Cell phone owners make same mistakes as disabled desktop users

Most mobile phone users have experienced the difficulty of using a device made small enough to fit in a pocket: their thumbs are just too fat to accurately type that text message, or they can’t click on the right part of the screen without squinting.

Now a recently completed study indicates that mobile phone users make the same mistakes as computer users who are physically disabled.

The frustrating experience of botching a text message or clicking the wrong link on a micro-size Web site of a mobile device is much like the experience of physically impaired desktop users, the study from the University of Manchester in Britain reveals.

Titled Reciprocal Interoperability between Accessible and Mobile Webs, the study was conducted by researchers at the university’s School of Computer Science.

The findings released July 1 suggest mobile phone manufacturers could make use of existing software designed for the physically impaired to help improve user experience.

“We call it situational induced impairment,” says Yeliz Yesilada, senior researcher on the project. “If you have bright sun reflecting off the screen, you become visually impaired. Or if you have thumbs that are too big for the small keyboard.”

Yesilada had 15 volunteers use a HP iPaq device equipped with a QWERTY keyboard, a touch screen, a joystick and a stylus. They conducted a series of exercises modeled around a 1999 study looking at the difficulties faced by the physically impaired when using computers.

Some similar mistakes include pressing the wrong key when typing and clicking on the wrong places of the screen, the computer scientist says.  None of the 15 volunteers were perfect in completing their tasks.

It’s no surprise that so many mistakes are made by mobile button-mashers, says Shiv Bakhshi, director of mobile device research with Framingham, Mass.-based consultants IDC. Manufacturers face a unique design challenge of cramming a lot of features onto a small piece of real estate.

“All industrial design is a series of compromises,” he says. “In a perfect world with no limitations, you could design the perfect artifact.”

With an estimated three billion mobile phone users around the world now, it is likely that phone manufacturers are looking for any help they can get to make their products more usable, Bakhshi adds. Companies could get a competitive edge if they do it well.

“There’s lots of innovation taking place that is designed to solve the problem of working with a really small device and trying to emulate the perfect condition,” the analyst says.

The U.K. research was motivated by the concept that the two different approaches – to mobile usability and accessibility for the disabled –could be brought together, Yesilada says.

“Why do we have these two domains, why don’t we look at them as the same domain?” she asks.

Computing devices could be designed to allow easier use for everyone, the researcher adds. A couple of advanced technologies that have been designed to help people with specific disabilities could be of use to anyone using a mobile phone, for example.

Eye-tracking or head-tracking is a commonly used technology for physically impaired computer users. Imagine controlling a pointer on your phone screen with eye movements, or nodding your head to scroll through e-mails.

Adding some more feedback to phone interactions could eliminate user errors such as missed keys when typing, Yesilada adds. For example, users could feel a subtle vibration when they enter a key stroke.

Some cell phone manufacturers have already introduced these features in their latest offerings.

For instance, the Samsung Instinct smart phone – recently announced in Canada – includes a feature dubbed “haptic feedback.”  Users feel a slight vibration when working the touch screen that lets them know their touch command is successful.

Mobile device manufacturers that make use of soft keyboards – such as the iPhone’s touch screen keyboard – are becoming interested in such force feedback mechanisms, IDC’s Bakhshi says.

All devices can benefit from providing user feedback when an action has taken place.

“It’s like standing in front of an elevator and pressing the button but not seeing the light come on,” he says. Manufacturers are already trying to solve such problems.

Many mobile phones come loaded with an auto-complete feature that guesses what word a user is inputting as they type it. Others have spell checks that are run and insert missing letters when they’re recognized.

All devices with QWERTY keyboards all have the number 5 key slightly raised to provide users with a non-visual guide as to where their fingers are on the letters, Bakhshi adds.

The university project will continue to find similarities between technological accessibility and mobile-phone friendliness, Yesilada says. The goal is to create one set of guidelines that would result in a better experience for all parities involved.

Next study will take a look at the similarities between Web browsers on mobile devices and browsers used by the physically impaired.

“Since blind users can’t see images, they use alternative text provided for the images,” she says. “Similarly, mobile users will sometimes turn off images and see only the alternative text on a page.”

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