This week we looked at accessible technology design with our professor, Leah Findlater. Leah has done a pretty amazing job of remaining as neutral as possible to the topic of conversation each week, which isn’t easy to do without sacrificing vigorous discussion. So it was great to hear her present about accessible technology, which is a research area she is directly involved in, and cares deeply about.

I think we used the term assistive technology more than accessible technology. I can’t remember if it we discussed the point, but assistive seems like a more precise term to me. It speaks to what the technoology is actually doing (helping a human) rather than providing access to something. Generally speaking the people have some sort of disability, or impairment that prevents them from performing some class of activities.

We read three papers: Shinohara & Wobbrock (2011), Bigham et al. (2010) and Anthony, Kim, & Findlater (2013). After a general presentation about the field of accessible technologies we dove into talking about the paper that Leah co-authored. This paper was interesting because of its methodological approach: using social media video content (YouTube) as an alternative to interviews, as evidence of how people with motor impairments use touch screen devices. YouTube provided a great deal more content (187 videos) than normally could be collected during more traditional interviews.

The study raises interesting methodological challenges about using a platform like YouTube in research. How are candidate videos identified? How do you document the process by which they are identified? When do you stop collection? How do you think about what has not been identified. How do you enter into conversation with the content creators?

We actually watched some of the videos that were used in the study. It was quite moving and inspiring to see the disabled individuals coming up with novel and creative ways of interacting with touchscreen devices. It was also heartbreaking to see how simple things like non-responsiveness to pressure from finger nails caused breakdowns in use.

The inventiveness of solutions, such as the use of simple felt borders to contain contact to particular regions, were striking in their inventiveness. The creative process reminded me a bit of hacking in computer culture, where the limitations of software tools are overcome through creative disassembling and reassembling of components, features and functionality.

I think I gravitated to issues like this because of my interest in software development and using social media streams from Twitter as research material. Also, it hadn’t occurred to me until discussing the readings, but the creative design process exhibited in many of the videos reminded me a lot of Steven Jackson’s idea of repair as a site for design: Broken World Thinking.

A few significant points specifically related to assistive technology were:

  • Because there are less individuals with disabilities, and there is a diversity of disabilities themselves, they can be logistically harder to study as a population than “main stream” users.
  • Assistive technology can sometimes be difficult to produce because the markets are smaller.
  • Interactions are often proxied through care givers, family members who for example, created YouTube videos and uploaded them on behalf of the research subjects.
  • There can be social stigmas associated with technical solutions in this space, so there is great value in mainstreaming the tech, as Apple has done with making assistive technologies built right in.
  • It is always important to remember that creative ways for unimpaired users to simulate a disability (for example covering one’s eyes to simulate blindness) are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to living with a particular disability. They should be used with attention and respect.


Anthony, L., Kim, Y., & Findlater, L. (2013). Analyzing user-generated youtube videos to understand touchscreen use by people with motor impairments. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1223–1232). ACM.

Bigham, J. P., Jayant, C., Ji, H., Little, G., Miller, A., Miller, R. C., … others. (2010). VizWiz: Nearly real-time answers to visual questions. In Proceedings of the 23nd annual ACM symposium on user interface software and technology (pp. 333–342). ACM.

Shinohara, K., & Wobbrock, J. O. (2011). In the shadow of misperception: Assistive technology use and social interactions. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 705–714). ACM.