pretend I have a $3000 gown on while driving to the drug store. I’m not the rich beauty who can afford a luxury car, nor do I have a wealthy partner who showers me with luxuries intended to turn me on. I doubt the car company expects me to be like their model. They want me to somehow find a way to adjust something in my life so I can use their product.
When user testing, how long does it take before you notice your test participant has adapted to whatever limitations they’re presented with to make their user experience go smoothly? Did they reach for reading glasses? Did they need to change the brightness on their monitor? Change a font size? Did they need to reload a page because they had other things running on their computer that slowed things down?
We may think we can control user experience. We can design to “be user friendly” and accessible. We can claim to meet web standards and provide proof of security and trust. Marketers can find every possible keyword combination and still not know the one YOU chose to search with.
Regardless of the hoops we jump through to make our products usable, how much of the user experience is truly ease of use and how much is user adaptation?