The Metaverse: inclusive and accessible?

The concept of the Metaverse is a continuous online 3D universe that combines multiple virtual spaces. It’s the next step on from the internet. It means users can work, meet, game and socialize in these 3D spaces. We are not quite there yet, but some platforms have metaverse-like elements. Video games and Virtual Reality are two examples. So, we need to keep a careful watch on developments to make sure the Metaverse is inclusive and accessible.

Another term for the Metaverse is digital immersive environments. It sounds science fiction, but this fiction is becoming a fact. Someone is designing these environments, but are they considering equity, diversity and inclusion? Zallio and Clarkson decided to tackle this issue and did some research on where the industry is heading.

Several companies are involved in the development of digital immersive environments. So before they get too far in development it’s important to define some principles for the design of a good Metaverse. Zallio and Clarkson came up with ten principles that embrace inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility and safety.

10 Principles for designing a good Metaverse

  1. is open and accessible
  2. is honest and understandable
  3. is safe and secure
  4. is driven by social equity and inclusion
  5. is sustainable
  6. values privacy, ethics and integrity
  7. guarantees data protection and ownership
  8. empowers diversity through self-expression
  9. innovates responsibly
  10. complements the physical world
A young woman is wearing a pair of virtual reality goggles and looking towards the sky.

Their paper is insightful and provides some important areas for discussion and research. We need developers to consider the essentials of inclusion, diversity and accessibility. Zallio and Clarkson advise that designers can learn from the past to reduce pitfalls in the future. As the Sustainable Development Goals say, “leave no-one behind”.

Diagram showing the 10 principles for designing a good Metaverse.

The title of the paper is Designing the Metaverse: A study on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Safety for digital immersive environments.

Synopsis of the paper

1. The Metaverse appears as the next big opportunity in the consumer electronics scenario.

2. Several companies are involved with its development.

3. It is extremely important to define principles and practices to design a good Metaverse.

4. Qualitative research pointed out to challenges and opportunities to design a safe, inclusive, accessible Metaverse that guarantees equity and diversity.

5. Ten principles for designing a good Metaverse embrace inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility and safety.

From the abstract

The Metaverse is shaping a new way for people interact and socialise. By 2026 a quarter of the population will spend at least an hour a day in the Metaverse. This requires consideration of challenges and opportunities that will influence the design of the Metaverse.

A study was carried out with industry experts to explore the social impact of the Metaverse through the lens of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Safety (IDEAS). The goal was to identify directions business has to undertake.

The results indicated the nature of future research questions and analysis to define a first manifesto for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Safety in the Metaverse.

This manifesto is a starting point to develop a narrative, brainstorm questions and eventually provide answers for designing a Metaverse as a place for people that does not substitute the physical world but complements it.

City Access Map

CITY ACCESS MAP is a web application that shows how cities across the world are doing in terms of accessibility. It’s open source and covers any urban area with more than 100,000 residents. It computes walking accessibility down to the block level. It’s a tool for almost anyone who has an interest in cities that have access to services within a 15 minute walk.

A city view of the city access map. Short walking distances are shown in yellow and orange and long distances in purple.
A close up view of a city on the CITY ACCESS MAP

The CITYACCESSMAP is interactive and shows the differences in cities across the globe. For example, it shows that Bogota, Colombia is one of the most accessible cities. Orlando USA on the other hand is one of the least accessible. France is generally accessible with many cities reaching high levels of accessibility.

Australia is represented by Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Searching by city brings a close up view of the suburbs. In Sydney, it shows good accessibility in and around the CBD. However, as expected as you move to outer suburbs accessibility reduces considerably.

It should be noted that the term “accessibility” mainly refers to access to services rather than an accessible built environment. The tool is worth investigating as a planner and administrator in any field. If nothing else, it is interesting to see how countries compare.

For IT people wanting to know the detail of the map design there is more information in a separate section. You can download processed data for any city in the application.

The scientific research is also available and you can contribute to the project by contacting Leonardo Nicoletti.

Universal design and perfection

A universal design approach to a project often means doing the best you can with the knowledge, skills and resources to hand. Each time you have a design project, make it more accessible and inclusive than the last. Universal design is not about perfection, or perfection for absolutely everyone. It is an ongoing iterative process.

A drawing of a man with curly black hair with his head in his hands in front of a laptop. He looks unhappy. Universal design and perfection.

The notion of perfection reinforces the perspective that accessibility is hard.

A blog post from CanAxess discusses the issue of perfection in digital and web design. Using the example of two people, a celebrity chef, and a special forces soldier, the article discusses “the perfection millstone around the neck”.

If digital designers have a mindset of expecting absolute perfection they will reinforce the idea that accessibility is hard. For example, headings might be incorrectly rendered on a page. For designers this is unforgivable and a “slight on those users who need that support the most”. The risk is that designers will give up and stop trying to improve digital accessibility. And then there is the anxiety, procrastination and fear of falling short.

