How can technology design be made more inclusive?

The rapid evolution of technology we saw over the course of the pandemic is showing no signs of stopping, such is the need for continuous innovation among organisations of all industries to meet changing demands. But when it comes to usage of capabilities such as AI and communication platforms among wider society, inclusive technology design that takes factors such as prior experience, demographics and disabilities into account is vital to minimising barriers.

In this article, we explore how technology design can be made more inclusive, to benefit everyone without exceptions.

Accessibility by design

When it comes to designing inclusive software and hardware, accessibility needs to be in mind from the outset. Dan Hastings, vice-president, TV/AV at Samsung Electronics UK, explained how working with external stakeholders can help with this.

“Technology is first and foremost an enabler of new, exciting experiences and it’s important we all strive to deliver meaningful innovations that recognise the wide range of diverse needs and embrace the individuality of our customers,” said Hastings.

“It’s easy to assume that people with visual and hearing impairments cannot watch TV, but many in fact rely heavily on screens to stay better connected to the world.

“At Samsung, we work directly with individuals with disabilities and partners, such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), to improve accessibility of the technology and services we create – ensuring we provide equal viewing experiences to all our consumers. And this starts with design. Our 2021 TV lineup, for example, includes award-winning accessibility features such as Samsung’s See Colours app, which adjusts screen colours to enable those with colour vision deficiency (CVD) to see a full spectrum that they may not have seen before. Similarly, Samsung’s Audio (Video) Description feature opens up new experiences for people who previously couldn’t appreciate movies and series by providing verbal descriptions of the scene, in addition to the dialogue or commentary, to aid understanding.

“These may seem like simple solutions, but to enable this technology we had to take a completely different approach to design, which starts with engineering the chip set. The response we’ve received from our customers so far has been incredible and we look to introduce many more accessibility features as we continue our commitment to offer every consumer a viewing experience without barriers.”

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Improving communication experiences

With an increasing reliance on screens to communicate, organisations should also look to ensure that product design addresses how the software facilitates this, and make adjustments where necessary.

“Brands must consider all forms of disabilities, such as vision and hearing impairments, as well as conditions like autism, at the very beginning of the design process,” said Paul Clark, senior vice-president and EMEA managing director at Poly.

“At Poly, we’ve spent a lot of time making our solutions more accessible. For example, one of our customer’s employees is highly motivated to contribute but has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and was self-conscious about the loud, high-pitched noises that his ventilator made during calls. Poly’s NoiseBlock AI technology has been built into all of our headsets and video bars to minimise non-human sounds. Our personal video bar was able to tell that the ventilator noises were not speech and blocked them out.

“Simple solutions like raised volume buttons enable the user to recognise controls by touch instead of sight. Brands should also consider ease of use and comfort for people who wear headdress, for example.

“Ultimately, technology needs to deliver an inclusive collaborative experience for all using video, voice and services expertise and this should be a key consideration from the beginning of the product design journey.”

Testing websites

Inclusive technology design also encompasses how company websites operate. According to Mariia Hrabovska, product designer at ELEKS, “Inclusion has become a ‘must’ and most businesses are well versed in playing tribute to the concept. Accessibility is one part of this and means that people can navigate online in a similar amount of time and effort as someone that does not have a disability. It means that people are empowered, can be independent, and will not be frustrated by something that is poorly designed or implemented.

“However in practice, companies have trouble with translating such values such as inclusivity and accessibility and then applying these concepts into visible measures and features. There are many websites that companies think are accessible and inclusive, but they actually are not. The underlying problem is most websites use software and accessibility experts, not people with disabilities or even from different cultures, to test their accessibility.”

To ensure effective testing of websites for accessibility, people who have impaired vision or hearing, among other disabilities, should be involved in the process.

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An omnichannel approach

Additionally, Anupam Gupta, chief product officer at Mediaocean, explained how an omnichannel approach can make tech design more inclusive across society.

“We should be mindful of the impact that fundamental technological decisions can have on digital ethics, alongside the social framing of that technology,” said Gupta.

“We need to ensure that no one is excluded based on financial privilege, or societal background, or physical and mental abilities.

“One way to deliver this promise is through a focus on an inclusive omnichannel technology which operates across channels and formats, addressing different needs. Interoperability is another key tenet: taking inputs from many different sources so that the platform can continually learn and improve.”

Inclusivity in health and social care

One particular industry that’s been notable for improving inclusivity of technology design is health and social care. Stuart Solomons, founder of Ernie Connects, explained: “In health and social care settings, you have people with a wide range of disabilities and conditions. Designing technology that is suitable for all is extremely difficult, but not impossible.

“For instance, there are companies out there developing person-centred devices that can be tailored specifically to the user. If they have sight impairments, text appears bigger. If they have hearing impairments, the sound is louder. Even residents/patients with cognitive conditions such as dementia can utilise technology built for them, being interactive and connecting them to loved ones through touch-to-talk video and audio features.

“Ultimately, inclusive technology is the preferred technology and is key to standing out against competitors.”

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.