How to enhance everyday understanding among different users and cultures
This article originally appears in Design for All Institute of India May 2016 (Prof Pekka Harni, Finland) Vol-11 No-5.
by SANNA SIMOLA | Designer, Researcher, Finland
In this reflection I will discuss challenges of creating public services and communication forms that should reach all recipients in equal way. In 2012-2014, a working group of design and accessibility experts was gathered by the Finnish Ministry of Transports and Communication to rethink the guidelines for accessible communication. The imminent EU directive on WCAG 2.01 created need for a new guide to be distributed for all the Finnish public and private enterprises creating web content and public services, using information tools and strategies from the simplest to the most complex ones.
GOOD EVERYDAY DESIGN AND INTUITIVE INTERFACES
Design is a great form of non-verbal communication, and in many cases it reaches universal multicultural audiences with no need to question “What is this for? How can I use this?”. The main purpose of good everyday design is to make mass-produced things, public services and systems understandable to all, so that you can easily know how to handle different artifacts, interfaces and tools to get your operations done, preferably with joy and pleasure. Unfortunately, you need to interact with many public systems and websites which don’t meet any common usability criteria or logical synthesis of forms and functions. The problems of accessibility (when design is for nobody) are mainly due to lack of design knowledge among service providers and public procurement of goods and services.
upper: highway ticket machine, Italy
lower: vending machine of the electric fare cards for the public transportation, Istanbul. Both are difficult to use without knowing locallanguage.
When the interaction with computers and other (smart) devices started to challenge our cognitive skills, it was popular to speak about interfaces.2 Vending machines, domestic appliances and remote controls preceded the virtual world of our PCs. Good usability became a mainstream issue in industrial design: how to make complex things simple and clear, understandable to everyone. User- friendliness meant products that don’t need massive manuals or courses to learn their functions. You don’t need to be an engineer to domesticate new technologies. You should not feel stupid every time you try to encrypt a strange interface in public services: it’s the design made without usability criteria that is stupid.
The Finnish company Nokia became a market leader when it produced the first mobile phones that were easy to use. When the models became too many and too complicated,3 the company lost its market position. At the same time Apple’s iPhone (just one model in two colours) started to sell world wide for the same reason of simplicity (as beauty): it was easy to learn to use it, even if the touch-screen was a radically new interface innovation. Furthermore you could adapt it to many special needs, like those of visually impaired users. Apple was already usability design leader, well-known for its great Macintosh interfaces and stylish designs, that was always a nice surprise to consumers.
But what is making an easy-to-use interface so nice, intuitive and good? Why don’t we apply a similar design concept or navigation principles to all the websites and online information of public services as well? Why do we think that bad design might be more cost-effective? Or not design at all?
In 2016 we have devices that can be adapted to a fantastic amount of uses with images, sound, video, tv, navigation tools and much more. But how many of us can really own smart phones and tablets – and know how to use them?
EQUALITY, DIVERSITY, USER EXPERIENCE, AND WCAG 2.0 EU DIRECTIVE
In 2012-2014 my colleague from Cities for All Helsinki project,4 Sami Virtanen, Special Advisor on Accessibility at the Finnish Federation of Hard of Hearing, had the task to form a working group of design and accessibility experts for the Finnish Ministry of Transports and Communication to create guidelines (for a new guidebook) on accessible communication facing the challenge of the new EU directive on WCAG 2.0 – to be distributed for all the Finnish public and private enterprises providing web content and public services, using information tools and strategies from the simplest to the most complex ones. The group agreed very soon, that the topic of accessible communication can not be limited to web content, because it would discriminate against those not having the latest (smart) equipment. Actually, it would be a new form of disability not being able to access to the internet from home, or not having the requested broadband speed in the area.
Today, many of the traditional face-to-face services are becoming virtual internet-based pages: you need to navigate alone, and serve yourself. This may not be a problem to a younger digitally native generation, but the ageing population with little experience in computing is getting lost with this speed of change and lack of modern devices. Not every citizen is having the same equipment to follow the public services switching in the internet. And if they have, they may have problems in navigation and interaction with badly designed web pages.
How many times do you feel a strong frustration when trying to find the main issue on a corporate web page – hidden in a jungle of all possible menus from recruitments to corporate history? If you want to travel by train, you need the timetable and maybe the tickets to buy, not all the trivial information about the company. In Finland, for example, the state railway company is closing the traditional ticket selling desks and insisting all travellers buy their tickets online and show them on the train with their smartphones. How about the tourists?
DIGITAL CUSTOMIZATION AND MULTICHANNEL ENGINEERING
Some users need adaptive technologies and supporting “applications” to follow TV and web content with their PCs and TVs. These accessibility resources, such as graphic user interface concerns for blind computer users have been widely studied,5 but this knowledge published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is not widely spread among web design service producers, providers and customers. The new EU directive on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines WCAG 2.0 is challenging the public sector to adopt new accessibility regulations and to create all the information content respecting sensorial and cognitive diversities. You can consider the hard of hearing with subtitles and volume options, give a video-box in sign-language for the deaf who cannot read, and produce written material in forms that can be translated in Braille display or auditive forms, like synthesised speech. And last but not least, how to communicate in a multicultural society where just one language or alphabet type is not enough?
