Posted by: mumriken | September 27, 2011

What’s in the name of “computer”?

ABC80 - Z80 processor, the computer of 1980...

ABC 80 Basic and 8 bits...

The technological development is very rapid, and seems to speed up more and more. We still have computers on our desks, and they look about the same as they did more than 30 years ago. Of course there are differences and the computer of the 1980:s is not the same thing as the computer today, especially not with the introduction of smartphones and tablets. One question is of course why the progress hasn’t been greater. But from the point of view of Human-computer interaction (HCI) the issue becomes more complex. We have to decide when something is a computer or not. Which screens are computers and which are not? Is interacting with the menu on a TV the same thing as interacting with a computer? Or is Human-TV interaction something different from HCI? I would myself say: “No it isn’t!” With some emphasis, even.

The central topics of HCI are relatively well defined, but in the periferi, the definitions quickly becomes more fuzzy. There is even an ongoing debate on the scope of HCI, and how we should teach the topic to various groups of professionals. Human-computer interaction is not easy to define in itself, since it can be regarded as a supportive research (and education) field. I quote a recent facebook entry from my friend and HCI-philosopher, professor Masaaki Kuroso from Tokyo:

What is the core, the central zone, of HCI? Is there something useful and effective? Or, even a question, is there anything? HCI is a field formed from the surrounding edge; computer science, material science, mechanical engineering, cognitive psychology, ergonomics, design and social sciences. They came into this frontier from outside but didn’t form the core. The only reason they ran into the central area is a belief that there must be something that links the artifact(computer) and the human being. In other words, the handshaking could be said to be the core of the HCI.

Essentially, the meeting of the artifact and the human is the central core of Human-X interaction with any entity “X”. As professor Kuroso wrote, maybe we should even start to forget the “C” in HCI, and replace it with an “A” (for artifact). This would make many things much more transparent and straightforward. A “handshake” between a human and something else poses essentially the same problem area regardless of what that other something is. Understanding, ergonomic aspects, logical work flow, control, safety, trust and satisfaction are all properties of an “handshake interface” and an artifact, whether it is a physical computer (HCI) or the physical control of an electric wheel-chair or an aeroplane (HAI). We could even consider interaction with virtual artifacts within this term.

What is there to be gained from this change? On the surface it is only a lexical change, but the implications are quite large.

  • By looking at artifacts, we may, e.g., losen ourselves from the idea of computer users, which, to start with, is a large gain. The “user”, or as sometimes more specifically named “computer user”, is traditionally an unspecified, but very specific creature, who is more or less experienced in one or more skill dimensions. By considering the “user” we do not look at the artifact as a work tool, but as an implementation of the tool within a strange virtual environment. This is something we do not do with a “hammer user” or even a “carpenter’s toolkit user”. We just consider the best way to design and use a hammer for a specific task.
  • By looking at artifacts we will also be able to look at more diverse design spaces. Now we tend to separate design of virtual artifacts from physical design of tools. There is also a tendency to mimic physical tools and controls in computerized settings, which is not always a good idea. By looking at artifacts as a general term, we don’t separate the two design spaces and minimize the risk of copying the wrong properties and features.
  • There is an increasing involvement of computers in many physical tools, which causes strange borders within both research, education and application. Is a robot a computer, or is it far enough from being a computer that it warrants a completely different research direction (human-robot interaction). This may lead to barriers between researchers, meaning that valuable knowledge may disappear between the fields of research.

There are quite likely many other arguments to add, but these are in my opinion enough to make it arguable to form a more general term, such as “HAI” (Human-Artifact interaction).

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Posted by: mumriken | September 26, 2011

Is “Usable” a usable word?

My father is from Germany, and came to Sweden as a young man, where he met my mother (of which I am very happy, of course). In the family legend the following story is often told, and is part of the oral tradition. It relates to a time where language made more difference than today, and when it was not uncommon that people only knew Swedish. My mother’s father had a house keeper, who was a very determined woman, and she went to her best to arrange a perfect Swedish dinner according to what could be expected at that time, when my father was going to come on his first visit. She spoke no English (nor German) and my father had just started learning the odd language called Swedish.

The dinner was very pleasant and tasty, and when the house keeper afterwards asked him what he thought about the food, he thought it would be a great gesture to try to answer her in person (rather than having it translated by my mother). So he searched his vocabulary for suitable words, and in the end he finally presented her with his ruling in Swedish, which translates to something like this:

“Oh, it was quite edible”.

