Five top tips for building accessible conversational interfaces

Leonie Watson of WC3 The Amazon Echo and Google Home top of many Christmas lists this year. Both of these amazing devices can use our verbal instructions to play music, turn our lights on and off, exchange the basics of a short conversation with us, and of course, tell us the weather. Amongst the highlights of our TechShare pro conference in November was a talk by Leonie Watson - who offered her five top tips on creating accessible conversations with our machines.

Legends of talking machines

“There are reports that as far back 1000 years ago people were thinking about the concept artificial speech,” says Watson, director of developer communications for the Paciello Group, a member of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) Advisory Board, and co-chair of the W3C Web Platform Working Group.

Legends of talking “machines” go 1000 years back to Pope Sylvester II (950–1003 AD), the first French Pope who supposedly created a very basic first dialog system including components of speech recognition, understanding, generation, and synthesis - according to the essay Gerbert, the Teacher by Oscar G. Darlington in The American Historical Review.

Steve Jobs introduces the first talking Apple Mac

Fast forward to the 1980s, when the first text-to-speech synthesiser by DECtalk was introduced. 1984 also saw Steve Jobs demonstrate the Apple Mac’s talking capabilities for the first time with Apple MacInTalk. See the video below from 3 minutes 20.

"There’s been some good marketing around such technology", said Watson, who has sight loss. "But I've found that talking to tech has been a laborious process - with a person having to speak very, very clearly and with specific phrases for machines to understand. Even then, the interaction has ended up bearing little resemblance to an actual conversation", said Watson.


“The thing that really changed that was Siri in 2011. For first time we could have something that felt a lot more like a conversation with technology. In 2014 the Windows Cortana launch followed, giving us another digital assistant that would talk back to us.”

“The same year, with the Amazon Echo, we started to see digital assistants be able to do practical things around the house, but we still needed very structured language and to ask very carefully phrased demands to get it to do things," explained Watson. "A further leap forward came in 2015 with Google making it’s technology more context aware. Meaning, for example, if a song was playing, you could ask your Google device ‘where’s this artist from? Or what’s his real name?” without having to specifically state who you were talking about.”

How to build accessible conversational interfaces

Watson laid out five ways that developers could make interactions with machines as clear as possible for a wide-range of people.

1 Keep machine language simple

  • Think about the context of how people might be using the device. They might be driving or cooking and need short, simple interactions.
  • Offer choices but not too many choices.
  • Suggest obvious pointers to useful information.

2 Avoid idioms and colloquialisms

  • ie, terms like “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “coffee to go” might only be understood by certain audiences and so lack inclusivity.

Amazon echo3 Avoid dead-ends in conversation

  • Give the users cues around what to say or ask next to get what they need.

4 Use familiar, natural language.

  • Ie for time, say ‘three thirty in the morning’ for a UK or US audience. Don’t say ‘zero, three, three zero a.m’.

5 Provide a comparable experience

  • Users of such technology will generally require speech and hearing to talk to machines.
  • For those with hearing loss, conversational transcripts could be posted on screen.
  • For those without speech, the only obvious option at the moment is using simulated speech, like Stephen Hawking does, for example.

Learn more

Microsoft Seeing AI - the best ever app for blind people just got even better

Microsoft’s revolutionary app Seeing AI took the blind world by storm when released earlier this year. Now it's been updated, with several new functions including handwriting and colour recognition - and it’s still free. It's launching today and I’m personally wriggling in my office chair with excitement, whilst simultaneously hitting refresh in the iOS app store.

Take a look at the features below to see why it's such an amazing step forward for disabled people.

Seeing AI just got even better

Microsoft Seeing AI app describing sceneSince it was launched in mid-2017 Seeing AI has been downloaded more than 100,000 times and has assisted users with over 3 million tasks. It was released with features such as the ability to identify a product audibly using the barcode, as well as being able to describe images, text and faces of friends and family as they come into view.

Today (14 December) Microsoft has announced new features that provide new user experiences including currency, handwriting and colour recognition, as well as light detection. It's also now available in 35 countries, including the European Union.

Seeing AI in action

As you can see from my video I've been using Seeing AI for reading magazines as well as handwritten notes left by my family.