The guidelines to accessible communication for all, are not only technicalities of “translations” or software adaptations to consider. When not speaking about special adaptive designs for minorities, but about inclusive design considerations in mass produced items, services, and environments, how could we enhance the use of basic good design principles to make one solution to fit better to all? This means different social groups, different generations and levels of education, and cultural diversity. A senior citizen with bad sight and hearing problems, and e.g. no knowledge of foreign languages, or no command of computer skills, may have feelings of lost independence with badly designed information and service environments. This can happen to each and every one of us. The communication design of public sector needs better follow-up by design professionals, because the key answer to shared spaces and services is to make them work for a majority, considering properly the problems of minorities, as part of the whole.
Too many manuals are made too heavy and repulsive looking instead of making them beautiful and inspiring. The use of information graphics and information architecture is the best way to start putting together “instructions for use” and tips for creating good communication materials. Furthermore, the world and the web is full of useful information, but we don’t know how to find it. The wise suggestions by the users with disabilities can be worked out by software developers and designers outside the academic research groups when the usability data is available. How to obtain information about these existing sources?
Above: Audio guide for blind & visually-impaired, Vienna
What you need is an address, a map and a portal to go further in. To be accessible for all, a guide should be published open source on the internet and downloadable in many different pages. And to be effective, it should be like a map, connecting useful links all over the world. To not get immediately outdated, a guide should be continuously updated by those who develop new solutions and services: that’s why the open source publishing in accessibility issues is important. One gate or portal to reach successive deeper research links. The beauty of internet-based services is in their intercultural potential: web translators help us and google search helps us further on. We can’t deny the importance of good coaching in the matter, so that every professional in communications business could be aware of accessibility issues.
TOOLS OF VISUAL DESIGN, INFO DESIGN AND SIGNAGE
Many of you may have seen the bubble chart graphics by the Swedish company Gapminder with Dr. Hans Rosling: global surveys visualised greatly with animated statistics. The idea of complex issues shown in very immediate and impressive visuals works greatly with our perception of amounts. The power of info graphics and pictograms should be considered and recognised better in public services and web designs.
A public interface or information should always be designed to beginners’ level. Order, clarity and plain, concise communication. When words are not understood or quick enough to read, an image can tell much more. Maps, signs, and instructions for use, are great examples of common signage; such as traffic signs, safety instructions and labels warning with symbols, icons and colours.
Above: Toilet sign with embossed letters and braille in a huge hall. Are you really going to touch the doors to find the right toilet? Heathrow airport, UK
Above: Highly visible toilet- signs at airports in Lyon and Helsinki
Above: Highly visible toilet- signs at airports in Lyon and Helsinki
Above: DIY WC sign, Warsaw
Pictorial languages have been successfully developed to help children with learning difficulties. One of these methods is the Canadian Bliss language, working with PCs, while the Finnish Imagetalk6 was adapted to mobile devices by Nokia and others. The study of the correctly designed metaphors is a professional design task, to make illustrations work smoothly on multichannel devices.
The use of visual language, the meanings of metaphors-be they symbols, icons or indexes-might help in this global jungle of intercultural communication. We know how washing instructions can fit in a stamp-size label in our garments. The symbols tell us exactly what we need to know. An opposite case is food packaging with the same text in several languages: more languages you add, less you can read, because the font size decreases. At the end, we have the same information in 7 invisible languages instead of one well visible information with symbols or icons.
Above: Bus platform with airport connection at the Helsinki central railway station. Why is the air- plane icon not on the top instead of the multiple languages? Overlapping number systems are confusing.
Above: Bronze map for blind and visually–impaired people. This is more like a tactile sculpture and you just happen to find it. Rome, Italy
Today we have a new diversity problem with refugees who can not read or write at all, and whose own language is written in a different way. The Finnish society is a very reading and text-based one: children start to read early, they are used to reading the subtitles in TV programs as well, and the school-examinations are almost never oral. This is different from Southern Europe, which is more auditive and emotive, less silent and more expressive. You may speak loudly with your hands and touch the person you are speaking to – something that might violate the invisible personal distance of nordic individuals. We have lots of cultural “registers” to consider in communication issues (what you can do or not, what can be misunderstood, misinterpreted and lost in translation). Maybe we can face these culturally bound values with studies of affective communication and find new solutions with wearable computing, channelling the “correct message” to the beholder of the culturally adapted device. Meanwhile we are creating signs with graphics and alphanumerical invitations to obey our culturally bound rules. We do it with our outlooks as well. Every little thing can be a message. And even if we don’t mean it, someone else can get it as a message and misunderstand it. The semantic values are culturally bound.
Above: Clothing recommendation for the holy place, Istanbul
No Sitting signs, left: Istanbul, right: Venice
Mason ad is taped on old mationary work, Venice
Above: WC sign: men with skirt and women with trousers, Istanbul
Above: Toilet sign, not so accessible…, Venice
COMMON MISTAKES WHEN DESIGNING WITH DIVERSITY
My impression is, that many times, when solving inclusion problems, a real design process is lacking and there is a mere translation of the “normal” or a technological adaptation: like Braille or other tactile signs in impossible sizes and places, a map in a place that you cannot find, a signage to touch in odd and dirty places, instead of one to read with your stick on the ground. A text or web page may appear without a proper layout or use of basic graphic design tools. It may also be so long that you lose the message.