No need to say that the house keeper felt insulted by this comment. And of course that was just a matter of language difficulty. But this family legend has come to my mind recently, in a completely different manner, when I have started to think about how we use other words that end in “bility”. Within HCI we use the term “usability” to denote the quality of an interface, and “accessibility” to denote that it is possible to use the artefact by people with special needs. Well, why was the house keeper insulted by my father’s word? Because “edible” often means possible to eat (but no more). And if we think about the words above, “usable” means possible to use and “accessible” means possible to access.

But this is not a quality marker. We often say that “usability” has to be evaluated as a comparison. Just saying that this or that interface is “usable” is considered to be a useless statement. But of course it means that it is possible to use the artefact for a specific purpose. But possible to use is not equivalent to being a good tool. Wooden shoes can be used to hammer a nail into a soft wall, so they are usable for that purpose. But why aren’t carpenters equipped with wooden shoes? Because they are not GOOD for the purpose. They are good enough to be used in some emergency situation, but they are not GOOD.

This goes with lots of words in our field, and one problem that I can see is that we would settle for the “-able” and “-bility” parts of those words. We don’t want things that are usable, we want good products! We don’t want accessible buildings (through the back door), we want buildings that make us feel good entering them, regardless of our features.

So what should we do? Essentially, maybe we need to overlook the terminology, and what it implies, so that we start making products that are not merely usable, accessible (or edible), but good to use, and easy and comfortable to access (and wonderfully tasty to eat)! Maybe it is time to scrap the word “usability” and its siblings in the dustbin, and try to invent words that really say what we want to achive.

Posted by: mumriken | September 19, 2011

Good enough is not good enough…

Often it is said that it is OK as soon as it is good enough. But is it really. In Swedish we have the word “lagom“, which means neither too little nor too much. It even permeates our culture where people are not expected to boast about themselves. However, in terms of design, especially universal design, good enough neither is, nor should be good enough.

Hunter using the Action Trackchair

Inclusive supportive tool...

A technical artefact that works, and one that does its job in a usable way, is good enough, according to many. However, what does usable mean? It essentially means that it is possible to use the artefact. A single wooden shoe is usable for the purpose of hammering in a nail in a wall. A professional (!) hand drill is perfectly unusable if you want to drill a hole in a concrete wall (unless you have eons of time, of course). So the concept of “usable” does not really say anything about how good a tool is in itself. It is always a comparative term. So even if an object is usable, the interesting fact is whether it is more usable than a competing object.

Professor Håkan Eftring coined the superb term “useworthiness” as an important property of technology, meaning that an artifact needs not only be usable, but it also needs to be worth using in relation to the effort spent (as seen from the individual point of view). If, for example, an object requires more effort to use, than the gained advantage is worth, it will most likely not be used (unless it is the only option available). However, even an object that is useworthy, and in a sense “good enough” may not be well designed or good. It may still have design flaws, but it will still be usable if there is no alternative, or of all alternatives are worse. A useworthy tool is of course more usable than a tool that is not worthy of use, but it could also be only “good enough” in order to be usable.

So, why is good enough not good enough? If it is usable, then we can use it, or…? Well, if things were that simple we might just stay with a lot of things that work, but just barely. But a thing that works, and still leaves the user feeling vulnerable, unsafe, or ill at ease, is not good enough, even if it allows the person using it to do things that are valuable. If you need to show yourself as vulnerable, less valued, disabled or even displayed, this might be enough to make you feel stigmatized. Many times, I feel that this is unnecessary, since there are many solutions that are not just good enough, but really, really good. Inclusion is not enough, but we need inclusion without distinction…

Posted by: mumriken | August 1, 2010

The Art of Design for Elderly and Disabled

I heard on the radio today a person who commented the obvious that people grow more different with age, rather than more similar. This statement was made in connection with senior apartments, and the services provided in those places. The living for senior citizens is of course different in different countries, but the statement evoked some thoughts in a more general way.

In disability research as well as in research on elderly people, there is a tendency to talk about “the needs” of a disabled or elderly person as if they all have the same needs. I have been at lectures and presentations where the presenter repeatedly talks about “Elderly people are so and so…”, and similar about people with impairments.