A whole new set of features

New features in Seeing AI v2 include: 

  • Colour recognition: Getting dressed in the morning just got easier with this new feature, which describes the colour of objects, like the garments in your closet.  
  • Currency recognition: Seeing AI can now recognize the currency of US dollars, Canadian dollars, British Pounds and Euros. Checking how much change is in your pocket or leaving a cash tip at a restaurant is much easier.
  • Musical light detector: The app alerts you with a corresponding audible tone when you aim the phone’s camera at light in the environment. A newly convenient tool so you don’t have to touch hot bulbs to know that a light is switched off, or the battery pack’s LED is on.
  • Handwriting recognition: Expanding on the ability of the app to read printed text, such as on menus or signs, the newly improved ability to read handwriting means you can read personal notes in a greeting card, as well as printed stylized text not usually readable by optical character recognition.  
  • Reading documents: Seeing AI can read you the document aloud without voiceover, with synchronised word highlighting. Also includes the ability to change the text size on the Document channel.
  • Choose voices and speed: Personalization is key, and when you’re not using VoiceOver, this feature lets you choose between the voice that is used and how fast it talks.

Raise your glasses to a brighter future for the blind

As amazing as it is the development of the app is also a sign of the power that AI will bring in the future.

The video above shows a prototytpe that uses the Seeing AI engine in a pair of smart glasses. While the Google Glass smart spectacles fell a little flat, there’s no doubt that head-mounted cameras (with or without a screen) are going to play a major role in the future of wearable tech and it’s only a matter of time before this functionality is added.

For the users of Seeing AI, it makes perfect sense to have the camera that is working so hard to tell us about our surroundings mounted on our heads and looking in the direction most important to us. This is important in terms of warning us about upcoming obstacles, people we’re interacting with (or wanting to avoid physically or possibly even socially) and also in terms of street signs, shop fronts, notices and hoardings etc (all of which will soon be able to be automatically and effortlessly read out to us).

It is also possible to combine this breathtakingly useful level of awareness of our surroundings with the spoken cues of navigation apps - my personal top GPS app with added accessibility sparkles is BlindSquare. This means that people who are blind, severely dyslexic or have a learning disability will now have a whole new world of support wherever we go.

Thank you, Microsoft

I just want to end this quick post by spelling out my gratitude to Microsoft for bringing real cutting-edge machine learning to a group of users with such evident needs in this area. While none of the smarts within Seeing AI are solely or even primarily intended for blind users, it takes a company as acutely aware of the importance of accessibility as Microsoft to do such an excellent implementation that brings the best of AI to those who benefit most.

Robin Christopherson is head of digital inclusion for AbilityNet

Related links

Paralympic gold medallist urges businesses to use tech to support disabled people

Sophie Christiansen CBE is a para-equestrian dressage rider who spoke at AbilityNet's TechShare pro conference in November.

As someone who was born with quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy, technology helped me access education. Simply having a typewriter and then a computer, enabled me to do my school work independently. To write would’ve been far harder. Tech allowed me to show the part of my body that did work properly – my brain. Because of that I knew that I could go on to get a job and live independently like everyone else.

Sophie Christiansoon was a guest speaker AbilityNet's TechShare pro

I know my value in the workplace in my role as tech analyst at Goldman Sachs. When you have a disability you really focus on your abilities. You think differently – outside the box. It’s this mentality that makes disabled people good employees and also inspires able-bodied co-workers to do the same - to make their product and business accessible for everyone.

Voice recognition issues

One thing that would make my life even easier is if voice recognition worked better for me. My voice is obviously different to other people’s and I find voice recognition a bit hit and miss. For example, Siri on iPhones doesn’t understand me, but Google does. Amazon Alexa gets me when she is online and processes on Amazon’s server, but to switch it on using the specific ‘wake up words’ doesn’t work because at that point she’s offline and her local processing skills are less clever. I did a little experiment with her to show you what I mean.

There’s lots more that can be done to keep improving things. I spend a lot of time on trains, and feel companies could do more to make it easier for disabled people. At the moment, to catch a train, I have to phone to book assistance 24 hours in advance (because disabled people can never be spontaneous, right?). But phone at peak times and this normally involves being put on hold for 15 minutes.

Reasonable adjustments in the transport sector

I’d say about for about one in 10 journeys, the member of staff forgets that I have booked on, so in the absence of a ramp, I have to rely on kind members of the public to lift my wheelchair down so I don’t end up in Portsmouth.

As a reasonable adjustment there could be an app which I could use to quickly book assistance half an hour or more before my train, get reassurance that the staff know about me, and send data back to the train operator on their performance. I can guarantee that if this was in place more disabled people and their families would have the confidence to travel by train.