When listening to a broadcast of news in plain language you hear a robot sounding voice without any colours or melody of a normal spoken language (that in my opinion makes you understand more even if you don’t understand that language: you can feel the moods). The experts (the ones who know the problems very well), and the users (the people with special needs or disabilities) should find the innovative solutions in co– design processes with professional designers who can see beyond the obvious.
I would like to conclude this communication accessibility issue stating that a great amount of things would become more accessible with a normal communication design practice. Some issues are engineering based software developments, but many others might work greatly with a little help of design thinking: The new multicultural challenges with the request of reading and writing in foreign language could be avoided by using cartoons, pictorial communication, and storytelling with videos.
Keep it simple is a very good advice in designing for all. Fortunately lots of things can be designed for different sizes and perception needs. And fortunately there are clever portable devices (such as eye- glasses, smartphones with navigation applications etc.) to adapt different physical conditions to the shared public environment.
Above: Pasta packages with too many languages
Above: Tactile paving for blind and visually-impaired pedestrians goes toward the wall.
Audio signage in Venice for tourists works greatly for visually-impaired and with the devices of the hard of hearing. The technology integrated in the paving is not disturbing the historical environ- ment. In Venice, there is an ancient way–finding system for pedestrians hidden in the paving: tiles in one direction are meaning direction San Marco (S. Marc Square) and in the other way the perpen– dicular “calles”.
“A new momentum for web accessibility is provided by the ratification of the convention by the EU in December 2010, the adoption of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), the finalisation of the work on standardization mandate 376 to incorporate accessibility in public ICT procurements, and the European Commission’s proposal for a Directive on the accessibility of the public sector bodies’ websites.”
- Many great books by Donald A. Norman (founding Chair of the Dept of Cognitive Science at the University of California San Diego), from “Learning and Memory” (1982), and “The psychology of everyday things” (1988) to “The Invisible Computer” (1998). “Il Progetto delle interfacce” (1993 Domus Academy) edited by Giovanni Anceschi was an early Italian collection of articles about interaction and discourse between users and artifacts. In 1998, the first Finnish doctoral dissertation in industrial design on this subject was defended by Turkka Keinonen at UIAH with “One-dimensional usability”, a study on heart-rate monitors interfaces.
- The hierarchy of contents of our mobile devices should follow the main functions that a common user needs. So, the function of making a phone-call or writing a message should be quickly available, immediate, and never hidden under other choices like “utilities, tools, settings”. Moreover, we should have a basic standard calling principle in all the mobile phone models for reasons of security in cases of alarm.
- Cities for All Helsinki conference and exhibition were organised in the occasion of the WDC Helsinki 2012 with EIDD Design for All Europe, Finnish Association of Industrial Designers TKO/ Ornamo, The Finnish Federation of Hard of Hearing (Kuuloliitto), Avaava and Hahmo Design. The exhibition toured in Europe between 2012-2014. Read more on this newsletter issue May- June 2012.
- Information and Communication Technology Devices such as screen magnification software, screen reading software, computer controlled braille embossers, web-browsers for non-visual output etc.
http://ec.europa.eu/ipg/standards/accessibility/eu_policy/index_en.htm http://www.euroblind.org/resources/guidelines/nr/88 http://www.rnib.org.uk/knowledge-and-research-hub https://www.uiciechi.it
http://www.eud.eu/news/european-platform/partners/european-federation-hard-hearing-people/ http://www.hearinglink.org/connect/useful-organisations/useful-organisations-international/ http://www.mcmaster.ca/accessibility/info_communication.html
About the Author
Sanna Simola (Helsinki, Finland) is a design thinker, researcher and educator. She studied industrial design in Italy at the ISIA in Florence, graduating in 1988 with a thesis on design and wayfinding for the visually impaired that was supervised by Enzo Mari.
Since 1995, she has been active on the academic side of design, first teaching industrial design at the University of Lapland and more recently working on her doctoral thesis, “Design Diversities: Design as a System of Communication. Italy vs. Finland”, at the Aalto University in Helsinki.
Sanna has been active in the Finnish Association of Industrial Designers (TKO) since the early 1990s and has served as the organisation’s president for six years, in 2007–2012. In 2012 she served also as Vice–President of the Finnish Association of Designers Ornamo. In 2008–2012, Sanna served as a Member of the Board of BEDA (The Bureau of European Design Associations) and participated in EIDD Design for All Europe activities on behalf of Ornamo. On the occasion of the WDC Helsinki 2012 year, she organised the EIDD congress in Helsinki, hosted by Ornamo. As “Chairmama” of the Cities for All Helsinki conference organisation she was responsible for the international conference program content. She is the co-editor of a book about the history of the industrial design profession in Finland, published by TKO and Avain on the occasion of the first World Industrial Design Day in 2008.