Ahtor’s note: This post was originally published in late 2012. Due to a blog crash its original timestamp has changed. Some information may be newer since the original publication, such as Windows 8 has been in the wild now. Still some points remain so it is being republished.
Recently I was asked “What do you think of windows 8, and the new direction of Microsoft?”
While I am not entirely sure to which direction the questioner was referring to I thought of a few things that may be worth considering in the accessibility and user interface areas.
From an accessibility standpoint I am glad to see Narrator expanded a bit even though it is still to little, e.g., no braille support. It will be nice and helpful for blind visually impaired users who need a screen reader can install and reinstall Windows without assistance if that comes to pruition. I also have heard they’re tweaking the display driver situation, which will restrict some screen readers who use this technology to build off screen models (OSM) a bit. I do not think this will have a large impact on most users’ day-to-day use of these screen readers.
What I am more interested in is the direction of touch. Hopefully we see commercial screen readers for the Windows OS take advantage of this, and get some features like VoiceOver on iOS and Mac have. Touch interaction has the potential to help with several things in particular spacial understanding and information. In addition, it can speed up the interaction. You may have experienced this on the iPhone: if the user knows where the Mail icon is on the home screen she can get there very quickly, not tabbing, not typing. Likewise, on a Mac a user can use touch to jump right to the interesting part of a web page if he’s familiar with it.
The new JAWS’ Flexible Web is a good idea and will do the same thing in some situations. I think the combining of the two would be outstanding.
Also along the lines of spacial information, I think that there should be some way to use touch to explore and get a basic idea of charts and graphs. One thing I feel is sorely lacking still is on-demand access to graphical information such as charts. So far tactile graphics is the best, but you need someone to make them by hand to be effective generally. There is a lot of graphical information out there though in a real-time context that we don’t’ have the time or resources to make accessible in this manual method. I am mainly thinking charts, graphs. You may think of a K-12 setting and mathematics. Or for the investor being able to analyze information from day/week/month charts to get a quick idea of trends, highs, lows, etc. Or if you prefer the enterprise application market, the “dashboard” concept is very popular, where there is bar charts, pie charts, etc., to give an overview of systems that are running in a data center, how many intrusion threats the network has sustained in the last 24 hours, etc. For now I have to advise my clients to provide a tabular data view of this information to provide accessibility. Even when they do this it isn’t ideal as sometimes there is so much information, that just cannot be understood quickly and easily when you have a table with 100, 1000 rows…
The next step will be tactile feedback to go along with the touch, but we will need a little more advancement in technology. There is research being done on haptics where you can simulate feedback on a touchscreen, a virtual button if you will. It involves electric currents, etc. It was rumored it’d be on the “new iPad” though obviously it isn’t. It probably isn’t quite that commercially available yet. But once it is, this same technology could have a lot of uses, imagine a virtual braille display or a tactile diagram right on your iPhone.
Haptics will go further than just assisting those with disabilities. There is currently research being done on how haptics can provide another source of information, such as to a driver. Research has shown that a driver who receives haptic feedback on what direction to take will respond quicker than receiving the same information via audio (the current GPS systems that call out “turn right!”).
An article recently appeared in The science Daily “Designing for the sense of touch: A new frontier for design” which highlighted a researcher who is studying how to make touch “feel right.” It is good to see this type of research reaching the mainstream and this will improve the availability to all.