The truth is of course, that elderly and disabled people are not so and so (this shouldn’t even need to be stated). We are all individuals, also when we get older or have an impairment of sorts. By talking about groups of people we are simplifying the problem vastly. And in simplifying to groups of people we run the risk of missing big issues in the research of supportive and facilitating technology.

So how should we approach the issue about design for elderly and impaired people without falling into the trap of generalizing? Well, the suggestion is to do some reverse engineering on that statement. Reverse engineering is in software development to unravel the thoughts behind a solution (a program).

When we talk about the special needs for a certain group, we generalize on the needs. This means that we make an average measure, a statistical construction of what a group of people have in common. Now, all members of this group do not have the same characteristics. But, again in the statistical sense, some needs are more common than others. Therefore, a reverse engineering of the “elderly” or “disabled” groups should render us a certain set of characteristics, in a sense in the same way as the ICF defines different kinds of impairments. So when we talk about design for elderly, we should rather talk about designing for the characteristics that often, but not always follow from being old or having a certain impairment.

The art of design for impaired and elderly people, then becomes the art of knowing about the set of characteristics that need support for certain groups of people (but not applying to all). So for senior people we might need to know how to design for bad hearing, for bad vision, and bad memory (just to give a few examples) but without assuming that that is the “group signature”. There are senior people with perfect vision and hearing, and a superb memory.

There are people with severe physical impairments that manage to go scuba diving and skiing, whereas some people do not. Impairment and age are not general properties, but individual features that influence different persons differently.

So the Art of Design for Elderly and Disabled is not really “the Art of Design for Elderly and Disabled” but rather “the Art of Seeing what an Impairment Implies for the Individual and Knowing the Characteristic Needs of Elderly and Impaired”.

So, does this make a difference? Yes, it does! A big one at that… If we talk about the needs of elderly people, we degrade them as a group. We impose a self image as less potent, and in need of help and support. If we talk about the needs and how they can be remedied, it is probably easier for a person to accept that this needs to be helped, than if it becomes a “sign” of growing (too) old (to count). Thus, for the individual, the shift in perspective becomes important, and for the researcher/practitioner it becomes a more focused view on the design need.

Posted by: mumriken | May 3, 2010

The hidden apartheid

We have seen the fights to stop apartheid in South Africa, something that has been supported by many all over the world. To treat different groups of people differently is in most cases considered to be “not OK”. In a civilized world all people should be regarded and treated as individuals and given equal rights.

However, even if the apartheid is officially looked down upon, it is there, and for a person who has an impairment of some kind, this becomes evident ever so often. It is never spelled out, but left to discover by the individual from case to case.

This is of course very clever, since an official policy of discrimination will be criticized by people soon enough, whereas conditions that you are aware of only when they apply to you are more likely to remain unseen (since they hope that the individual is not strong enough to take action, and besides, who cares about the experience of someone who is already looked down upon?).

The apartheid I am talking about is thus the difference in attitude and encountering that a person meets when he or she is in a situation of any kind. It might be just the way someone talks to you (would you like to have people talk v-e-r-y c-l-e-a-r-l-y to you just because you have sprained an ancle and can’t use your legs?) or even how they don’t talk to you (“what kind of disease does he have, since he can’t walk” asked to the personal assistance. Or it might be how people look at you because you walk hand in hand with a person who is NOT in a wheel chair (their eyes spelling “how can THEY love each other, and can they have sex?”).

But that is still the individual preconceptions that appear in peoples minds. It is explainable, if not really excusable. Very difficult to understand is instead how companies can do the same thing in their businesses.

I wrote earlier about how the Swedish train company SJ refused to accept “wheel chairs” when a person wanted to book a ticket on the train. That is a typical event of hidden apartheid.

A similar but even more sophisticated example is by a travel company that offers holiday trips to nice vacation facilities. When asked, they offered transfer by taxi from the airport to the hotel for 3000 SEK. If you wanted the bus transfer, it would cost you over 5000 SEK. If you are in a wheel chair, that is. For the rest of the population the cost is 165 SEK (and 65 for young people).

So, a person who is in a wheel chair has to manage the transfer by him- or herself, if it should stand a chance to be manageable. Is this fair? Is it reasonable? I wouldn’t think so. Of course, there is an extra cost involved somewhere. But the big deal is that this could be avoided with some planning.

