Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Niche market to mainstream – leveraging user interfaces for the visually impaired to handheld devices

Posted in social networking and business, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on June 26, 2010

My intent with this posting is to discuss two sets of issues: one of some significance in and of itself and then that set of issues as a paradigmatic example in a larger context. The core example is that there is a confluence of needs and capabilities developing in the user interface for the online experience that merits development. The larger context, I will get to a bit further down this posting.

Microprocessors and supporting microelectronics hardware are continuing to get smaller and more energy-efficient, and more powerful and in each briefly succeeding technology generation in the rapid technology development cycle. In principle, it would be possible to build sub-handheld sized devices that would have the technical capabilities and support the functionalities that are now only found in a handheld or even in a notebook computer. The problem is in the user interface and particularly in the visual interface where so much of the online experience is developed and formatted for visual display. A notebook computer screen can seem cramped for the more information rich web sites we encounter now with their sometimes very high content density and app functionality levels per web page. Most standard web sites and even sparsely formatted web pages like the Google home page can be difficult to use on a handheld devise and certainly when it comes to entering information into a form and clicking through on links and buttons from the standard web version of the site. So the real size and usability constraint for handhelds is in their user interface and that is primarily in the limitations of their tiny screens and navigation/functionality accessing buttons.

The visually handicapped face this exact set of usability problems for any web site and on any devise, handheld through large monitor desktop computer. And there are two basic approaches that have been developed towards addressing this.

• Web sites can be designed and built with clean HTML code, careful and at most limited use of tables, and with an awareness of the problems that graphics create for the visually impaired site visitor. These three points are in fact only a beginning to the design and back-end technology decisions that would go into creating more accessible web sites, but effective and even visually striking web design can be developed and still according to well considered accessibility guidelines (see as one of several best practices resources for effective accessibility-aware web design.)
• Alternatively, it can be acknowledged that many and in fact most web sites will never be built or maintained with anything like accessibility in mind, and at any priority level – even low. So if all effort is placed on building some web sites to meet realistic and even supportive accessibility standards, that would still leave the visually handicapped relegated to a limited and even ghetto-like subset of the overall World Wide Web. And any solution that would work there would also have to be matched for tweets, instant messaging and all the rest of the online experience if these online users are to have equal access or at least a close approximation thereof. This second option is all about developing user interface tools with the flexibility and capability of taking otherwise inaccessible online and converting it to an accessible and involving format.

And the restrictions and requirements of the handheld device and its user, and the online experience and its visually impaired user converge and that second alternative becomes the only long term viable approach for both. Tools and interfaces that would help anyone more effectively go online and interactively through a handheld devise would also make the online experience in general a lot richer and a lot more extensive in options for the visually handicapped too. And the tools and interfaces – text readers and site navigation and other resources that have been developed with the visually impaired in mind would also find a valued home as apps on all of those handhelds, and certainly where their users have to be able to go hands-free and for when they have to look away from the devise.

In a larger context, this is all about taking niche market answers to niche community needs, and recasting them as solutions to mainstream problems and opportunities and for much larger and more inclusive communities.

I am putting this posting into my Business Strategy and Operations series because it addresses a fundamental form of business opportunity, in identifying where value created in one context and for one market can be leveraged into new context to meet the needs of others, and perhaps a much larger set of others. That is the second, larger context that I have had in mind as I write this. I am putting this into my Social Networking and Business series because it more specifically addresses social networking and community involvement issues and opportunities. I am not explicitly adding this to my Startups and Early Stage Business series though I acknowledge that this is an area where there is a lot of blue ocean opportunity for breaking into new market space. As handhelds become more ubiquitous and as more and more functionality is both added to them and expected of them, and as the online experience becomes both richer and more varied in content, content formats and in connectivity channels this becomes a progressively richer vein of opportunity.

I expect to pick up on this again in future postings.

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