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Frictionless and inclusive technology

In today’s digital world, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing new tech hit the market at a rapid pace. While understandable, this can cause challenges for some, for example, people with disabilities such as hearing and sight impairments, whose needs get overlooked.  

Let’s take my story as an example.

I am profoundly deaf since birth and have worn hearing aids until five years ago when I had a cochlear implant. A cochlear implant is an electronic medical device which stimulates inside the inner ear (cochlea) to provide sound signals to the brain. It’s vastly superior to the conventional hearing-aid — akin to replacing an ordinary pair of headphones with a pair from Bang & Olufsen!

I am not alone. There are 11 million people with hearing loss across the UK alone, that's around one in six of us. By 2035, there'll be around 15.6 million people with hearing loss across the UK — that's one in five. Similar patterns are seen across the globe.

For verbal communication, I rely on lipreading and listening combined. Technology has improved by leaps and bounds. I can’t use the telephone, but I can use other forms of communication such as email and social media. For large meetings and conference calls, I have a stenographer who types subtitles in real-time, so that I can follow conversations and participate in decision making and planning.

Nevertheless, I still struggle to follow everything that is being said in the office. Without any assistance, I can only follow between 10% to 65%; mostly I reckon on following around 30% of the conversations. At stand-up meetings, conversations jump from one person to another randomly. Some speak too quietly, some speak too fast. Other meetings are booked at the last minute which gives me no time to book with my stenographer. Poor Wi-Fi connection means subtitles go missing or are delayed. Meeting rooms are full, so we huddle in noisy places where the stenographer struggles to concentrate, and poor light which makes lip-reading difficult.

Yes, I do constantly remind people to slow down or speak up, but old habits die hard! Yes, work colleagues do kindly write up notes for me or explain afterward for which I am entirely grateful. However, I become passive and can’t engage in conversations to contribute nor make decisions until afterward which may be too late.

There is too much friction.

For these reasons, I want to talk about frictionless and inclusion.

The ideal customer experience should be designed to be frictionless. Frictionless design is reducing the energy required by an experience. The experience would require no extra effort on the customer’s part, it wouldn’t require the customer to repeat anything they’ve already said, and wouldn’t pose any obstacles to meeting the customer’s need.

Let’s take Heinz Tomato Ketchup as an example of removing friction.

On the left, we have the traditional bottle, and on the right, we have a customer-centric product. Several frictions have been removed:
  • It’s ‘upside’ down ensuring the ketchup is poured out almost immediately. Any sauce left inside is deposited beside the opening instead of at the bottom of the bottle
  • The bottle is squeezable, allowing the liquid to come out of the bottle with ease
  • The bottle has handles for grips
  • The top is easier to open (as opposed to twisting it).

The brand and taste remain the same, but it is more user-friendly. However, we need to go further. Some may still struggle to open the top for example. We need to make the experience totally frictionless.

What I mean by frictionless

Imagine this scenario: I’m lying on a beach, reading a book. I’m hot and sweaty, and I fancy ice cream. I get up and go to an ice cream shop, but I don’t carry my phone nor any money. I just show up my face. The shop is able to identify me biometrically and collect my payment digitally. I have my ice cream. This is total frictionless.
The smart speaker such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Apple HomePod is a great piece of technology. It uses Artificial Intelligence and connects to the Internet and third-party services — Internet of Things applications. Recently, I went to a conference where Alexa was demoed by a blind person. Alexa was able to tell him the weather forecast, turn down the thermostat and even turn on the lights. Alexa doesn’t just help people with sight impairment but also people with disabilities who are unable to move around the house or have difficulties in turning off/on devices.

The technology is brilliant. However, can everyone use it? Sadly, not. What about the people with speech impairment including stroke, dysphagia, mental health, cerebral palsy, autism and stammer to name but a few. In fact, 20% of the UK population have a speech disorder at any time. Yes, we could add a voice-assisted device, but that is friction and an afterthought solution.

As I write this, Amazon has recently announced a new “Tap to Alexa” feature for hearing and speech impairments. It will let users tap the device’s touchscreen to access shortcuts to common Alexa features, like the weather, timers, and more.  Users can also type out Alexa commands, if necessary.

Furthermore, through the Alexa Accelerator program, which is funded by Amazon’s Alexa Fund and managed by Techstars, a startup called Voiceitt is creating speech recognition for people with traumatic brain injuries, strokes, mental disabilities, and other potential speech impairments. It’s hoped Voiceitt will integrate into Alexa to make it more inclusive and remove barriers.

Further work is still required to make Alexa totally inclusive, but it’s going in the right direction.

There are several other technologies which could help build a frictionless future, including:
  • Biometrics
    • Biometric login — no need to remember passwords which would certainly help people with memory forgetfulness
    • Voice-driven virtual assistant (e.g., Alexa) to control one’s home
  • Virtual Reality
    • Helping patients with sensory and/or psychological experience
    • Improving accessibility in the buildings and the surrounding environment
  • Autonomous Driving
    • Allowing non-drivers (with disabilities) to travel independently
  • Artificial Intelligence
    • Robot Caregivers — robots could work around the clock to care for an individual without getting “tired” or needing a break
    • Vision-free Communication — serves as digital eyes for the blind to recognize faces, scenes, money, text and more
    • Proactive notifications to help people with memory loss — e.g., a reminder to turn off the oven, close the door behind you, travel updates.

The list is much longer, and the potential is enormous.

Frictionless and inclusion assist people with disabilities. They give people a more positive lifestyle, control in their lives, increase in social participation, reduce costs both at home and at work and so on. Focussing on people with disabilities in turn positively impact the rest of the society — a rewarding experience and a win-win for all!

There’s also financial incentive to make the product inclusive. In the UK, there is the purple pound.

The Purple Pound

The spending power of families with at least one person with a disability in the UK is £265 billion. This is the purple pound. The global equivalent – let us call it the ‘Purple Dollar’ – is valued at $8 trillion.

Equitable technology

At Thoughtworks, our responsibility is to encourage that inclusivity. We see frictionless and inclusive technology as essential to building an equitable tech to help drive a socially and economically just world. 

We do this through exploring and creating awareness about the social and economic impact of technological advances; through minimizing the negative impacts of these on society; and through maximizing the opportunity to use technology to address injustices — past, present, and future.

As the capabilities of technology exponentially grow in a multitude of directions, the opportunities to improve the lives of countless millions who suffer from one or other disability are enormous. While the physical world remains full of practical challenges, the digital world can be a place where inclusion is the default.

By building frictionless technology for people with disabilities, we will build a more inclusive world.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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