I can hear the talk at the travel company:

-“Should we arrange extra facilities in the bus so that we can take wheel chairs?”
-“No, if you look at the statistics, we have no people in wheel chairs on these trips”
-“But if we get one?”
-“Well, then we have to arrange for a special transfer, but that is expensive.”

A year later?

-“Hmm, there has been no increase in the number of people in wheel chairs traveling here”.
-“So, you see, it would have been unnecessary to arrange for this in the standard bus, there is no need”

If anyone thought this was a good reasoning, then read again. It might be worth considering if the passengers in wheel chairs are missing because they don’t want to travel, or simply because the special arrangement costs to much for the individual.

Anyway, the company in question also suggested that the potential customer asked some other company instead. Well, I will do that! I don’t want to favour a company that manages a business with apartheid rules. And I will tell my friends too…

Indeed, I will write a letter to the company tomorrow, and if they can’t give me a good enough answer (or if they refuse to answer) I will mention the company here and in my lectures as a good example of bad attitude towards people with impairments. I only tell about my experiences and what I heard, so I should be alright with that.


This article is mirrored in a different wording on my Swedish blog.

Posted by: mumriken | April 10, 2010

To accept…

Some things are difficult to accept. This is something I have noticed quite clearly during the last six months or so. To be formally healthy (according to the board of health insurance) is not the same thing as being cured and healthy in reality. After a burned out syndrome, this is true to a very high degree. You limp around on your broken soul and mind. You try to run as well as you can on the brain cells that are working, in order to manage to work, and still have some time left over to live. And as with all injuries, the risk is large that you will hurt yourself again if you try too much on an old wound.

Currently I am limping around on a mental leg, that has just been released from the plaster cast that has been surrounding it for some time. This leg is weak, and cannot support too much. But the limping doesn’t show. Nobody can see or realize how much I can handle before it gets too much. Not even myself, sometimes. This in turn also means that it becomes difficult for others to really understand how my world works (or not). It is hard for other people to understand (and maybe also to accept) that I need to have my naps during work time, or that I have to lie down and sleep for an hour after work every day.

It is difficult to understand that I really don’t remember some things. I used to, but I can’t any more. And you can’t see that I cannot remember, or that I am dead tired. Thus, I feel very lazy and even stupid when I lie down for a mental rest. I tend to call it my “meditation” in order to justify it, also for myself. And it sounds better than “I am sleeping”. But as hard as it might be for others to realize and accept this situation, just as hard or more is it for me. I don’t realize my limits until I have already passed them. I have not learned to predict the situations that I cannot handle, and I haven’t learned how to use the tools I need in order to live a somewhat normal life again. I have not accepted my impairment yet, even though I can see the disabling effect from it.

Currently, there is just something that is wrong, and of course, that cannot be me who is that way. In order to keep going, I have to accept, not only that this is a mental impairment (doesn’t that sound bad?), but also that this condition will be a central part of my life for a long time, if not the rest of my life. I am not the same person as the one who ran into the famous wall of stress, and crashed head first into it. I am the person I am today, and that person is difficult for me to understand. But I have started to realize that this person is someone that I have to live with for quite some time now. I can’t escape him, and he can’t leave me. Therefore I have to learn how to accept and handle all these new features, that come with this deal.

I have realized that it is difficult to handle something that you don’t accept, so now it is time to start accepting the person that I have become, and the person that I am… now! I have to accept myself. It is only after that this has happened, that others will be able to accept me as I am.

Posted by: mumriken | April 7, 2010

Being a Wheel Chair

Who is a person, that you think of her? This is an old quote, but sadly timeless. The sad fact is that we too often think of our fellow humans in terms of labels. When I passed a neighbour and his son, I clearly heard the boy (3 years old) say: “Another neighbour!”. I was thus promptly given the “neighbour” label.

This is often not a very big problem. Getting a common label, such as man or woman, doesn’t really hurt us.  However, when the label is given with a diminishing or identifying (classifying) meaning this is a little bit more difficult to handle. To identify someone by a label is often used to mark the fact that the person is either not normal, or belongs to another “group” of people. Hair colour, age and similar properties are often used to denote a person’s identity.

This is often not made deliberately, but it is still not good. A person who happens to be 39 years old, would probably not think of herself as the “39-year old” as it is often expressed in news papers. The label that is the easiest to accept is probably your name. But there are also many who do not agree with the “identity” given to them by their name. They change their names, to a name that will express who they are in a better way than the old name, and that is of course very important.

