This is a transcript of one of a series of discussions with W4A researchers that took place during W4A 2015. It features Simon Harper and Markel Vigo, University of Manchester, UK.
Simon and Markel talk about how their accessibility research also impacts fields beyond people with disabilities. Simon also reflects on the birth and development of W4A as a research conference.
David Sloan: So, Simon and Markel, you both work at Manchester University, and Manchester University has a really long and important track record in accessibility research. Can you talk us through some of the things you’ve worked on? What’s the story of Manchester’s accessibility research?
Simon: Yeah, so we’ve been doing research on accessibility in Manchester since, well about 2000-ish, maybe a bit before that. And, what we do is we try and understand the problems in a web page, understand why the communication that the web page is trying to give to a user isn’t working, and then instead of expecting the user to do something we try and pull apart the web page and intelligently put that web page back together again such that the user can get the experience they want. And we do that on the fly, so we try and do that at the time the user needs it…try to predict how they might want it. So they might want it adapted at different times for different purposes and so we try to predict that.
Simon: And so we started off very simply, with a project that really looked at how the technology that displays the web site, how that could be leveraged to have some meaning so that we could say that we knew what, say, a menu item was, we knew what a drop-down widget was, and that kind of thing. So we were then able to understand what that meant and how we could better render that, how to present that to people who had a visual disability, at the time that they needed it, as opposed to trying to re-adapt the entire page for everybody, we just adapt it for the individual at the time that they need it.
Simon: So then that work moved along and we looked at work on how people with disabilities and people who don’t have disabilities—the things that they share, the similarities they share. So we found an absolute link between people with profound physical disabilities, and how they use their technology, and the errors they made using their technology, and how people using mobile phones in a mobile environment, like on the train or some kind of bumpy environment, the errors they made and the frequency of those errors were both the same…they were both shared. The magnitude and the scope—and the errors—were the same for each. So therefore it allows us to say “if we provide a solution [for someone] who’s got a physical disability, we provide a solution for every mobile user on the train. Done. That’s the business case, right, that’s it.”
DS: So you’re reaching two groups, for the price of one, almost?
Simon: Yeah. But we know that it’s very much more difficult…I mean the way that we think of access technology is that we want to put our access technology ahead of the technical wave, such that it hits us and carries us along with it, as opposed to trying to catch up and get on the back of the wave as it’s moving away from us. So that’s what our plan was, to do, and we’re kind of succeeding with that, but we need to do better. But every researcher thinks they need to do better! (laughs)
DS: I guess you’re always future-looking, you’re looking over the curve for the next thing that’s coming, that you could apply your research to?
Simon: Well, that’s right, I mean a lot of the stuff that’s coming up…a lot of the lessons we see, a lot of the accessibility lessons we take from people with, in my case visual disability, but we do different kinds of accessibility research…
We see that there’s a shared solution that will be shared between somebody who’s visually disabled and somebody who’s on a small screen or mobile device, or somebody…
You know we also see that there are shared (difficulties) between people with cognitive disabilities and somebody who doesn’t know the technical domain they’re in. So a doctor might not know a certain technical domain—do we say that’s a cognitive disability? Well, there’s something cognitive going on…how can we leverage our solutions into a bigger picture, if you like?
DS: Some people might listen to that, and say “well, aren’t you excusing bad design? Or, people don’t need to worry about coding with accessibility in mind, or even usability in mind, if these clever guys at Manchester are coming up with adaptation solutions that fix problems!” How would you counter that?
Simon: So, well, in some ways, yes, I agree, that is the case. But I live in the real world and my work, I want it to be in the real world, and the real world says to me that in 20 years of having the Web we’re still talking about these problems. We need a two-pronged approach…well, probably we need a multi-pronged approach(!)…
The way I see it we have solutions for the real world, that are happening now and every technological development that goes on and on and on creates new problems that aren’t immediately solved. And then we need the education and the expertise and we need the specialists as well, who can correct those web pages.
