The Touch Barrier – Accessibility and usability issues around touch technologies

June 14th, 2008 | by dnw |

I’m Worried. Worried about recent technology developments – actually the application of one technology in particular – touch. In this instance, when I say ‘touch’ I’m referring to devices requiring skin – a finger as opposed to a stylus – ala the iPhone and nearly every laptop on the market.

For the past 60% of my life on earth technology has been anything but a worry. It’s been a (necessary) tool, a gift, a friend. It’s given me opportunity, empowerment, advantage, joy, and at many times maddening frustration. But never worry. However now, for the first time in 26 years I am worried that technology is going stop offering advantages – to me and to others who live with disability.

This is a real concern to me – I feel it keenly and have a vision about it. In my vision I’m walking down a very familiar street in my home town and there’s a lot of new construction happening. New buildings are springing up everywhere on both sides of the street. It’s all very exciting. Even old established buildings we are used to seeing every day for as long as we remember are now being furnished with new facades. However the one common aspect of all this new found vigour in building is the entrances — everyone is building steps. There’s not a ramp to be seen, some are even being pulled out in the name of progress …. in the name of utility … in the name of ‘normalcy’.

Okay, so that’s obviously allegory. But the underlying reality is no fable. Boiled down to its most base level it’s about access and in this instance the barrier to access that the proliferation of skin-based touch devices brings with it. I’m specifically talking about touch devices that require skin to work. There’s inherent access issues with the other types of touch, but I want to focus on the new issues skin-based touch raises.

Barriers aren’t new to me and neither is finding ways around, over or through them. But what’s different is the pervasive nature of ‘touch’ technology of today. Here’s an exercise, try and find a laptop that doesn’t use a touch pad or that has an alternate input method. (only one I can find is Lenovo…and Apple won’t let me run OSX on that! — maybe this will!)

So I want to talk about it. I want to start a conversation — raise the issue into the social consciousness, as it were.

The time to think about access is at the design stage…we may’ve missed that but the earlier we start thinking about this the better. Sooner or later these issues are going to need to be addressed for any number of reasons. This is a usability issue and will at some stage effect, or at least be an annoyance to, more than just those living with disability.

To start it off, here’s my thoughts.

Traditionally it seems that most of the action about solving accessibility problems has been around the software realm. We have seen software solutions to provide alternate input solutions that have been caused by hardware design characteristics. So you get ‘sticky-key’ software that emulates two or more finger presses on a keyboard or screen magnification software to overcome small text on small screens.

A lot of the work in information access online revolves around marking up guidelines and standards – software again. Interestingly we don’t see a push for accessibility guidelines or standards in hardware design. Hardware gets made and problems associated with access are left to the realm of alternative input devices.

fingersSo, again, with the ‘touch barrier’, I can foresee that issues with say gestures requiring more than one finger, like pinching, could have a software solution. Like “Accessibility” control panel on Windows and “Universal Access” on Mac, have evolved to allow access to the system, these utility type programs will need to evolve to encompass touch.

We have also seen the rise of voice technologies for input as well, but often these are not great at complete replacements for traditional methods of input. Voice recognition software thats good for dictation may not be great for software control, and vice versa.

Voice on mobile devices too has its limitations. Noise or capacity or different action required to activate the recognition, being examples. Nuance have developed voice recognition for the iPhone – however here’s the rub – first you need to touch the screen to activate the voice recognition! [video here] So it seems voice is an augmentation rather than a replacement or alternative input choice.

But we are still left with the problem of actual access to operate a device that uses a touch panel for input. Again this is a hardware issue. The ideal solution would be a dual-touch pad – that responds to skin as well as a stylus in the same device – somewhat like the dual-mode screens some tablet pcs have that allow use of any stylus (or finger) as well as the special active ‘pens’ on the same screen on the same notebook. To try and incorporate a dual mode skin/stylus screen on these mobile devices, like the iPhone, iPod touch and laptop input panels, is something I can’t se manufacturers seeing much value in and a solution is therefore most likely going to fall onto an alternate input method rather than an expectation that hardware will change anytime soon. An after market pad that could be swapped out for the ‘skin touch only’ one would be a possibility.

Now I know someone is going to say plug in a trackball to the laptop, and sure, in some instances that will be enough – but it kind of defeats the purpose of the compact, portable nature of a laptop. And the actual layout and characteristics of laptops offer other benefits for access and usability beyond the obvious which means keeping the form factor the same is a consideration.