To talk about people as their properties, or their labels, rather than the individuals they are, is of course a very simple way to characterize the people we talk about. There are, on the other hand, properties that are used to diminish a persons role. Regardless whether this is done with or without intention, the effect is the same. We have our prerogatives that easily surface in how we talk about other people. Or, for that matter how we talk to others.

I heard about a person who was about to buy a ticket for the train from Stockholm to Umeå (some 600 kilometers). She called the ticket office upon which the following scene was developing:

– “Good morning, I want to have a ticket on the train from Stockholm to Umeå, tomorrow”.
– “Fine, I will give you a reservation”.
– “I need space for a wheel chair”
– “Oh, then you can’t have a reservation, we don’t take wheel chairs”
– “Well, I am not really a wheel chair, I am a customer and I need to take the train to Umeå”
– “Sorry, we don’t take wheel chairs”

Full stop! Since she hadn’t booked her trip well in advance, there was no more help to get. She called the travel service (for disabled people) and was told that there is an order time of three weeks for a travel by taxi.

This is all just because she is a wheel chair, and the train company don’t take wheel chairs. This example is almost comical in its tragedy, but it is also a good (or bad?) example of how people are connected to their supportive technology. If you are in need of a wheel chair, it means that you in many peoples eyes also “become a wheel chair”. This in turn causes you to no longer be a human any more. If you are using a wheel chair you have to plan your trips at least three weeks in advance, and of course this works sometimes, but not always.

The trouble is that what many people have difficulties understanding is that the technical artifacts often play very different roles for a person with an impairment of some kind. A person who wears glasses may not be afraid of heights, but can feel an irrational fear of dropping the glasses instead. A person who uses a wheel chair can sometimes refer to it as his or her “legs”. It is interesting how this is perceived by creatures who don’t have the preconceptions we have. My dog puts her paws on the wheels of the wheel chair in order to get som contact. She has accepted the wheel-legs as something natural (she has even learned that they can “step” on her paws if she is not careful).

As I have done a few times, and although it might seem slightly far-fetched, this can be compared to wearing glasses. To a person who has used glasses for a long time, the glasses almost become part of the body. Exchangeable, but nevertheless a body part. But where a person in a wheel chair is stuck in his or her chair of standard making, we wearers of glasses can select from all kinds of shapes and colors in order to match our personality. So the glasses are a large part of the identity, which I assume that many children have been made aware of in school.

Still, I wish for the day when wheel chairs (or other enabling technology) are as recognized as glasses are today. However, I think there is still a long way to go before people in common think in terms of inclusion rather than stigmatizing. I think that the first step will be to make people see the people and not their properties, especially when the properties are seen in terms of impairments, or for that matter, the need for supportive technology. That we have to consider technology at some point is probably inevitable. But the catch is to do it with a human oriented perspective, rather than seeing the  person as the wheel chair that she is not, but that she needs…

Posted by: mumriken | April 7, 2010

Into a (Brave?) New World

This is a blog about my way into a completely new world, the world of disability research. It is an interesting and fascinating travel, but on the same time…. SCARY! If you don’t visit this world, you don’t have a chance of understanding what it can be like. And even if you are visiting, but still just a visitor, the world is sometimes incomprehensible.

I will try not to make this a whining blog. First, because I am just a visitor in this world. I am visually impaired, that is, I am wearing glasses, and I can’t manage without them. But this is actually an impairment which is almost not considered an impairment any more. It is only slightly disabling. There is much more to discover out there. And that is what this blog will be about. The travel into the world of disability. I will try to give my view of this travel, from the start, which took place about five years ago, when i was doing research on robotics.

As part of my research, I was interested in how people with physical impairments regarded the possibility of having a service robot at home. In the study I was introduced to six informants with varying degrees of physical impairments, from people with rheumatic problems, to people who were completely immobilized after a diving accident.

I didn’t know then that this path was to become a major part of my life, both in work and in my private life. But that was what happened. I met a sweet girl who was doing wheelies all the time. At work I realised that the disability research area, as seen from a technicians point of view is something that offers many interesting topics. And in my private life, I often get very angry at the current state of the art, when accessibility and inclusion is concerned. When you have a girlfriend who is in a wheel chair, then you start seeing that which should be obvious, but which isn’t.

In this blog I will describe both the private perspective, and my research perspective on disability, impairment and inclusion.

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