Let’s take a trip into the future. The year is 2300. Humanity is on a voyage through the stars. We have finally breached the final frontier and set off in search for extra-terrestrial life. The only problem? If we do find life out there, how can we communicate? We don’t know what language they speak, what they’re physically capable of, or how their culture has shaped their understanding of the universe around them.
On board our ship is a computer that has been created with true universal design at its core. Its aim is simple – to facilitate communication between us and the potential ‘them’. Building on a long history of constantly improving technological, linguistic and design accessibility, the computer is perhaps humanity’s best hope for peacefully engaging with extra-terrestrial life once we find it. But how did we create this ‘universally accessible’ computer? It all starts with the foundations of digital accessibility and usability begun by innovations in the early 21st century.
Back in the present day, technology continues to be more integrated into our daily lives. Digital experiences are constantly at our fingertips, from our smart watches to our desktop computers. This has led to an increasingly vast range of use cases that require new and innovative ways to improve accessibility for a variety of users and needs.
We’re already seeing significant advancement in new hardware which enables users without the use of both hands thanks to the implementation of innovative controllers and wearables. It’s well known that long-term, repetitive keyboard use can, in some cases, lead to health issues such as repetitive strain injury. For individuals with only one usable hand, this poses an even greater problem. Tap is a company that creates wearable, accessible solutions that monitor finger tap patterns to enable people to type without need for a physical keyboard.
Or course, where accessibility leads, usability follows. While providing a solution for one-handed computer users, the Tap line of products presents everyone with more fluid experiences when paired with virtual reality technologies, which have traditionally relied upon cumbersome controllers in order to replicate or replace the standard keyboard.
Accessible controllers are also becoming more mainstream in the world of video games – Microsoft released their Xbox Adaptive Controller in 2018, while Sony has recently announced that they are working on ‘Project Leonardo’, a fully customizable controller that can be used in a variety of configurations. From the hardware community, the message is clear: accessibility means providing people the ability to interact with products or services in the ways that suit their needs. It means choice.
It’s not just hardware that is seeing significant strides in accessibility and usability. Our digital experiences are also changing, allowing users to tailor settings to their specific needs. The International Paralympic Committee website is perhaps one of the best examples of this, offering users control over a wide range of accessibility tools. There are several shortcut profiles available, designed to cater towards users with color blindness, dyslexia or ADHD, and additional settings allowing site visitors to modify text spacing, cursor size, line height, etc. to suit their individual requirements. In a digital world, we are freed from physical limitations typically placed on products. The Paralympic website has taken the possibilities offered through digital experiences to provide an accessible experience that underlines their core values as a brand and organization, acting as a spearhead promoting accessibility for all.
As much as our products and services are changing to promote accessibility, there are also much more fundamental shifts at play. Our languages, the core building blocks of interpersonal communication, are also continuing to morph as debate rages on over issues including inclusive language. While Sweden has seen a pervasive uptake of the newly created gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’, other countries, such as France and Spain, are still trying to decide where this type of inclusive terminology fits into their languages. Even as the Real Academia Española and the Académie Française say no to more gender inclusive terms, debate over how best to adapt continues.
There are other areas in which linguistic inclusivity and accessibility continue to evolve. This is especially true at a time when our digital experiences continue to become increasingly global and a need for localization friendly interfaces should be a top priority for companies. Tunic is a game that uses an incomprehensible language as a means to create a mysterious tale for players to explore, and it could hold the secret to using design elements to open digital experiences to illiterate users.
The game features a number of collectibles – the most important of which form a digital instruction manual that explains the various actions the player can take in the game, as well as show how to progress through the story. The only challenge is that the guide is written in a completely made up script for the most part. As a result, the player needs to rely on carefully designed images as well as paying close attention to the information presented to them. This manner of sharing data could seem a little obtuse, but for our future counterparts on their spaceship, this may well be one way they can modify their communication tools to be more accessible to extra-terrestrial life forms.
Crucially, across technology, language and software, the direction of accessibility offerings clearly indicates that enabling users to choose how they interact with a product or service results in greater universal accessibility. Providing users the option to control various display settings such as contrast, font size, or saturation opens the door for a wider range of potential users, while also leading to innovation for everyone.
When designing our futuristic computer to facilitate communication between humanity and extra-terrestrial life, we would need to make it as accessible as possible – a true example of universal design. We would need to include a variety of display and input options – who knows what these extra-terrestrial lifeforms are capable of? We’d need to incorporate everything we know about inclusive design and language in order to ensure the experience was as comprehensible as possible for a user who, very likely, wouldn’t be able to understand a single word in front of them.
Accessibility innovations have long been at the forefront of human advancement – even the typewriter was impacted by one man’s wish to enable his blind sister to write. Who knows where our journey to improve inclusion will lead us next? Could it be the building block that sets us off towards the stars, where we’ll make contact with extra-terrestrial life for the first time?