The world of tech is still in its infancy, so why not think about accessibility in the embryo stage of an idea? You don’t have to just do this out of the goodness of your hearts – there are 13.3 million disabled people in the UK alone with a household spending power of £249bn. That’s a lot of business that you are missing out on by not being accessible. A little extra thought goes a long way for everyone.

Visit Sophie's website for more information

Follow Sophie on Twitter @SChristiansen87

How AI could transform the lives of disabled people

Hector Minto, Sharon Spencer and Ellie Southwood at TechSharePro panel“The Echo Dot makes me feel included," says Ellie Southwood, chair of The Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB). “I spend far less time searching for things online; I can multi-task while online and be more productive. Microsoft’s Seeing AI app (narrates the world for people with sight loss) means I can recognise people and scenarios and make up my own mind about what’s going on.”

Southwood (pictured right with Hector Minto of Microsoft and Sharon Spencer of IAAP), who has sight loss, made the comments at AbilityNet/ RNIB’s TechShare Pro conference in November, which focused on AI, disability and inclusive design. News about Artificial Intelligence (AI) can often present a dystopian version of the future - cars let loose on the motorway driving themselves; robots controlling our thoughts and taking jobs. But this sold out London conference looked at the many ways that advances in AI could transform the lives of disabled people.

The power of AI

AI is fast becoming part of our lives. The technology is behind the likes of Siri, Alexa, Cortana and other similar services. It powers speech-to-text service and is getting better at understanding different voices. It’s responsible for the suggested responses on GMail, auto-captions on Facebook and picture library searches for a specific location or person.

Opening the event, IBM’s evangelist for its AI database Watson, Jeremy Waite, told delegates that the company's survey of 1,200 UK executives found 28% plan to invest in AI in the next year. Watson can search 10 million records a second - for example it can find specific words in the whole back catalogue of TED talks in seconds or less.

AI and accessibility

The biggest tech companies’ use of AI within their products is seeing new tech features becoming far simpler for everyone to use, including disabled people. And by investing in inclusive designs those products are now reaching bigger audiences - accessible designs are more popular with every customer.

“Hopefully AI means that, rather than expecting people to provide something in an accessible format, it will mean that everything becomes accessible in the future,” said Hector Minto, head of accessibility and assistive tech at Microsoft, who sat on a future-gazing panel at the event. He spoke about the new Microsoft Seeing AI app, wGoogle's Kiran Kaja speaking at TechShare Prohich enables blind people to recognise faces, scenes, money, text and more, and also about a range of other Microsoft features which use AI to reduce or remove the technology barriers that disabled people face.

For example Windows Hello uses biometric login, ie fingerprint, face or iris, which can work for people with physical disabilities or those with dyslexia who might struggle to remember passwords. Subtitles in Powerpoint mean people can save a transcript of the narration which happened alongside slides and keep the transcript.

Minto added that the big opportunity for AI - with advances in translation capabilities and free apps - is that it could help assistive technology could 'go global' and reach parts of the world where there are more disabled people and fewer services and support.

Biometric logins and disability

Delegates also heard from Kiran Kaja, technical programme manager for search accessibility at Google.

“Everyone wins when we harness AI,” he said. “Voice recognition was developed for disabled people, but it’s the hot item at the moment and is useful for everyone. The same with speech-to-text technology, which is completely based on renewal networks. This uses AI and predictive text is also AI. Google wants to use intelligent tech to improve customers experience,” said Kaja, who has sight loss.

Kaja spoke about Google Home’s connection to Smart devices and the potential of home automation technology to support disabled people. In particular, people with physical disabilities or sight loss can more easily do things like turn lights on and off, alter a thermostat and turn on home appliances using such technology. 

TechShare pro: How Barclays uses latest tech to offer more accessible services to disabled people

Barclays bank logoOne in five people in the UK is disabled, whether that be by sight loss, hearing impairment, a motor or cognitive disability or other - and 90% of Barclays customers now interact with the bank through a screen. As the bank's Head of Digital Accessibility Paul Smyth explained at TechShare pro, unless those services are accessible the business risks losing 20% of its customers.

“We became the first bank to offer talking cash machines when we signed up to the RNIB’s Make Money Talk campaign in 2011. We immediately saw customers vote with their feet and recognised it was good for business and good for society,” said Paul Smyth, who was a keynote speaker at the AbilityNet/RNIB TechShare Pro in London In November.

