Consumers can encounter ease of use issues at every stage of interaction with communications equipment. They may not understand what marketing terminology means and therefore be unsure about what to purchase. They may not feel confident about how to connect and set up devices, or fear “breaking” complex equipment if an error message appears or the device stops working normally. All of these, and more, are usability issues. Usability embraces accessibility, but is not limited to it.
The Communications Act gives Ofcom a duty to promote the development and availability of easy to use consumer equipment. However, Ofcom has no formal regulatory powers in relation to equipment.
Ofcom’s event on usability in the communications sector was held in order to encourage debate, to share ideas about good practice, to hear others’ views on how usability can be promoted and to explore the themes of inclusive design and design for all. Attendees included industry, the voluntary sector, journalists, civil servants and academics and the keynote speech was given by the Minister for Digital Inclusion, Huw Irranca-Davies MP.
Key themes and issues
A number of key themes came up several times
- Inclusive design is good design
- Usability affects everyone but is particularly relevant to older and disabled people
- There is a commercial prize for manufacturers who get usability right
- People don't buy on usability - they experience a lack of usability. Consumers need information to be able to make informed choices - initiatives such as labelling schemes can help
- Usability should be a key part of consumer testing
- It can’t be a bolt-on – it has to be considered from the start of the process
- The Government is committed to digital inclusion and wants to engage with stakeholders about how to deliver this
- Switchover offers great benefits but also increases complexity
- We should not distinguish between mainstream and specialist equipment. However, there are no 'one for all’ solutions
Mike Whitlam , Chair of Ofcom Advisory Committee on Older & Disabled People
Usability is not just about disabled people. It is important to everyone. Usable design doesn't need to take longer or cost more than bad design. And bad design costs money in the long term. By addressing ease of use, manufacturers can benefit from better reputations, reduce spend on customer support, and give increased customer satisfaction, something that helps all businesses. Everybody agrees that usability is a good thing. But how do we get there?
The policy context
Peter Phillips, Partner, Strategy & Market Developments, Ofcom
The Communications Act gave Ofcom a duty to promote the development and the availability of easy to use consumer equipment but it didn't give any formal regulatory powers in relation to equipment. We need to work in partnership with others to make progress in this area.
We all live in an increasingly complex and technologically rich world, but all of us can cite examples of products that are difficult, or even frustrating to use.
Figures from the government show that at anyone time more than 11 million people in this country have a condition which may impact on their ability to use communications or IT equipment. At the same time, we are all living longer. So usability should be about recognising that some people have specific needs, but not about ghettoising them.
And there is a commercial prize for companies who get this right. Usability is crucial in overcoming the digital divide and promoting social and economic inclusion.
Huw Irranca-Davies MP, Minister for Digital Inclusion
30% of the people in the UK fail to benefit from new technologies. Digitally excluded individuals have less opportunity to take part in education, training, shopping, entertainment and commercial opportunities that are available on line. They also have less opportunity to take up jobs in which the ability to use digital technologies is a requirement. Overcoming this exclusion is not just a social necessity - it also makes economic sense. Usability is one reason why a significant number of people cannot make full use of information technologies.
Paul Murphy has been appointed as the minister for digital inclusion and a new cabinet committee will develop a strategy to ensure that all citizens benefit from the use of digital technologies.
Digital TV offers more programmes, better reception and new facilities such as audio description but this increase in functionality carries with it the risk of greater complexity in operation, complex user interfaces, multiple remote controls, confusing ways of navigating through content can all act to exclude people who were perfectly able to use analogue equipment. There is lots of work to make sure people are not excluded and many of the people responsible for making this work are here now today in this room. BERR has published a usability action plan to encourage the development of digital TV receivers incorporating best practice features in preparation for switchover.
The legislative framework as currently formed is constrictive. The Disability Discrimination Act excludes manufactures goods. Section 10 of the Communications Act gives Ofcom a responsibility to promote equipment that is easy to use but no powers.
But the real message of today is that inclusive design is good design. This isn't just about disabled people or older people; it is about making it easier for everyone to use technology and to access communications. The size of the market for usable equipment will increase as the population ages and as more people adopt new technology.