Having high standards is a good thing, but it needs to be balanced otherwise it makes it hard to get started on a project. So, at these times, “good enough is good enough”. The advice from the blog post is to do better than yesterday and do it well.

The CanAxess website has other resources of interest:

Make video accessible

Make forms accessible

How to make chatbots accessible

Google spells out accessible, inclusive, usable

A woman stands on a stage with a woman sitting behind her. She is making a presentation to an audience. Google spells out accessible, inclusive and usable.It would be good if all designers took their lead from the likes of Apple and Google: inclusion, accessibility and usability are about the design process. Apart from clearly explaining how these terms are linked and can be used together, Google spells out accessible, inclusive and usable in a half hour video 

Infographic showing three groups of disability: permanent, temporary and situational. From Microsoft.
Microsoft infographic: Permanent, temporary, situational disability

The video also has some tips and tools for designers and shows how three different users have the same need: a man with a mobility disability (permanent), a boy with a broken arm (temporary) and a woman with an armful of shopping (situational). Microsoft designed an infographic to illustrate the point. 

Individual situations might be different but they all have the same need for accessibility. And people have the same goals they want to achieve regardless of their situation.

This instructional presentation is aimed at an audience interested in designing apps, particularly the second half of the video. However, the messages in the first half can be applied to other design disciplines. 

Website cookie banners: barriers to access?

Some people think that people who are blind can’t use websites or smartphones because they can’t see the screen. This is not true of course because they use screen reader software to read out the content of the webpage. However, even on reasonably accessible websites, cookie banners can prevent access to the very first page.

A black computer background with a red circle around the red words Access Denied! Cookie banners, barriers to access.

Many websites have accessible features, but they are not necessarily linked up. The popup cookie banner can prevent some users from accessing the website entirely.

Clive Loseby’s Tedx talk explains that despite legislation for online accessibility, very few websites meet basic access standards. You can check your easily by doing what people with low vision and people with screen readers do. They use the keyboard and not the mouse. Go to your home page and use the Tab key. Does it progress through the menu or navigation tabs?

It is a legal requirement in most countries to have accessible websites – the guidelines and standards have been around for more than 20 years. What is taking so long? Clive Loseby explains basics and how every organisation or business is missing out on customers.

Some websites use popup banners to advertise something and others use scrolling images as well. These have a similar effect to the cookie banners.

A reminder about attitude

Some of the responses to the talk in the comments section are not positive and in some cases almost abusive. While all YouTube videos get their share of negatives, it is still a reminder that ableism is alive and well.

Co-designing for the digital world

If you want to create something really useful for intended users, asking them to participate in the design process is a good way to go. And that means the design of anything – guides and toolkits included. From Ireland comes a toolkit for co-designing for the digital world where participants are people with intellectual disability.

A collage of faces from around the world and pictures of smartphones. co-design for the digital world.

A series of iterative workshops involving people with intellectual disability formed the foundation of an accessible design toolkit.

Co-design is important in the area of digital design and computer interaction. However, projects that claim to be user-centred often become technology led rather than user driven. A university in Ireland teamed up with a community service that supports people with intellectual disability. With the guidance of researchers, computer science students and community service users engaged in a co-creation process from which a toolkit was developed.

The collaboration highlighted the need for accessible design resources and training materials for both students and users. While there are many resources on co-design processes, and design thinking, few address people with intellectual disability. Those that do exist are not accessible or suitable for people with intellectual disability.

The toolkit is about co-designing with people with intellectual disability. Two overarching principles emerged. Use simple English with short sentences and simpler grammatical structures. Provide visual aids – icons and images – to overcome literacy limitations.

The paper explains the co-creation process in detail. The authors call the users co-designers, which is confusing because co-design usually means all participants including designers.

Understanding the complex process of consent to participate had to be resolved for the users. Another difficulty was encouraging participants speak up about design flaws or issues.

The title of the paper is, An Inclusive Co-Design Toolkit for the Creation of Accessible
Digital Tools
.

From the abstract

Existing toolkits and resources to support co-design are not always accessible to designers and co-designers with disabilities. We present a study of a co-design process, where computer science students worked with service users with intellectual disabilities. The aim was to create digital applications together.

A series of co-design focus group sessions were conducted with service users previously involved in a co-design collaboration. The information from these sessions was used to devise an accessible design toolkit. This toolkit is intended to generate a sustainable resource to be reused in the student programme at TU Dublin but also in the wider community of inclusive design.

Editor’s comment: Most guides and toolkits are based on well-researched evidence, but the value of the evidence is sometimes lost in technicalities or too many words. A co-design process will seek out the key information that guideline users want and need.