Paul SMyth is Head of Digital Accessibility at Barclays

“It was a huge catalyst for change. We now have virtual sign language interpreters and high visibility bank cards....people think accessibility market is a small market, or accessible design is boring, but the purple pound (estimated household spending power of disabled people in the UK) is worth £265 billion."

Listening to disabled customers 

Barclays keeps a range of people in mind when developing its services, said Smyth, and uses surveys, social media engagement and stories to listen and share disabled people’s experiences.

“As someone with a visual impairment, I can choose to interact with my accessible smartphone rather than the bank kiosk when requesting cash withdrawals, highlighting the benefits of offering multiple ways to do the same things….We aim to be the most accessible business in the FTSE100,”

The popularity of mobile banking has meant that banks are having to provide information in a more accessible way, he said. “Many of us are on a smaller smartphone screen these days, banks are forced to distil down and display only the core information that the customer wants less of the generic marketing blurb that the bank would want. Simplifying both interface, language used and ways of interacting.

AI and Chat Bots

Smyth sees the newest technologies as a way to make banking safer and simpler. “AI and chat-bots are helping customers wade through bank sites and make sense of the information that they want through conversational interfaces rather than reading lengthy FAQs." 

"Simpler information means such services will be more accessible to a wide range of people, including those with dyslexia or cognitive impairments, as well as those using a screenreader. The industry is ripe for a revolution of simpler, safer and smarter tech, powered by predictive AI and presented in a personalised way that works for everyone,” said Smyth.

More information

Accessibility Professionals: UK Chapter launched at TechShare pro 2017

The UK branch of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) launched at the TechShare Pro conference in London on 23 November. The IAAP started in 2014 with 31 founding members including AbilityNet and Microsoft and has now grown to members in 40 different countries and recently launched chapters in the UK, India, and the Nordic countries.  It is a membership organisation for all people involved with digital accessibility working with websites, software, hardware, content and services. IAAP offers programs to support the advancement of skills and ways to demonstrate achievement of those skills and can be of particular interest to those working in web development and UX.

Barclays offered a chance to try new VR solutions at AbilityNet's TechShare pro event

TechShare pro was a sold out one-day conference organised by AbilityNet and RNIB and sponsored by Barclays, IBM, Microsoft, OrCam and Storm. As well as IAAP UK members it featured experts from the Google, Barclays, IBM and the BBC. Alongside practical sessions about accessible design much of the focus was on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, which could transform the lives of the world’s one billion disabled people (Unicef figure).

Employing qualified web accessibility experts

Launching the IAAP, managing director of the body Sharon Spencer (pictured below second from left), said:

“The aim is to help organisations integrate accessibility into their products and infrastructure and provide a professional qualification for accessibility professionals. We offer certification and these qualifications are something organisations can look for when employing experts to work on their websites to ensure they comply with the law.”

The majority of websites in the UK are not fully accessible to people who have sight or hearing loss and other disabilities. Accessibility is not taught as part of mainstream digital education at any level, and it is common for web developers to be unaware of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

AbilityNet CEO Nigel Lewis (Twitter: @NigelLewis18) has been involved in IAAP since its inception and sees a huge opportunity to recognise the skills of accessibility professionals: 

"I amd personally very proud to be a founder of the IAAP and AbilityNet fully supports its mission to help grow and develop the accessibility profession. We want accessibility to be recognised as a profession on a par with User Design & Experience, Development, Testing and Security and other disciplines IT profession. This will be a key factor in driving the delivery and uptake of accessible and inclusive technology, which in turn will help millions of disabled and older people around the world."

"IAAP provides a place for accessibility professionals around the world to gather, share experiences and enrich their knowledge of accessibility. The certification programme aims to better define what accessibility professionals are expected to know and increase the quality and consistency of work in this space.

Students of the accreditation will be given details on what kinds of skills they need in order to pass multiple choice tests, showcasing their knowledge. There are several certifications available:

  • The Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies (CPACC)
    This represents broad, cross-disciplinary conceptual knowledge about disabilities, accessibility and universal design, accessibility-related standards, laws, and management strategies.
  • The Web Accessibility Specialist (WAS)
    This represents an individual’s detailed technical knowledge about the WCAG guidelines and other related web accessibility topics.
  • Those who pass both the CPACC and the WAS exams will receive the designation of Certified Professional in Web Accessibility (CPWA).