In answer to a question, the Minister said that the role of Government was to speed innovation, but not to have state control of industry!
Ed Chandler, RNIB pointed out that because something works for one person, does not mean it will work for another. He also reminded delegates that the iPod has been cited as an example of usable design, but in fact, the first few models did not do well until the click wheel was introduced.
Tony Shipley, PhoneAbility added that it may be that you make something that you think will work, try out, learn from the mistakes if there are mistakes and make the next one better. iPods are an example of a product where usability has been improved with each version; however, there are examples of products that started off not usable, and in subsequent generations remain not usable.
Sally Davis, CEO BT Wholesale and BT's Disability and Carers Champion
BT is a passionate believer in social inclusion, but there are also clear business advantages to usability. One of BT’s most successful products ever was the big button phone.
The inclusive design toolkit, financially supported by BT, can be used by anyone considering developing a product in the communications and technology industry. It provides practical tools and techniques, details about user capabilities, simulators to the point that people can test things online, and also helps in the development of business cases.
Specialist products do not attract VAT, unlike mainstream products. This is something for on which we could engage the Government in order to encourage inclusive design in mainstream products.
The inclusive design toolkit
Sam Waller, Engineering Design Centre, University of Cambridge
Inclusive design is good design – we should not distinguish between mainstream and specialist equipment (although there are no 'one for all’ solutions). Inclusive design is not a bolt on – it is an integral part of design, and really hopefully it is just design.
So the product or service makes demands on the user in terms of its interface, so the text sizes, the grip strength required to operate things and then the person comes with certain abilities in terms of their visual ability and grip strength and the question of whether they can use it or not depends on the match between these things. And all of these things are influenced by the environment, such as the ambient lighting or the ambient noise, but also social contexts, such as what it means to be able to use the product or not use the product in a certain situation.
There are lots of resources on the inclusive design toolkit website, such as a visual impairment simulator which enables people to see how their product would be seen by people with different types of visual impairment.
Tony Shipley, PhoneAbility said that he was pleased to see a reference to Toby Churchill, which makes specialist communication aids. There is room for niche equipment as well as inclusive mainstream design.
Ruth Myers, TAG raised the importance of clear instructions; also quick start instructions so users don’t need to read the whole manual.
Nick Tanton, BBC
Digital switchover will bring consumer benefits including additional channels and audio description. However, there is some very badly designed receiving equipment out there, as well as some products which have gone quite a long way to ease of use.
The targeted help scheme provides equipment and support to people aged over 75, those eligible for certain disability allowances and those registered as blind or partially sighted. A group representing mainly organisations for older and disabled people drew up a report that led to the specification for the help scheme equipment. Many things that were obvious but born of long experience were fashioned into the specification.
The TVOnics receivers procured for the first stage of the help scheme in Whitehaven were an exemplar of ease of use. The boxes weren’t perfect, but were created with eagerness and simplicity. Features included one-touch audio description and one touch subtitles. A beep that tells the user that they have pressed the remote control button is very easy to deliver – it takes one line of code. User manuals and post-installation support that is comfortable to use are very important. And a ‘home’ button is always useful if you get confused.
This is a scheme which has a long way to go and usability is not something which you can define for all time. We are on a journey that is an evolutionary one.
Lindsay Etchell, Ricability
Ricability won the Government contract to do consumer testing of digital TV equipment, with a particular focus on ease of use. Ricability has experience in the needs of older and disabled people and carried out trials with a panel of older and disabled people.
The choice of mainstream products will always be higher than for specialist equipment. Also, prices will always be more competitive for mainstream than for specialist equipment. The answer is to improve the usability of mainstream equipment where prices are always going to be competitive.
People are living independently for longer. If manufacturers make products more accessible, people will be able to stay in their own homes longer. Ricability has long believed inclusive design is good design for everyone.
Inclusive design also has industry benefits. Ricability is a consumer organisation, but has to take industry along. The easier products are to use, the more satisfied consumers are going to be with them and the more they are going to buy. An important message for manufacturers is that that focusing on usability right from the beginning of the design process does mean that those accessible products really need cost no more to produce. It costs no more to make an accessible control that is easy to turn than it does one that is stiff or too small to grasp with an arthritic hand.
