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Person-Centric Technology

It occurred to me the other day that the term ‘personal technology’ no longer means what we originally thought it meant. We might possess it, but in many ways we no longer own it, or have much control over it. And it’s increasingly obvious that it’s designed to serve its makers first, and us a distant second.

Where affordances are made to allow us to configure our technology to fit us better, under the banner of accessibility, they are welcome, but alas they are not adopted by all applications, if they are adopted at all. When the maker of the operating system or device fails to even offer these affordances in their own apps, you know where their priorities lie.

But the indifference to the person using the device goes even deeper. The makers consider their creation to be at a point of ‘user-friendliness’ where no effort is required to help a person ‘use’ their device. Any paper guide is perfunctory at best, and the ‘setup’ these days consists of getting the person’s details first, then having them click through an ‘agreement’ that absolves the maker of any responsibility for any defects in their creation or any damage caused by it.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Imagine if a computer, phone, tablet or other device started up for the first time and took the time to ask you how it could best serve you.

Imagine if the first question was not ‘what is your name?’, but ‘do you need any help using this device?’

Yes, telling it what language you speak is a start, but I’m talking about accessibility in all senses. Do you need the text larger? More contrast? Less motion? Spoken accompaniment? Other controls to use the device?

The device (and its makers) should consider the expertise of the person. Have they used this device, or type of device, before? If not, then the operating system should adjust accordingly. Make assistance available at any time, and if necessary make the user interface clearer and less cluttered while the person gets to grips with the basics.

There are no good excuses why these can’t be done. The technological constraints that may have prevented their implementation in the past are gone. The only justification that I can think of is that doing this extra work isn’t ‘sexy’ and would mean making marginally less profit in the short-term.

We need to start thinking past the short-term. The brutal fact is that we are all getting older, and our mental and physical capabilities can and will change, sometimes without warning. And selling us more devices when the ones we own now are working fine is insanity, even before all the environmental impacts are considered. Devices don’t need to be ‘sexy’, they need to be useful for as long as possible.

Those who work to make products accessible to all should be feted and honoured, not left in the shadows.

And people should not be treated solely as consumers, or subjects whose every activity should be tracked and monetised. When technology helps people to live better lives and achieve more, the benefits are felt by everyone and can last a lifetime.

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