So we have a design time correction and a development time correction, but also experts who…you can’t expect software engineers to be expert in everything…so we’ll always have to have some specialists to do that specialist work. But at the same time technical solutions should be a part of that ecosystem, I think, of solutions.
I also think it’s important that…you know, we at Manchester consider people with disabilities as über-users, you know, they’re above standard users because they have to create hacks, they have to create their own strategies for solving problems, to get around the problems of web sites that don’t work, and web applications, not just web sites now, web resources, digital resources, that don’t work.
So, they’ve got excellent solutions and what we try to do is leverage those solutions into—if you like—the mainstream domain so that those excellent solutions we get from people with disabilities can be used by all the community as one.
DS: And, I guess there’s potential for integrating the things you’re finding and developing and evaluating as basic pieces of functionality in a mobile platform, for example…little things that might just make working with that mobile device easier to use and more effective to use?
Simon: Yes! That’s true. And, some of that work…there’s a platform that’s called the ACTF Framework which is a platform that is part of the software platform called the Eclipse platform, well that does things like allow you to specify, based on the work of visual disability, it allows you to specify how big the projector screen is and how big the room is to see whether the people at the back of the room will be able to see the screen…
Simon: …or whether they will be visually disabled by the fact that they’re so far away from the projecting is not right. We also know that some of that work goes into things with the BBC, where the BBC are doing subtitles and they have a very strict standard for the minimum size of characters and fonts for subtitles, and for all kinds of applications, not just coming from people with disabilities, but then rolled out to people who are reading content in a foreign language.
And so therefore that’s never been done before, but it’s work that’s come forward from the accessibility community into the mainstream community, and without that, the mainstream community would be in trouble.
DS: Markel, you’re working in this area as well. Can you give me an example of a project you’ve worked on that you’ve found particularly exciting in terms of discovering problems and solutions that might have a wider impact than just a particular disability group?
Markel: Yeah, so I joined the University of Manchester in 2011. I had a background in accessibility testing for 5 or 6 years…and I joined Simon’s team to work on the Cope project, which was about identifying the coping strategies employed by people with visual disabilities.
And that was the very beginning, to identify what was going on…let’s do some observations, let’s do some analysis of the videos, of the annotations taken during the observations, and let’s try to isolate what we see and generate a set of strategies.
So we came up with a set of strategies, and we said “let’s try to do some algorithms that are able to capture and detect these strategies”, because perhaps by doing so, we’re able to detect that a problem is going on, because the strategies are for us like indicators of problems, right?
And we did that, and we said “let’s try now to see whether these strategies also apply in other populations across a spectrum…people who are not only disabled, but people who have—and I don’t like this term—people who are average, able-bodied users.
We ran a couple of longitudinal studies over time, with a high number of sighted users, and we realized that there’s an overlap, actually, that these strategies not only for people with disabilities but also people who are not disabled. And not only that, but these strategies were also indicators of problems in broader populations, which I think is a great finding.
DS: So you’re saying that effectively accessibility research discovered problems that are experienced by a wider population, and therefore if they’re solved, they’re going to create a better experience for more populations in more situations?
Markel: Probably, yes, but I’d be more sure by saying that we are able to identify what the problems are. I’m not sure whether the solutions are the same, but by identifying, you’re halfway to solving the problem.
DS: You’ve at least identified…you’re surer of the problem space, the problem definition?
Markel: Yes, and it’s a big deal, knowing that someone is having a problem in real time. You know at a minimum, you can provide help, like saying “are you having an issue that I can help you”, and then come these adaptive solutions, or transformations, through transcoding or proxy services.
DS: So do you have any specific examples of work that you’ve done that has this application in a different situation to where you’d initially thought it would have?
Markel: That is a very convenient question! Because I’m now working with clinicians in the NHS [UK National Health Service] who are working with a very complex tasks that include tabular data, big data, about clients—sorry, patients—drugs, and how these drugs affect the patient, and so on. And they have to deal with—they have an information overload problem, the have a layout problem, an information architecture problem.