IAAP President Sharon Spencer with other accessibility professionals at TechShare pro

Pankaj Bhasin (pictured second from right), an IT expert who volunteers with AbilityNet’s ITCanHelp service, said he would be looking to become accredited. “I have a Master’s Degree in Business and Information and at no point did we look at accessibility. This is something I would definitely be interested in to increase my career prospects."

Find live recordings of expert speakers from TechShare Pro here.

Find slides and presentations from speakers at TechShare Pro here, including BBC, Microsoft, Google and more.

Follow us on Facebook for more live videos and updates about next year's TechShare Pro.

Alexa vs Google Home vs Cortana: The battle to reach every user intensifies

There's been an explosion of Echos! We’re not talking the sort of effect that we’d get if Captain Caveman went wild in his mountain dwelling, we’re talking about an absolute explosion of Amazon Echo models in recent weeks. From a new incarnation of the big black column to the tiniest of cute (and very smart) bedside clocks, there’s something for every ear, every location and every budget.

The cute clock that is the soon-to-be-released Echo Spot is probably my favourite - here’s a sneak peak courtesy of the nice people at the Verge.

And of course the arms-race that is ambient computing contains several other horses - to horribly mix metaphors (and split infinitives). The Cortana-driven Invoke speaker is also in the running and, at the time of Amazon’s Echo announcements, you can’t have missed the simultaneous release of a similarly large range of Google Home speakers.

Last out of the gate, due out early next year, will be Apple’s HomePod.

Ambient computing is about to change everything

I’ve discussed voice assistants in several recent posts and shown how simply speaking to the air and getting useful information, being entertained and even performing sophisticated tasks is the next significant chapter in computing.

But how well are these new devices keeping up with inclusive design?

Again, in many recent posts (you really should follow that link above), I’ve explored the imperative that is inclusive design. For anything to be fit for purpose in this rapidly changing world where most people on mobiles are temporarily impaired by extreme environments on a daily basis, and a proliferation of platforms means that your content and functionality needs to be able to morph to fit any number of devices and use-cases, inclusive design is the only real way of ensuring that you’re reaching the broadest possible audience and future-proofing your projects going forward.

Yes, I am talking accessibility here but, as I’ve said so many times before, accessibility is now for everyone so let’s give it a new name for a new reality.

Anyone who has experienced ambient computing knows it is here to stay. It represents an entirely new use-case (or whole range of use-cases) and accessibility will play its part in weeding the winners from the also-rans.

Showing the way with VoiceView

Amazon Echo Show includes a screenThese smart speakers will only truly be inclusive when everyone’s needs are taken into account. Just as we have the excellent ‘type to Siri’ in iOS11 (thus making the virtual assistant available to those without speech or for anyone who finds themselves in a noisy environment), the ability to review a text version of everything that an Echo speaks out within the Alexa app (or on the screen of those models such as the Echo Show) makes the A-lady accessible to people without hearing.

The Echo Show, however, also includes a full ‘screen reader’ (software to help blind users access screen text and functions) meaning that the addition of a screen does not suddenly exclude a group of die-hard fans from a whole new range of features.

VoiceView is the name of this screenreading ability and, just like Microsoft’s excellent advancements in the built-in screenreader in Windows 10, Amazon should likewise be applauded for bringing inclusion to their latest models out-of-the-box. Here’s a full break-down of all the accessibility features found in the Echo Show.

Google’s smart speaker – accessibility home run?

We know an awful lot about the accessibility of the various Amazon Echos, but what about the Google Home? Is it a home run or a rookie batter wildly swinging at the plate. Well the jury is still out (I’ve decided to see how many metaphors I can mix and mangle in one article).

We know that Google can make accessible products (a good example is the screenreader built into Android) but we also know that they aren’t averse to releasing products without a whiff of inclusion, such as Android Wear, the version of Android that runs on smartwatches.

The good news is that the accessibility of the companion app used to set up and control your so far screenless Google Home is nicely inclusive and this represents a vital component to the overall accessibility of each solution. We also know that, whilst the Echos are chockablock with accessibility features, Amazon has some way to go before its Echo companion app, again so vital in every Echo users' experience, is truly inclusive.

As a screenreader user myself, I can attest to just how awful the Alexa app is on both iOS and Android.

