Touch screens don’t work for everyone

I’ve been volunteering with AgeUK to help elderly people with digital devices.

One interesting experience I had recently was helping Edna (not her real name), an 88 year old woman with an android tablet. She wanted to use it to check answers to the weekly Crossword puzzles, use Skype for connecting with friends overseas and do a bit of online shopping.

As I walked her through different tasks on her tablet, I noticed she was having a lot of difficulty with pressing on buttons, links and swiping through screens. I asked her to try using different fingers and to press down with the flat of her finger and not her finger nail but none of these seemed to help. She started getting frustrated with it and saying it was her fault and that she “didn’t know how to use the thing.” I assured her she wasn’t doing anything wrong and would look into it further.

I was puzzled why the tablet wasn’t responding to her fingers. After the session, I did some research and found that a lot of elderly people were experiencing similar problems and it had to do with moisture.

First, a bit of background on touch screens. Almost all devices with touch screens these days, from phones to tablets, use “capacitive touch screens”. These work by sensing where our fingers touch the screen using the electrical charge our skin carries. Think of the static shocks you get when touching a door handle. And the electrical charge is greatest when our hands are warm and moist.

In older people, dry skin and cold hands are common:

As skin ages, the skin has a decreased ability to retain moisture, to control temperature and to sense the surrounding environment. Environmental factors, such as exposure to UV radiation, also have a detrimental effect on skin health over time. (bpac)

The puzzle was coming together. This explained why Edna’s tablet wasn’t responding to her fingers and why she was having such difficulty with it. Her fingers were dried out so the tablet wasn’t picking up an electrical current from her skin. It was like she wearing gloves and trying to use her phone.

It was a really interesting accessibility problem and something I didn’t even think about until I observed it. It’s yet more evidence why first hand research and observations are so important. Being there in person is absolutely necessary to uncover the underlying problems with how people are using devices and empathise with their needs.

The solution I advised was to buy a basic stylus and use that instead of her fingers. Another remedy would be to use a water based moisturiser but that doesn’t help if her hands are cold as well as dry.

And it’s not just elderly people who may experience problems with touch screens, there are many others who could be affected:

  • People with poor circulation can have cold hands
  • Healthcare workers who wash their hands a lot leading to dry hands
  • People with diabetes or blood conditions may have cold hands
  • Carpenters who have callused hands
  • Guitar players who have callused fingers
  • People with low levels of iron with anemia may have cold hands1
  • Raynaud’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis causes cold hands1
  • A thyroid imbalance can cause cold hands and dry skin2

 

References:

  • Featured image: Timothy Muza https://stocksnap.io/photo/1942FD49BF
  • 1 https://www.healthstatus.com/health_blog/heart-disease-2/medical-cold-hands-feet/
  • 2 http://bottomlinehealth.com/your-hormones-may-be-out-of-whack-and-you-dont-even-know-it-men-this-can-happen-to-you-too/
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The story of a warning sign at Farringdon station

I noticed a big yellow sign warning at Farringdon Station, giving drivers an important message to do something. When there’s a message added after the fact, whether it’s hand written on a dashboard, a post-it note on a computer monitor or a big poster at a train station, it’s a usually sign there’s a design problem.
farringdon_station_warning_full
After some research on Wikipedia, the Pantograph is pretty important element of the train as it provides power. In this case, it provides power to the train outside of central London where there’s not a third rail powering the tracks.
pantograph (or “pan“) is an apparatus mounted on the roof of an electric traintram or electric bus[1] to collect power through contact with an overhead catenary wire.
So why is there a warning telling drivers to lower it? What happens if they forget to lower it? After a quick google search, I found an incident at Blackfriars in January 2014 which caused major delays after the holidays and guess which station they were coming from… yep, Farringdon!
‘Today at 10am a Sevenoaks-bound service broke down at Blackfriars railway station after one of the pantographs, used to collect power from overhead lines north of Farringdon, hit the ceiling.
Interesting that a simple warning sign at a station has a much bigger story.
With thoughts of designing experiences and users not reading anything, I question the effectiveness of a sign and trusting that the train driver will read and respond to it every time. It may provide a short term fix but ultimately this needs to be incorporated into the design of the trains and the platform to prevent the train from continuing when the pantograph needs to be lowered.

