Redefining "Mobile" for Usability and Accessibility

I gave a shorter version of this talk at the plenary session of the 2013 M-Enabling Summit in Arlington/Washington.

On most days, I enjoy walking outside for a little while. Working from home means that the commute I used to have no longer exists. So walking serves as a somewhat of a substitute. When I go out for these daily jaunts, I like taking different routes to and from home. Over the last few years, these walks have been lot more colorful thanks to my cell phone and GPS. Thanks to the wonders of accessible software that tells me what I'm passing by, I've gotten to know my neighborhood pretty well. This used not to be the case before the iPhone made it possible for me and other blind people to have ready access to this information without putting a several thousand dollar dent in my wallet.

My routine and ways of working have changed dramatically over the last few years, bringing more independence to my life. Simple things that everyone takes for granted are now possible (if not the easiest). I believe we still find ourselves in the embryo stage of such independence. Having access to someone with sight at the other end of my camera phone when I need objects identified or temperature controls read is just an immediate solution to a problem that has existed for thousands of years. This virtual eye, capable of such fantastic feet’s as allowing the quick scanning of a document for identification, is only the first invention to a future that will make awareness of my surroundings a constant. The current ability of having access to millions of electronic books no matter where I am or when I want them excites me to no end. Calling a taxy by using this tiny little device and not have to flounder about at the street corner in the hopes that the driver will not run after seeing the cane is a prospect that fills me with utter joy. Or the ability to be told that my gate for my flight to Tokyo has changed, avoiding the very strong reality of being forgotten by airline personnel. None of this excludes the very simple and undeniable fact that I, along with hundreds of millions of people with disabilities, can now have the same opportunities to be productive with email, SMS messages, or browsing; or we could just goof-off by playing quality games when finding several moments of free time at our disposal.

All these possibilities have become reality in this embryonic stage of development. We're just getting started. Wearable computing and implant based miniature devices, nanno-scale awareness, real object recognition by having cloud-based massively scaled computing infrastructure distinguish scenes in a film or photos, unparalleled communication opportunities, or brain interfaces that substitute vision are just few examples of the level independence we are about to see over the next few decades.

We will only succeed at drawing complete solutions, however, if we change our thinking about "mobile."

As it stands, mobile is considered to be the next emerging market. Enormous capital is being invested in this field by companies and some governments to make ubiquitous computing a reality. Often times, however, the potential of the "mobile" market overwhelms the simple and incontrovertible reality: As we think about all these potentials, the technology itself gets all the attention. In order for all of us to succeed, we must let technology be the secondary object to the actual reason behind the technology.

True innovation is not the technology that will allow us to do all these wonderful things; true innovation is the mindfulness that the object for all technology is humanity or, as I like to think, individual humans. We must think of mobile not as the collection of technologies that will allow content creators and distributors to spread their content or technologies that only allow finding out all information about individuals so that massive databases can be created but we must think of mobile as the human being itself. In our haste to create new products and implement exciting new technologies, we forget the people who will actually use these technologies We have seen utterly inaccessible and unusable by everyone, let alone people with disabilities. We have seen examples of interfaces that attempt to do something but manage to do something entirely different. We have seen the people who will be using these technologies relegated to a point at the bottom of some pile of paperwork because that pile of paperwork is "required." When it comes to people, whether they have a disability or not, relegating them to the bottom will not help us create new innovations.

This point crystalized for me on a cold January day when I visited one of our partners who works on many projects, coming up with security solutions for large organizations being one of their primary objectives. I had given them a challenge a year before. I had asked them to come up with a security system that all people with disabilities and in all socioeconomic backgrounds could use. The team truly took this challenge to heart. When I walked into their office in January, they demonstrated a system that, without using any electronic marker, cellphone, perceivable biometric information, code, or ID allowed people to be identified by using their presence. by using a combination of factors, they were able to demonstrate that, just by appearing in a room or near a security system, the validation could be done without placing the burden of validation on the user. Not only was this a truly innovative solution for people with all sorts of disabilities, but it could be used by anyone. They decided to treat mobility as a human endeavor and not a technology-driven problem.

So my realization that mobile is human does not only come from conviction but seeing true innovation at a scale that makes sense. Whether we're discussing apps for cell phones, content on televisions or other devices, access and users go hand in hand. Without the human at the other end, the technology is meaningless. Innovation in mobile requires us to be mindful. Mindfulness toward human beings is the only way we will succeed at creating truly usable and accessible solutions.