There is increasing evidence that a Google Home with a screen is on the way. Will it be as accessible as the Echo Show or a strike-out like the Android watch? When it lands we’ll line up the jury, present the evidence and let them deliver their verdict. Baseball bats may or may not be involved.

Cortana and the Halo effect

Microsoft has entered the voice assistant market with the InvokeWhilst it’s natural to assume that, as Microsoft has been a long-time champion of accessibility, the new Invoke speaker with built-in virtual assistant, Cortana will be inclusive. We’ll again have to see when they fall into the hands of hundreds of eager users with a range of impairments.

Microsoft has produced a huge number of truly inclusive mobile apps in recent years (not least the all-important Office suite) and so I’m confident the Cortana companion app will be accessible.

For my money, the acid test will come with the first model to include a screen. I’m rooting for a home run…

Related links

Technology can help you feel less stressed!

The Stress Management Society (SMS) describes stress as “primarily a physical response. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. This causes a number of reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion." 

the workplace can be a very stressful placeOur cavemen ancestors used this physical response when they were in danger of getting savaged by sabre tooth tigers. Office workers don’t have much in common with cavemen. However, you could view deadlines and copious amounts of emails as our sabre-toothed tigers. Deadlines, emails and trying to do too many tasks at once brings on stress.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that in 2015-16 that more than 11 million working days were lost to stress alone. You'll be glad to know that there are lots of simple "hacks" that can make it easier for you to cope with stress and get your work done on your computer, at the same time. 

Check out our tech advice on the links below:

Here are six quick ways of helping you destress yourself. 

  • Use a meditation app to take some time out to calm your mind
  • Help me chill has a great playlist of calming ambient music. Really useful for when you need to get work done, or just to shut out the outside world
  • Headspace is a great app that will allow you to understand the basics of meditation
  • Have problems completing tasks? Why not use Drop Manager to aid your task management? 
  • Podcasts are very popular and there are several on the subject of anxiety and how to cope with it.
  • Natural readers can take the stress out of reading text. Just sit back and listen!

AbilityNet is  pleased to support the International Stress Awareness Day, taking place on Wednesday 1 November 2017

How can we help?

AbilityNet provides a range of services to help disabled people and older people with technology and communications.

  • Call our free Helpline on 0800 269 545 and our friendly, knowledgeable staff will offer one-to-one help.
  • If you are in work your employer has a responsibility to make Reasonable Adjustments which include helping you with invisible illnesses. Find out more about how we help disabled in the workplace.
  • Arrange a home visit from one of our amazing AbilityNet ITCanHelp volunteers. They can come to your home, or help you over the phone.
  • We have a range of factsheets which talk in detail about technology that might help you, which can be downloaded for free. You may find our factsheets talking about computers and vision impairment useful
  • My Computer My Way is our free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tables and smartphones.

How Artificial Intelligence is empowering people on the autism spectrum

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is empowering people with physical disabilities, allowing them to take charge of their own lives but it’s also having a surprising impact on people with neuro-diverse conditions like autism.

It’s easy to generalise about people on the autism spectrum; they like consistency, take things literally and like routine.

What is Autism? Link to Autism Society video on YouTubeAI and computer personal assistants, like Alexa, love these things too. They are built to provide consistency. They don’t (yet) understand sarcasm and they like logic, a lot.

But it’s important to remember that although people on the autism spectrum will share certain difficulties, everyone’s experience of the condition will be very different. Developers and Designers need to keep this in mind when creating a user experience.

Creating meaningful User Experiences

Those on the autism spectrum experience the world in a different way from neuro-typical people. Some people will struggle to have any social interactions, others may rely on a strict routine to get through their days.

AI has the potential to create more meaningful experiences for people on the autism spectrum. “There have been stories about children with autism who have formed in-depth relationships with Siri or their personal assistants. It’s because the assistant doesn’t make any demands on them; they are not inconsistent in their responses,” said Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet.  

Using an assistant like Alexa or Siri makes communicating very straightforward for someone with autism. They don’t have to contend with trying to understand nuanced body language, facial expressions, moods or the million-and-one other things that can be happening every time we talk to someone. An American writer wrote about her own son’s in-depth experience with Siri for the New York Times back in 2014.

Poster from the Home Office giving advice about designing for people on the autism spectrum

Things are moving fast now with the introduction of ambient computing systems like Alexa and Google Home and Apple Homepod. It’s providing incredible opportunities to make a huge difference to people with autism.

How can designers keep improving the user experience for people with autism?

