Image: Tiago Rïbeiro
Despite all the revitalised hype surrounding HTML5, web accessibility is not such a hot topic at the moment. This is disappointing to those of us who see an open and accessible web as (at the risk of over egging it a bit) crucial to the future of mankind.
So when Dr Tony Elliman, coordinator of a web accessibility focused, EU funded research project came to speak at Geek Up Sheffield 20, I got a little excited.
The DIADEM project focuses on the accessibility of online forms for people suffering with cognitive decline due to old age. The justification is compelling:
People in developed world are living longer and longer...But older adults are often ill at ease when faced with online activities... One major reason is a decline in cognitive abilities due to aging...The evidence shows that [such decline] has a detrimental affect on use of online services by older adults.
Tweaked from the Diadem home page
It seems problem for society is that an aging population means the cost of ensuring the well-being of the elderly population goes up, but if those aging individuals are able to maintain their independence for longer, say, by leveraging the Internet, those costs could be alleviated.
When you think about it like that, the importance of web accessibility for the elderly begins to sound quite urgent.
DIADEM is specifically concerned with web forms, that is, interfaces that require the user to fill-in one or more forms in order to complete a transaction. The idea is that the DIADEM software presents web forms to users in a tailored manner, using a style of interface that works best for them.
To explain further, let's get hypothetical with an aging user called Bill:
Bill has been retired for quit a while and his mobility is beginning to fail him. Bill's granddaughter, Stacy, helped him to get onto the Internet which he uses regularly to keep up with the local news.
Recently Bill has been finding his coffee table a bit low to use comfortably (and he doesn't like it much besides). Bill realises that rather than asking Stacy to drive him to a shop (he hates to bother her, she's so busy), he could use the Internet to buy a new coffee table, but he increasingly finds it difficult to focus on complex or unfamiliar tasks, and when he has tried to shop online before he has gotten confused by the options on screen and eventually given up.
Recently however, Stacy setup installed a DIADEM powered browser plug-in on Bill's computer and and had him go through a training routine that allowed the plug-in to learn how to present questions and options to him in the way that he understands best. So with renewed confidence, Bill visits a DIADEM enabled online furniture shop and chooses a coffee table. When he is ready to complete the purchase, the DIADEM powered plug-in takes over and guides him through the check-out process, using a personalized interface that works for him.
Unfortunately, for the time being at least, this scenario remains a fiction. DIADEM claim their software works (although they will need to convince some that Hawthorne effect and the Observer-expectancy effect have been properly controlled in their tests), but there currently seems to be no plan with regard to how to bring the technology to the aging masses. Furthermore, a number of challenges need to be faced before DIADEM has a chance to make any impact, for example, developers need to be persuaded to embrace the technology, online service providers must be convinced to compromise the branding of their online experiences, and of course the people who could benefit from this the most will need to be convinced to invest time, energy, and (maybe) money in the service.
The DIADEM project