Inclusive design recognises that there will always be a need for assistive products for the minority of people with severe and complex impairments, so industry should not be scared of going forward with designing inclusively. They are not expected to design for absolutely everybody, just to address as many needs as possible.
Ricability’s approach to testing of digital TV kit included a detailed checklist of 50 features that add to the convenience in use of the product – for example, can you build up a favourite channels list, is there audio description, is there a subtitle button on the remote control? Ricability also uses a task-based scenario approach, taking into account people who are short sighted, hard of hearing, move with difficulty, have weakness associated with old age, low awareness of technical terms, lack of confidence using new technologies and dependence on step-by-step instructions.
Electronic programme guides
Steve Tyler and Edward Chandler, RNIB
Digital TV enables audio description, which is greatly enjoyed by many visually impaired people. However, there is currently no mainstream equipment that allows visually impaired people to navigate electronic programme guides.
RNIB has worked with mainstream industry partners to develop chipsets that can be implemented into mainstream set top boxes to improve their accessibility. The chipsets will deliver access to electronic programme guides and menu systems via audio output, and will also enable users to alter the text size and contrast in the text.
The equipment will not just be accessible, but usable as well. RNIB did a lot of testing on EPG layout to find out what people need. People who had lost their sight often preferred a grid rather than a list representation because that’s how they were used to seeing the listings in print media.
So with the RNIB chipset, when you change channel, you get the channel information first, whereas when you stay within the channel and change time you hear the programme and time first. That is important because people want to hear the information they need to know first. If you put the channel further down the information, you are making them wait.
There is always a way to leave a menu without changing anything, meaning that you don’t lose your settings.
The user interface can be configured to the needs of the user. It is also possible to set up visual preferences – for example the colour scheme, contrast, white on black or black on white.
The developers will be going to silicon in the next six weeks. Then, by March 2009 we can expect to see a product or more than one product on the shelves with this service available.
Michael Briggs, Which? magazine
Which? tests over a thousand AV products per annum, which is a third of all the products tested. Like Ricability, Which? uses a scenario-based approach.
Areas tested include
- installation and Instructions
- everyday use
- advanced use
- ‘I lost my remote control’
Typical problems included squashed and deep menu systems, fiddly front panel buttons and electronic programme guides with swirly backgrounds. Instruction manuals may be poorly translated, have small print or poor diagrams or be absent altogether. Sometimes users are expected to print off from a CD ROM.
Ease of use routinely makes up 20% of test scores for AV equipment. The percentage is higher in telecoms and mobile phones and is about to be raised in other areas. So poor usability will limit the total test score - a product that scores well in one area but badly in another can never be a best buy. For personal video recorders, the proportion of the ease of use element of the total test score is being raised to over 50%, so will be the biggest criterion.
Audio description is a good example. Up until a year ago there was no access to audio description on Freeview since the Netgem player disappeared. About a year ago two manufacturers introduced it, and were awarded extra points. In the latest test, another manufacturer has improved the facility, so now you can listen to the audio description out of the speakers of the TV, but a second viewer can plug in to the headphone socket and listen to the standard audio that way.
It has been pointed out that you can connect your TV to Dolby surround, and you can isolate the volume into centre channel and raise the clarity of the speech against any background noise. That is the sort of useful feature that can be reported in the magazine and online. And Which? always writes everything from a perspective of users who haven't actually used the product before.
Which? recently did a test of mobile phones using a panel of elderly people, some with no experience of mobile phones and three of whom used hearing aids. The team specifically looked into testing phones that had been designed for elderly people alongside some standard phones. Which? carries out a membership survey after each article, to assess readership interests, and the article on mobile phones achieved the highest rated figures ever, which was a win for research.
What Which? is planning to do is to increase its emphasis on advice, not just on test results. This will include more 'how to' guides online, how to use and buy products. There will also be a new website and there will be video guides and advice on there which won't only be for Which? members, but should be open to the general public as well.
Leen Petre, Help the Aged , asked about the benefits of user testing with older people, who might have dexterity problems, hearing impairments or partial sight. Michael replied that many products have a shelf life of nine months to a year. Because of this, a scenario-based approach to testing using experienced assessors is often used.