“Diversity is the keyword when it comes to inclusive design,” said Robin from AbilityNet. “Make sure people on the autism spectrum have some input into your user experience, especially any key user journeys on a transactional site.”

Whatever your channel – a website, mobile app, chat bot or skill for the echo – you need to make sure you have as diverse a tester base as possible. Creating an inbuilt variety of options for design, layout and delivery can have a huge impact on user experience.

Designers need to pay attention to using Plain English (PE), avoiding figures of speech and idioms. Using euphemisms, like ‘passed away’ when talking about when someone’s died, can cause confusion. So, can phrases like ‘grey area’ when talking about something that is unclear. It’s best to avoid sarcasm, keep things to the point and matter-of-fact.

People with autism may also struggle to interact with interfaces that they find overwhelming. Use simple colours; structure your information with succinct sentences and bullet-points; and use consistent, predictable layouts.

Inclusive designs are helping everyone

Photo description: Poster from the Home Office giving advice about designing for users on the autistic spectrum

The benefits of inclusive design go way beyond helping people with autism or other impairments.  Accessibility used to be seen as a bolt-on and the danger with that was that it could easily be knocked off. By focusing on inclusive design, organisations will be making the experience better for everyone.

“People using mobile phones out and about have very similarities to people with disabilities. So, accessibility is no longer for people with disabilities with a capital D because if you have a small sheet of glass on a bright sunny day you need colour contrast, in the same way as someone with autism or impairment needs,” said Robin.

Over 700,000, or 1 in 100 people, are on the autism spectrum in the UK. The number of people being diagnosed with autism or other neurological disorders is increasing. So are the number of people temporally disabled or impaired by their new mobile tech.

Organisations and businesses need to think about how to create the best user experiences through their website, apps and bots. If they can achieve this then they will by default be reaching many more of their other customers and users. If your App or Bot isn’t accessible then your customers will go to other companies who have ones that are.

Find out more at TechShare pro

Tech which could help people with a stammer

What do King George VI, Ed Sheeran and Samuel L Jackson have in common?  The answer is that they all had a stammer.
Stammering is a condition which can make it very difficult for you to speak sometimes. It causes repetition of sounds of syllables or you might make sounds longer or sounds just get stuck.  This, as you can imagine can cause a lot of distress for the person who has a stammer and a lot of confusion for the person who is trying to listen to what they are trying to say. No-one is quite sure what causes people to stammer or stutter. 
Some people feel that is a developmental issue. In later life people who have had head injuries can experience difficulties with stuttering. Stammering is more common than you might think.
I seem to remember one of my childhood friends having a stutter and I remember that he was very aware of his difficulty, and sadly some of his friends would make fun of him.  Over 70 million people worldwide have the condition, according to the Stuttering Foundation.

How tech can help if you have a stammer

You might be surprised to hear that technology can help people with stammering.  In the past there has been technology available but this has often been cumbersome and difficult to use.  However, using iPads and similar tablets as well as computers can be beneficial for people to help control their stammer.  Lots of apps are available which use AAF or "Altered Audio Feedback" which means that you can use the app to hear what you've just said and there is evidence that this improves the fluency of the speaker.
An example of such an app DAF Beep Pro.  In fact, one of the students going through our DSA assessment service did have a stutter and was recommended this app by one of our assessors. The app comes with video guidance on how to use it.  DAF Beep Pro allows the user to hear their own voice played back in their ear at a slight delay which has been found to help a person control stammering during oral conversations.  You can get a lot of discrete Bluetooth earphones too, if you're worried about feeling self-conscious. 
It is important to point out here that we're not experts in this field and we'd say that if you have a stutter or a stammer your first port of call ought to be support groups such as The British Stammering Association or your local NHS speech therapy team (accessible through your GP).

How can we help?

AbilityNet provides a range of services to help disabled people and older people with technology and communications.

  • Call our free Helpline on 0800 269 545 and our friendly, knowledgeable staff will offer one-to-one help.

  • If you are in work your employer has a responsibility to make Reasonable Adjustments which include helping you with invisible illnesses. Find out more about how we help disabled in the workplace.

  • Arrange a home visit from one of our amazing AbilityNet ITCanHelp volunteers. They can come to your home, or help you over the phone.

  • We have a range of factsheets which talk in detail about technology that might help you, which can be downloaded for free. You may find our factsheets talking about computers and vision impairment useful

  • My Computer My Way is our free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tables and smartphones.