November 30, 2020

The Need for Accessible, Gestural Interfaces

by Benjamin Baker, Producer

Gesture-based interactive

Years ago there was an outcry regarding a “racist soap dispenser”: a motion-sensing soap dispenser only worked for people with light-colored skin. This was a major, glaring, and likely embarrassing mistake. It’s hard to imagine that the designers set out to create a solution that failed so many, but they did.

Today, COVID has jump-started a race to build even more touchless interactions into our everyday lives, and I see versions of this mistake being repeated. Designers, presumably trying to create better, safer, and more enjoyable interfaces, are failing to consider even basic accessibility requirements. The reason? When designers think of themselves as the default human, they design for and only test on themselves. We need to do better. We can’t keep filling the world with more racist soap dispensers.

At Bluecadet, we try to avoid the designer-as-default-human pitfall by taking a more user-centric approach to innovation, something exemplified by how we think about accessibility. Our studio’s recent R&D experiments with gesture-based touchless design have been a lesson in how centering accessibility early in the prototyping phase can lead to better final results. By taking accessibility into account from the earliest experiments, we learned quickly, fixed mistakes, and built better interfaces.

Gesture-based interactive

An initial prototype activated different visual zones via a “grabbing” gesture. This was later revised to be a time-based activation.

A critical step in prioritizing accessibility in design is to test your ideas with a broad range of users. I use a manual wheelchair, and when the R&D team ran some of their early ideas and prototypes by me, we made discoveries that are going to improve touchless interactive experiences for all users.

Our biggest lesson from those experiments: Keep it simple. With every gesture they designed, I challenged the team by asking, “How complex is that gesture? How many muscles are involved in that movement? How much range of motion do you need to make that movement?” Those are all important questions to ask when designing for users with limited mobility, but simple gestures are also easier for anyone to learn and execute.

The team experimented with some complex gestural moves that may have been more powerful or impressed other designers, but those gestures would not have suited users in the long run. It turned out that most of our test users, limited mobility or not, preferred the simple and familiar movements once they had the chance to try them out.

Gesture-based interactive

We learned that the more familiar the gesture the more comfortable users felt.

Collaborating with our R&D team on gesture-based touchless design was a great experience. We had a chance to prototype interfaces for a touchless future and we used some cool tech, but, by centering accessibility concerns, we did it in a way that could lead to real solutions.

When designers neglect to test with or even think about any users who are not like themselves, problems are going to come up. Often, when it’s too late. Consider the new Hunters Point Library in Queens: it was initially praised as an architectural marvel, until disability rights advocates and parents pointed out that the building was disastrously inaccessible and in need of immediate retrofitting. Those changes will be costly and inconvenient. Frankly, they also come across as rude, like the designers don’t care about their users.

To put it simply, an iterative, user-centered, prototype-filled process is imperative for designs that include as many users as possible. Taking that process seriously from the start has payoffs down the line. That’s why accessibility and inclusive design are at the core of Bluecadet’s design process, not a box to check but a key measure of success.

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