Jonathan Freeman, i2 media research
Ofcom’s Advisory Committee on Older and Disabled People has commissioned research into how various elements of the supply chain address the needs of older and disabled people.
Last year Ofcom published a usability audit which identified a key research gap. There is little research to understand the efforts that companies make to incorporate universal design and usability, and understanding of the impact of corporate marketing assumptions and methods.
This research is exploring how manufacturers, suppliers and retailers address the needs of old and disabled people, understanding the barriers and drivers to the needs being better addressed.
It involves 26 in-depth interviews, lasting about an hour, with senior staff within the organisations and the design teams. The research team is also speaking to people across the supply chain, including manufacturers, suppliers, service providers, retailers and lawyers.
Confidentiality is fully assured for all participants both individuals and their companies, and many companies are engaging with the research openly and honestly. There is still an opportunity to take part. However, it is telling that one (nameless) manufacturer initially declined to take part in the research, saying “it’s not our kind of thing”. Another quote was, “If we did what the consumer wants we wouldn't move forward at all”.
There are commercial and pragmatic barriers that have been identified by speaking with representatives from industry. One of the things the team has noticed is that there is little user research conducted generally among the mass market or specifically on people with various disabilities who are older.
Each part of the supply chain seems to identify a different part of the chain as the barrier. One manufacturer interviewed said that retailers aren't asking the manufacturers for usable equipment, and retailers aren't volunteering to take the cost increase for accessible features - on the contrary, retailers are actually asking manufacturers to reduce the costs of their products.
There doesn’t seem to be much appetite for mainstreaming accessibility on full product ranges; there are pragmatic barriers that industry faces. This is not a criticism but an observation.
It is difficult to evidence return on investment for access. Commercial considerations are the number one priority in industry and they, in several instances, been cited as overriding commitment to corporate social responsibility. However, if a decent business case for accessibility can be presented, any CEO is going to get it.
Other findings include the fact that any consumer dissatisfaction registered is rarely attributed to access or usability needs. Complaints handling doesn’t record this.
Some people have said that inclusion is potentially negative, and off-putting to the core market. Accessible versions of products do not always sell brilliantly.
In terms of pragmatic barriers, the complexity of institutional decision-making has been cited time and again. Especially in large organisations where design may be handled in a different continent, there are complexities that hamper progress even if organisations know that certain of their products aren't as usable or accessible as they could be.
No one actually sets out to make products difficult or inaccessible. But a range of factors militate against usability:
- pressure to get the product out to market first, to target the higher-spending early adopters
- The international nature of some businesses giving limited ability to impact design, some products are badged or branded and made overseas.
- Responsibility. Someone who is well connected in the company having responsibility for the needs of older and disabled people
- Interfacing successfully with stakeholders and budgets for the user research
- Effective data capture in customer service and management systems
- Dedicated initiatives so organisations know where they are in relation to the accessibility of their products and then therefore that can form the basis of an action plan to make things better
- Guidelines and handbooks, recording the knowledge that is in people’s heads - valuable to the organisation and therefore to older and disabled customers if it is written down and there is access to additional in-depth information.
- Actionable advice about how to improve the usability and accessibility of the products and services.
No one was expecting the people interviewed to ask for more regulation. But actually, sensible regulation levels the playing field.
Other elements that have been cited as being helpful:
- Partnership with representative groups, usability and accessibility in purchasing and procurement
- Financial incentives and tax benefits specifically of VAT arrangements, in relation to procurement
The government says procurement is the new way forward for accessibility but procurement documents must for detailed descriptions of what companies do. It’s not enough to ask if a company has an accessibility policy, you have to ask how much research they have done and what are their monitoring statistics and targets.
Jane Humphreys from BERR said that in a single European market, duties can be placed on Member States to demonstrate that they promote accessibility for the widest range of users. But it is very hard to provide legislation that requires manufacturers to do things. The standards regime is primarily about technical standards and health and safety, and it would be difficult to extend that into what are ‘softer’ issues about usability. However, a framework review of electronic communications is currently taking place, and there is the opportunity to insert exhortations about equipment being accessible to the widest range of users.