For me, as an accessibility researcher, trying to provide a solution is sort of straightforward, because I can do the analogy, I can find the analogy between the problems that people with disabilities find when navigating big tabular data and and how this applies to some other populations. So I think being an accessibility researcher gives me the skills of being able to solve complex problems that otherwise would take a long time and a lot of resources.
DS: And I can imagine you probably have the sense of being able to engage with different groups, so that you’re not going up to a doctor and saying “I’m going to use the same technique that I might apply to somebody who has a severe learning disability…”
D’you see…there’s a…you’re telling somebody that they are—they have the same characteristics of someone with a severe disability…(that) might be in some cases a difficult message to get over even if you’re saying “we’re looking at the problem from a specific perspective”.
Markel: Yeah, the way I do things, I like to approach the problem from a very exploratory fashion, so I go in without any prejudice, and I let problems emerge. And when the problems emerge, I can build a bridge, between “hey, this problem reminds me of the blind user navigating a table”. So things pop out of your mind, based on the knowledge you have from the past as “hey, I could solve this by doing this, that I learned ten years ago and has already been solved, you know. ”
DS: That’s really interesting, so you have that observation process, and you see problems emerge, and you think “Aha, I’ve seen that before, in a different situation.”
Markel: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s like an epiphany, you know, it’s like at that moment, it’s one of the best moments as a researcher, knowing that “hey, I know this from before.” And because I belong to this fantastic community I’m…I’m very valuable, you know! (laughs) Because I know how to solve this problem. I know the solution and the problem, I’m very familiar with it, and it’s very fulfilling.
DS: Yeah, I can tell!
DS: Simon, so we’re sitting here in Florence at W4A, and W4A’s a conference you’ve been involved in right from the start, as a place to bring together accessibility researchers from academia and industry and anyone interested in accessibility. Can you tell us a little bit about the background to the conference, and how it’s evolved over the years?
Simon: Sure, so the conference itself…we found that we weren’t really being able to talk about accessibility issues in the Web community, and we weren’t really talking about it that well in the Human Factors community, so we wanted to talk about it all together. We wanted this interdisciplinary kind of conference, where we weren’t siloed and we could cross-pollinate, if you like, between the different communities.
And that would include designers, developers, researchers, practitioners, industrial people, anybody who wanted to come along and share what they’d been doing. And, so, that started about 12, 13 years ago now, and generally it’s increased and got more popular as it’s gone forward. Now, don’t get me wrong, we’re still a very small conference, and we work with the World Wide Web Conference and the steering committee that runs that conference, so that we can better cross-pollinate our accessibility work into their domain.
And that’s the case with, for instance, the panel sessions that go on ever year, we try and invite…we have an interesting question, we try to invite a number of panelists. And then we have people from the World Wide Web community who come to listen to the answers to those questions, and ask their own questions, so that they can understand more…it’s not so much about the technical solutions, or even the principles, particularly.
It’s more about the vision of where things are going and how we see the future, and what will be important, so we can get ahead of it, and once we get ahead of it, we can make sure that we get solutions that can be applicable to everybody. And if they’re applicable to everybody, like I’ve said, then they will become adopted by, if you like, mainstream users. And that’s the business case.
DS: So effectively it’s bringing people together to talk about accessibility as a specialism, but bringing people from different domains and bringing stories and perspectives in order to take them back out to those domains.
Simon: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we have a technical paper track, which is often very scientific, mostly from researchers and research and development scientists at leading universities and companies who have research and development domains.
We also have what’s called an Accessibility Challenge, we have real working software, real working solutions that come from companies—that’s sponsored by The Paciello Group—and that comes from people like the BBC and Google, who show their accessibility technologies, and we have a vote, so that people at the conference vote to decide which they like best, and which they think is the most…the best solutions to their problems.
We have people from the conference who are doctoral students, but we also have undergraduate students who come, we also have generally people who come from industry to hear what the latest research is, so they can adopt it.
Because all of the work that we do is…all of the work that is presented there is open, it’s available, it’s not meant to be…there’s no patent or paywall or anything, so it’s there for free dissemination.
And hopefully companies will take it on from research to development. That’s the plan.