Internet of things and accessibility.

The internet of things is more than the technology.

By Craig Cartwright22nd August 2016

There are lots of discussions going on in the tech world about the internet of things (IoT). As of late 2015, it seems that much of the industry has focused on building internet-connected devices and services regardless of whether they really serve a greater purpose. A great example is a kettle that texts you when it’s boiled!

So we now know what IoT is and what it offers us. The Internet of Things (sometimes known as SMART technology) is the connection of physical devices to the internet in some form to exchange data. Examples include a council bin that can check how full it is and communicate with the refuse collection team to be emptied. Or of course NEST and HIVE – the digital thermostats at home which can be controlled by your mobile phone.

To date, most IoT devices are built around improving security or comfort, or simply for entertainment. However, one of the areas where I think it will play a big part as a differentiator and present the most improvement is to accessibility/disability.

Healthcare and disability comfort.

Healthcare and disability comfort are two streams in particular where the IoT can really help, and advances in these streams are already happening and making a difference. We’ve been fortunate to work with one such client – CellNovo who have developed the world’s first mobile diabetes management system. The device has a built-in insulin pump and monitoring system that records your glucose level and activity monitor to track and record exercise. It can detect possible hypos and hypers before they happen, warning the user before it’s too late.

Another great IoT device that caught my eye is the recent GlowCap device from Vitality. This is an IoT digitised medicine bottle that can be programmed so that when the user needs to take their tablet, it flashes and sounds notifications as a reminder. It also records when the bottle is opened and sends information back to the clinic to inform them. It even features a button at the bottom of the bottle, that when pressed, automatically orders the next prescription/order from the pharmacy. Should the user lose the bottle, they can even track its whereabouts with the handy mobile app it comes with.

Even something as simple as the RING is a life-saving invention for helping disabled and the elderly. A doorbell with a built-in camera, motion sensor and two-way communication allows a house owner to check on who is at the door or even nearby before ever getting near opening it. What’s even better is that it records the video and conversation, and saves it to the cloud – allowing users to download previous “calls” should they be getting nuisance, pushing or even threatening visits.

Accessibility in IoT is just as important as it is in digital.

However, with the birth of all such IoT devices and items, even for disability/elderly gain, they introduce a new issue – the user experience or rather the user interface (and thus the experience) is also critical to the success and adoption of the device.

A focus on the audience types and their accessibility needs is key to making or breaking the idea. This isn’t just product design thought on how it looks, feels and its colour, but interface design for the accompanying app, website and web service is as essential if not more essential as it’s the main way people will be interacting with it.

So let’s take this kettle idea. A text is all well and good for a user in a different room or similar but it relies on having a text-enabled phone at all times. Will elderly people walk around or be near another phone? Would a buzzer round the neck or similar work better?

Touch-first design.

Alternatively, if I have an app based product will the greatest/silent generation necessary understand it or will the controls be easy and larger for them to easily hit or even if some have mobility issues which lead to shakes, etc. can they still click the button(s)? All things to consider.

As an example, Apple’s iPhone human interface guidelines recommends a minimum target size of 44 pixels wide by 44 pixels tall for any touch control.

It’s not just about traditional accessibility.

The “accessible” experience goes far beyond just the user interface. Think about instructions on how to use the tool – these could make use of screen reader or audio techniques.

But of course, accessibility really isn't just about making something functional and workable for people with disabilities. It's fundamental to everything we design and build - it needs to be accessible to the masses. These type of issues or thoughts all boil down to user-centric thinking about the product – something we and the rest of the industry strongly believe in.

Internet of things is about what’s around you.

User-centricity allows you to approach product design based on its use in the real world by real people. All of a sudden accessibility has a completely new meaning. Besides conditions relating to the person you can now extend to environmental factors. Factors such as location (is someone going to be using the device on the beach – sand, sun, water factors), temperature (will the item be used or could be used in extreme conditions hot or cold), and where will it be used (kitchen can have waterproof, oil/grease proof properties needed, etc.).

These aren’t just product design factors but also natural UI and UX issues. So if the item is used in extreme coldness or heat, chances are the user will be wearing gloves. In this case, the touch control needs to be thought of and chances are it needs to at least double from the iPhone guidelines mentioned above.

All of these considerations can be discovered, challenged and addressed way before it’s too late and in production. The chance to put yourself in their shoes, or even better getting them actually involved in the research, is a great way to remove these issues right from the beginning. Testing prototypes, gaining opinions, running focus groups or even one-to-one stakeholder interviews all help to focus on the task at hand through the eyes, hands and even thoughts of the end user. You may even discover that the texting kettle idea isn’t such a bad one after all…