Panel discussion - promoting usability
Bob Twitchin , Consumer PanelGeorge Fullam, Head of Consumer Electronic Technical Affairs, IntellectDavid Sinclair, Head of Policy, Help the AgedClaudio Pollack , Director of Consumer Policy, Ofcom
The following points were made by different members of the panel and by speakers from the floor.
- The big brand manufacturers spend time and money on testing products with user panels. But do they spend much time on assessing whether or not disabled or older people can access products?
- Human factors testing needs to be integral, not bolted on, if a product is to get a usability seal of approval
- Are there sector differences, for example between people buying mobile telephones and those buying domestic appliance communities?
- The speed of bringing products to market and the need to please shareholders are factors that work against usability
- There are lots of products but not necessarily a lot of choice on the market at the moment
- Sales figures don’t indicate how many people walked out of the store because they didn’t like anything that was for sale. Informed consumers can influence the market, not just be marketed at
- The benefits of usability include things like customer satisfaction, brand reputation and reducing the number of complaints after the sale. If customers are looking for usable equipment, it will act as a more efficient differentiator between good and bad products
- Ofcom does work in the area of usability because it is an organisation working in the public interest and have a specific duty to do so. That is not the case with manufacturers and retailers.
- If consumers are not demanding usability then we need to understand and work with this. Consumer education has the potential to make a big difference but is quite hard to achieve in practice
- It is still very difficult to tell the difference between certain products
- Can usability labelling be mandated so that consumers are adequately informed of the extent to which products are usable and accessible?
- BERR has come up with a scoreboard for digital TV equipment. This sets out in a consistent manner the essential features of each product
- We need to get information to people via the publications they read and also having information available in the shops
Trying things out
- Manufacturers probably accept that consumers are not looking very hard at how usable a product will be when making purchasing decisions. At the same time, retailers do not always welcome people asking to try out products in the showroom, particular for lower value products
- Some people may need to be able to take things home on a trial and to be able to exchange them if they don’t meet requirements
- BT has a network of 'try before you buy' centres so people can go and test out telephony products so they can find one that best suits their needs
- If people spend £200 on something that is not usable they are not going to go out and buy another one; they are going to be annoyed with what they have bought. What about a charter mark on products that indicates that it has passed certain usability tests? This would be good for brand reputation
- From an industry point of view, labelling presents two difficulties. The label takes up valuable space on the packaging and there is also the difficulty of defining objective criteria
- However, if we can give consumers information about usability at the point of sale, then that benefits the consumer and the manufacturer
Buying usable equipment
- People buy things for different reasons, and usability is not the most attractive feature for everyone. But at the same time, no one would want to buy a product they can't use.
- People may not buy on usability but they experience a lack of usability. People buy the product because they like the look of it, and just hope that they can use it
- Usability can develop: remote controls have evolved over the years, with improvements to layout and user experience. We used to joke that only children could programme video recorders, but now Sky+ advertises how easy it is to record two programmes at once. And Sky has invested tens of millions pounds in the advertising campaign, so there are big companies using usability to sell products
- Is it possible to shorten the process by which usability develops, particularly in light of the fact that technical developments are coming around a lot faster now?
- Is the market delivering usability? And is there more that people outside the commercial sector can do to make the market deliver more quickly and more effectively to different consumer needs?
- Research such as that being done by Ofcom is valuable in telling us where the gaps are and is a resource for manufacturers. But is it enough? What are the obstacles to inclusive design and what can we do to address them?
- It would be difficult for legislation on usability to take account of technological change. Educating consumers has the potential to be more powerful
- On the other hand, regulation would provide a level playing field: if everyone has an obligation it means that companies who want to deliver good quality are not at a disadvantage
- If additional regulation about usability is inevitable given our ageing population, then companies who are leading the way will be at an advantage when it happens
- There is currently a campaign for an EU accessibility directive that is being supported by a number of disability charities
- There is a commercial benefit for making manuals clearer. For goods with a small margin such as £20 set top boxes, one after-sales call to the call centre wipes out the profit on that unit
- Some of the most subtle changes can make quite a difference as to how comfortable a product is to use
- Usability is not a destination, it is a journey