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DIS 2012: Designing for Cognitive Limitations

Together with Clayton Lewis, I hosted a workshop at the DIS 2012 conference titled Designing for Cognitive Limitations. We pulled together a great group of eight researchers and practitioners with interests in design and cognitive limitations (mostly cognitive disabilities). A full description of the workshop, including the call for participation and the position papers, is on the workshop web page. My thoughts on the workshop are summarized here.

First off, I was thrilled to get an impressive group of participants for this workshop. I’m not sure if a design-centered conference like DIS particularly attracts people who care about diverse populations such as those with cognitive limitations, or if that’s true of any HCI-related conference. And, despite the overlaps in communities and research areas, there were fewer connections between the people than I expected—not a lot of overlap in prior experiences together (though there certainly was some). An overview of the participants:

  • Joshua Hailpern is at HP Labs and has interests in aphasia emulation, empathy impact, and linguistics. His recently completed Ph.D. dissertation focused on , and he’s got a long list of papers at CHI, DIS, and ASSETS on the topic. His HP job is about modeling people and language, and will hopefully include aspects of accessibility.
  • Doris Hausen is a grad student at LMU in Germany. Her research looks at peripheral interaction as a sub form of multitasking, with a focus on lessons learned from usage, learnability, and modalities.
  • Young Seok Lee is one of nine people at the Motorola Mobility Research Center in a group that focuses on television and the TV experience, trends in TV wrt sociality, transmedia, participatory experiences, and similar topics. He gave as an example of the area Dan Olsen’s TOCHI 2011 sports viewing experience.
  • Justin Brockle of Therap Services has been exploring methods of knowledge capture and sharing, privacy issues, and maintaining data centers. His company has been working in electronic documentation for cognitive disabilities for a while, and they are interested in possible partnerships with universities and other groups (e.g., on NSF grants and such).
  • Margot Brereton is a Professor at Queensland University of Technology. She has a child-focused approach to supporting speech for diverse groups, including children with cognitive development issues, living well with HIV, and others. Her research approach is rooted in participatory design (profiling kids, designing interactions with kids, e.g., encouraging kids to take pictures through the day and reflect on them when they get home with dad by creating a photo album of experiences).
  • Mathew Kipling is a grad student at Newcastle University. He was helping out with the workshop, but he also acted as a participant. His interests are in photo recording and annotation, looking at ways to automate some recording use RFID tags and prototype devices.

As is often the case, a good part of the workshop gravitated to the introductions, but we did have two activities: a cognitive walkthrough and a claims-based prototype creation. The cognitive walkthrough (led by Clayton Lewis, who pioneered the technique) asked workshop participants to explore the ways that people with cognitive limitations would use (and have difficulties with) cameras on mobile devices like phones and tablets. Cognitive walkthroughs encourage people to use their expertise in an area (e.g., with respect to a cognitive disability) in using an interface; thereby experiencing the interface as a person with a cognitive limitation would experience it. People seemed to really get into the activity, discovering at each step of taking a picture what the user (not the workshop participant) would seek to try to do and how they would try to do it. And importantly, the workshop participants got in a mindset of thinking like the target users—important for the second activity.

The prototyping activity asked the workshop participants to create tools for people with cognitive limitations. Each group used one of three different card sets as a prototyping aid: the PIC-UP card set for notification systems, a Cognitive Claims card set as identified by conference participants, and the Context Cards from HaptiMap. Participants divided into three groups, each with a different card set and each with a different target system.

One group prototyped an aphasic support tool for the tablet, for which there was a tailored list based on where the user was and who the user was with (e.g., if the user was in the kitchen, then show kitchen words and pictures; if you’re with friends, give cues related to common interests). A person with aphasia could use this tailored set of words to help with recall. This group used the PIC-UP card set, though mainly just at the beginning to consider possible ideas for the system.

Another group built an interface for a non-residential senior center, to help seniors identify programs of interest and to raise awareness of future programs. They created a design for mobile phones and large screens that would detect people and highlight friends’ activities. They reported that the Cognitive Claims cards were helpful as a checklist to remind them about needed functionality for the system (to make sure they weren’t forgetting anything).

The final group built a system to help conference attendees find their way around a university campus (where the conference was taking place). The group considered a typical day at the conference, helping users find the important campus venues. This group used the Context Cards, primarily as a checklist near the end of the design process (though the group did flip through them at the beginning of the prototyping activity).

It was somewhat surprising that none of the card sets were heavily used—mainly just to gain some early inspiration or to serve as a checklist late in the prototyping process. It reminded me of some of Christa Chewar’s early findings in building a claims repository, in that providing knowledge without explicit guidance does not result in significant usage of the knowledge. In retrospect, it seems essential to provide much more explicit activities to a design team on how to use the design cards; e.g., a card sorting task, or card-based storyboarding, or by using cards as heuristics.

The workshop closed with group reflection on future directions for designing with cognitive disabilities. Clayton Lewis shared opportunities and directions with NIDRR and RERC, delving into topics like profile-based interaction design and the very great need for mobile phone evaluation and (perhaps?) standardization. It was pointed out that everyone wants a simpler phone but nobody will buy one–thus the shift to an app-based model where you can extend your phone’s capabilities.

An underlying analogy that I took away from the workshop: design is experiencing a shift much like medical treatment is experiencing a shift—away from a symptom-based model toward a behavior-based model. That is, rather than stating that all people with aphasia require some technique, designers are looking at the techniques with promise for people with aphasia. Often that might lead a designer to look at techniques useful for people with autism, or people with brain injuries, or people with some other cognitive disability. And that’s where a claims library (and appropriate accompanying tools) can connect communities of designers and practitioners in diverse fields—allowing them to get new ideas, to share their own ideas, and to create products that are far better because of their connections.

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