An Accessible Future


What will the future of information design look like? Often, technology rises up to propose the answer: better software and analytic tools, more sophisticated visual forms, ubiquitous touchscreen-based and virtual information environments, immediate data and information access anywhere. Sci-fi fantasy made real seems an appealing prospect to some, and technology has fast been catching up: it’s only a matter of time before we’re invoking holographic information panels and gliding through multi-layered data streams while walking down the street (without smart devices or embarrassing head gear). But is that all we should expect, and more to the point, is that the best we should set out to achieve?

Rather than ask what more we can do, we might do well to ask what we can do better. Information design is a field shaped as much by imagination as it is by craft. We are capable of applying as much creativity to identifying and framing problems as we are to solving them. If we want to forge ahead into a meaningful future, why don’t we challenge the status quo of pursuing and optimizing known solution domains and start rattling information design out of its comfort zone? Why don’t we ask what’s stopping us from fully realizing information design’s potential to help people? And how best should we harness technology to remove those obstacles?

Many different people, but one presentation format

A persistent challenge in information design is designing for the broadest audience and ensuring that the most people can understand a message, be it a warning, a safety alert, a transit service change, or a simple indication of an option. Airport signage, mass transit systems, highway and city traffic signs, emergency notifications, and other communications are meant to benefit the public, but often that refers to a specific sub-set of the population: sharp-sighted, able-bodied, relatively young people fluent in the local language and visual conventions. Routinely excluded are the elderly, the non-native language speakers, those with impairments of vision, hearing, and mobility, and those with cognitive differences. Even with the introduction of federal regulations (the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S.) and slowly growing recognition of universal design and design for all in product design, architecture, and urban planning, inequalities in the everyday information experience persist.

Tied to the challenge of multiple audiences for the same information is the fact that an information design solution is typically presented one way, whether it’s print, environmental, or screen-based media: one form of display, one typeface and size, one color scheme, one written message (possibly translated to other languages on the same display or supplemental versions). While it’s true that different layouts of the same information exist when the size and physical context of the display change (as with responsive web design or transit safety message displays), each instance adheres to one set of design choices within a brand or visual system. Every design decision, by nature, rejects a multitude of other possibilities and permutations, and collectively these decisions are supposed to average out for the widest possible audience. Even the most carefully-considered “effective” designs inevitably fall short because a segment of the population can’t see the message, can’t read the message clearly or understand it, can’t interact with the information display, and can’t find alternative options that suit their needs and abilities. To say it’s unfair that whole groups of people are unable to enjoy the same level of access and affordance as others because they don’t fit the “average” would be a gross understatement.

How can information designers start embracing the diverse needs and requirements of all kinds of people and truly design for maximum inclusion by all means available — especially when it comes to essentials like safety, security, and well-being?

Information that adapts to people’s needs

Consider the services and businesses that presume to cater to people’s needs and preferences: Amazon, Netflix, Pandora, and Google, among others. The algorithms and recommendation engines that power these online entities have significant influence on our information environment; by gathering snippets of personal data and filtering the “relevant” from “irrelevant,” they decide what we see and filter our options to what we’re most likely to like… and buy. But what if we could turn that technology towards the greater good? What if machines could learn what our capabilities and limitations are, not to nudge our spending habits, but to assist us in navigating our world safely and in seamlessly interacting with the complex systems of daily life?

Adaptive, or dynamic information design (for lack of a better term) is one path towards technology-enabled inclusion and accessibility. The concept is a bit far-fetched, but with the rapid convergence of enough tech trends, it may become more plausible*: Imagine a system that could read your access profile and dynamically generate a heads-up information display with an optimized version of the information you were looking at, tailored exactly to your needs, with, say, big enough text (in your preferred language), sufficient color contrast, and clear direction on what actions are possible for you. This could be driven by a library of evidence-based design principles for controlling visual variables (type, color, size, layout, etc) as well as the design of other multi-sensory information (sound/speech, Braille, touch feedback, etc).

Virtual reality displays already provide a convenient canvas on which to superimpose information, but with the addition of other devices and equipment, multi-sensory features for non-visual use cases might be possible. Some existing technologies are already pointing the way:

  • Google Glass, Microsoft HoloLens and augmented reality: personalized information overlay
  • Image recognition software: detection and analysis of information displays
  • Global wifi networks and cloud-based services: proximity sensing, profile transmission, and custom information delivery
  • Apple Watch’s haptic technology: sensory information
  • Voice command and text-to-speech technology: touch/keyboard-free interaction and audio information

Given the current state of the art, the physical apparatus to make these capabilities possible would no doubt be cumbersome to wear and look a little unfashionable, but iterative refinement of such a concept might lead to something more elegant (for comic book fans, the evolution of Iron Man’s armor comes to mind).

So how does information design in the present venture into the realm of “adaptive”?

Bridging the static-dynamic information design divide

Information design is a highly fragmented field, but two broad divisions generally co-exist today: the old “static” world of print and signage and the still-new “dynamic” world of electronic displays and computer-driven experiences; despite the popularization of blended static-dynamic information displays, such as immersive storytelling and online news features fusing both standard articles and analytic tools to “play” with the data, information design practice still clings to the distinction between those who design for pure content presentation (traditional graphic/communication designers) and those who design for interaction (user experience designers, interaction designers, etc). Those on the “static” side sometimes forget how fluid and flexible information has become and what potential that simple fact holds for their work, regardless of what current conventions or tools say you can do. Meanwhile, those on the “dynamic” side sometimes forget the basic human desire for simple, familiar, and un-intimidating experiences that recognize their individuality, forgive mistakes, anticipate hiccups, and offer a clear path to a live person who can help.

Information design that is acutely sensitive to all people’s needs and sufficiently capable of delivering the most optimal experience possible, as in the case of adaptive information design, will rely on a range of skills and roles from design, anthropology, psychology, computer science, and information science, among many others — not the work of a hyper-talented, do-it-all unicorn designer. Both “static” and “dynamic” sides possess complementary expertise to appropriately frame the communication challenge, thoroughly assess the audience, and work toward comprehensive solutions that continuously learn from repeated use.

The dream of a better world and a bright future doesn’t have to be incomplete, biased, or exclusive to select populations. Nor does it have to subscribe to Hollywood’s (or Silicon Valley’s) vision of progress. Information designers have the capacity to shape that future, and not have their role dictated by it, by co-creating a future where addressing physical challenges becomes a priority and where everyone finally feels like they belong.

This paper describes an application of augmented reality for improved situational awareness in combat. Instead of overlays that re-present information “your way,” the system discussed here provides views into different categories of information that are critical for urban warfare situations, like whether an object in view is friendly, hostile, neutral, or unknown.

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