iPhone keyboards designed for diverse human needs

Whilst taking the train home the other day, I spotted someone making interesting gestures on their iPhone screen. I was intrigued. It looked like they were using a drawing app but in a text message. Upon closer inspection, I saw that they were writing Chinese characters in a blank space at the bottom of the screen which were then auto-recognised by the phone, presenting a number of characters to select. I found this fascinating.

Apple definitely took a “thinking human” approach for their keyboards and designed with a globally diverse human needs in mind. You can choose from keyboard layouts for Chinese and other languages in your settings. They could’ve easily just offered a single keyboard with Chinese characters mapped to it and left it at that but instead they thought (and most likely observed) how people message each other and created a handwriting focused one as well. Great design.

Apple included this early on iOS software, according to this article on MacRumors: “Apple Includes Chinese Handwriting Recognition in iPhone 2.0 Beta”.

Mac OSX Help Menu – The way help should be

Using the help feature on Mac OSX applications is a thing of beauty. It’s inspired me to write a post because it saves me time and helps me learn the application better. When I search for a feature and it’s in the menu bar, the menu location is automatically expanded and displayed. This does two extremely helpful things for me:

  1. Shows me where to find it – helps train me on using the application by showing me instead of having to read and follow a bunch of text instructions with screenshots (if I’m lucky)
  2. Allows me to run the command immediately – no need to navigate through the menu following the instructions, I just hit ‘enter’ and it’s done!

This is application help designed perfectly for humans.

mac_help_awesomeness

Brushing up on my Spanish with DuoLingo

Ahead of our trip to Seville next weekend, I’m brushing up on my Spanish with DuoLingo. I really like the app, its simple, responsive and gives a nice mix of listening, translating and writing.

There’s one feature that I particularly like which I discovered whilst doing my lesson on a busy train in the morning. There are speaking questions but I don’t want to embarrass myself or annoy others on the train with my poor Spanish. DuoLingo designed for this scenario. For any speaking parts, they have a button at the bottom ” can’t talk right now” which skips the question, mutes the speaking questions for an hour and skips to the next question. Very nice!

IMG_6425-1.PNG

Easy pizza customising with Oregano online

Emma found this one when ordering from Oregano pizza online. it’s quite a simple but cool feature for ordering a pizza.

I’ve attempted to capture it in an animated gif (first one I’ve made). After choosing a pizza, the toppings on that pizza are checked automatically. This makes it very easy to see what’s included on the pizza and then customise to your liking, checking or I unchecking toppings as you wish.

oregano-pizza-choosing_v2

This approach of designing for customisation and alterations makes it very easy to get the exact pizza you want. I think Oregano knew that people liked to make changes to pizza toppings and added this as a primary scenario.

Simplicity of Paris’ #5 Metro Train Map

When we were in Paris last week, it was nice to see such a simple and usable map onboard the #5 metro line. It tells you exactly what you need to know and gives good visibility and feedback to the user:

  1. The next stop blinks – in this case it’s “Richard-Lenoir”
  2. Illuminated dots indicate stations coming up
  3. Stations visited are disabled
  4. Closed stations are also disabled like “Oberkampf”
  5. Underneath,  a Circular “M” indicates which Metro lines you can change to or “RER” for other train services

Simple and effective.

More feedback while on the Tube

Although the London tube map is easy to read, it had something to learn in terms of feedback to the user. On the Paris Metro, I found the “blinking light” indicating the next stop an especially useful feature.

Feedback is about sending back information about what action has been done and what has been accomplished, allowing the person to continue with the activity. 

From Don Normans’ Design Principles