So the other way to approach the touch-barrier is to emulate a finger in hardware, just like the stick key programs emulate a finger in software. This means finding some material that has the characteristics of a finger that actually enable these touch pads to work. I don’t know what those characteristics are so can’t offer a solution.

The closest I got to finding one was a ‘touch pencil‘ that Suck UK were developing and I caught wind of last year.

I wrote to them and they were still in development so I was asked to contact them at the start of this year, which I did. The response was that “Unfortunately the pencil failed its tests. To redesign it to pass worked out too expensive.” This is really a shame, as I think that that avenue of finding a material that could act with the properties required would be a good way to go, especially if such could then be manufactured into different shapes for different uses – even incorporated into gloves etc?

So, to summarise, touch input requiring skin is going to start causing different usability issues. Some of the solutions will need to be hardware and some software – remembering of course that often you need access TO a device before you can make use of software resident IN the device (viz above Nuance example). But the sooner we start thinking and talking about ways of dealing with the barrier effects these technologies bring with them the better.

I’d originally envisaged writing about this issue as an “open letter to Steve Jobs” as I’m so keen on Apple products (having my very first Mac in 1984) yet increasingly becoming so locked out by the design that makes them so good. Yet I soon realised that it isn’t just Apple – the technology is becoming so pervasive that even an open letter to the two Steves (Jobs and Ballmer) wouldn’t even cover it.

So there it is, my thoughts on the issue taking perhaps a wider scope. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Dave – Lifekludger

Related post:
Thinking about Three Levels of Technology Access


[Flickr photos by cinefil_ & PappaJack]

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  1. 18 Responses to “The Touch Barrier – Accessibility and usability issues around touch technologies”

  2. By Garth Roxburgh-Kidd on Jun 15, 2008 | Reply

    Dave, just two days ago I heard ThinkGeek was selling a stylus compatible with capacitance-sensing touch displays. It’s the “Pogo iPhone Stylus”. I hope it works on laptop mouse-pads, also.

    The manufacturer’s site says “The stylus keeps you efficient, even through thick gloves”, and they publish their email address.


  3. By dnw on Jun 15, 2008 | Reply

    Hey Garth, Brilliant.

    That looks just the thing that the Suck UK ppl were developing. Thanks so much, I must’ve missed that going through my feeds.

    I’ve ordered a couple to test them out.


  4. By David McDonald on Jun 20, 2008 | Reply

    Hi Dave, thanks for the comment.

    No it’s not just the iPhone. The laptops only having touch is bigger issue for me personally, and when you realize that going away from Apple also doesn’t offer a solution as most other manufacturers also use touch pads exclusively.

    Also touch is an issue on the iPod Nano & Classic navigation wheels – I had to sell the Nano I won at WordCamp as I couldn’t use it functionally. I now use a Shuffle as it doesn’t use touch, however that also means I’m forever hunting through the thing to find the podcast I want as there’s no screen.

    Of course there’s other brands of MP3 player that I could use that don’t use touch – hardly so with laptops.

    It’s when a technology posing access barriers becomes so pervasive that it is when it starts to get troubling — imagine if all cars from all manufacturers were minis!


  5. By Mohit on Jul 8, 2008 | Reply


    a very interesting read. Personally I have been worried about the accessibility of Touch-based devices for the visually impaired. There is little accessibility due to the lack of physical keyboards, and a long way to go for voice interfaces. Design of the iPhone family and the Ultra-Mobile PC definitely overlooks the visually impaired.

    These issues revealed themselves to me during a project that some friends and I undertook, outlined in a paper I presented.

    The project had some exposure, but we did not et answers about the accessibility of touch devices in the future.


  6. By dnw on Jul 8, 2008 | Reply

    Gday Mohit. Thanks for the comment and thelink to the paper.

    Certainly the proliferation of touch input is one that stands to create a lot of access issues for alot of people – and I don’t think just those with disability – they’re just the obvious frontline, as usual.

  7. By sandrar on Sep 11, 2009 | Reply

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

  8. By George Birbilis on Feb 15, 2012 | Reply

    also checkout TouchGlove (btw some inventive Asians have used a sausage! for touch)

  9. By dnw on Feb 25, 2012 | Reply

    Thanks for the pingback. I will feature it on Lifekludger soon.


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