Inclusive imagery and icons

We are seeing more people with disability in films, tv and stories. Both the presence of people with disability and images depicting disability are being integrated into computing. But are the processes for developing inclusive imagery also inclusive?

Circular graphic showing many different icons related to disability.

If the only images available to illustrate accessibility are pictures of wheelchair users, then it becomes difficult to get people to understand and acknowledge the huge range of unique user needs.

A short article by Emory James Edwards addresses some of the issues related to diversity and inclusion in computing. Designers regularly use personas to help them communicate with developers. They each know what the other is talking about. But these ‘design assets’ as they are called, have not included images of people with disability, non-western users, or older adults.

Although people with disability are getting more recognition, the images are still prone to stereotypes. With luck, as we see more images of people with disability we could see increased understanding of the need for accessible technology.

A blind man and his guide dog walk through a shopping mall. Inclusive imagery.

If people who are blind are only ever depicted as wearing sunglasses or using a guide dog but never depicted as using a white cane or walking with a sighted guide, then it makes invisible the variety of skills and preferences of people who are blind.

More images of disability is not enough – they could even reinforce stereotypes. It gives people the illusion of knowing what life with a disability is like.

Tips for inclusive image generation

Edwards explains six key points:

  1. Do not reinforce isolated, sad or pitiable stereotypes.
  2. Avoid being overly “sweet” or creating “inspiration porn”.
  3. Show the diversity of the the disability community. That includes gender and nationality.
  4. Consult with people with specific identities.
  5. Make a commitment to long-term engagement with people.
  6. Make inclusion the default position without resorting to tokenism.

The title of the article is, Putting the Disability in DEI Through Inclusive Imagery. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is about changing the paradigm in computing and other fields. Technology is an essential part of modern life. The reference list at the end is also useful.

Colour blindness not just genetic

Colour blindness is an eye condition that changes the way people see colours. It doesn’t seem like a big thing to people who have normal colour vision. But when it comes to reading things like maps, it matters a lot. Graphs, maps, diagrams and other graphic information types often rely on colour to differentiate between elements and features.

A pile of brightly coloured squares sit untidily on top of each other. The colours are very bright.

With genetic colour blindness, men are about 16 times more likely to be affected than women. Injury or disease can also affect the ability to see certain colours.

Apart from genetic reasons, some health conditions increase the risk of developing colour blindness later in life. Macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetes, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease can all affect colour vision. Because it happens later in life it often gets unnoticed and undiagnosed. Some medications might affect colour vision too. For more, see My Vision guides.

A middle aged white man wearing glasses

You are at greater risk of colour blindness if you are a white male and have family members with colour blindness.

Red-green colour vision deficiency occurs in 1 in 12 males with Northern European ancestry. For women it’s 1 in 200.

The Axess Lab website has some great tips for making graphics more inclusive. For example, putting text into pie charts, and labelling goods with colours not just showing them. Colour contrast matters too as you can see in the picture below.

Pie chart with different colours and their respective labels.
A pie chart with labels
A group of people standing holding a pink banner with the words You are Not Alone, but you can't see the word NOT because it is in pale red and blends into the background colour
A serious colour contrast fail in real life

Readability and colour choice

Colour choice is also a factor in readability. The video below shows how easily we can be deceived by our eyes. It shows how two different shades of grey are actually the same. That’s why you can’t rely on judging contrast by eye.

Which font to use? All of them?

Old wooden printer's typeface blocks in different colours and sizes.

New research from Adobe shows we have to re-think optimum fonts and typefaces.

First, font is not the same thing as typeface. What’s the difference? Typeface is a group of letters and numbers in the same design, such as Times New Roman. Font is a specific style of typeface, such as Italic or Bold, and in a particular size, for example, 10 or 16.

A woman is reading a book reader device similar to Kindle.

By simply changing the font readers can gain incredible reading speed. But there is no one-size-fits-all “best” font.

While reading speed is not something usually considered as a universal design concept, it is a related aspect. Ease of use and comfort for all is one of the tenets. And if you want to extend the attention span of readers then speed and comfort will help.

The study looked at a group of 352 participants aged 18-71 years. Forty-six percent were female, 22 percent bilingual and all self reporting they are comfortable reading English.

The study measured 16 common typefaces and their effects on reading speeds, preferences and comprehension scores. Similarly to an optometrists eye test they toggled letters to ask participants their preferred font.

a man is reading a tablet device.

Different readers read fastest in different fonts without losing comprehension. That means personalisation is the key.

On average an individual read 35 percent faster with their fastest font than with their slowest font. Comprehension was retained across all fonts. But no font was a clear winner for all participants. This means that devices will need to allow reader to personalise their font choices.

The other finding was that the fonts people say they prefer aren’t often the ones with which they read fastest. While there is no best font, there was some typefaces that worked best for older participants. This could be due to familiarity, or visual properties.

The title of the article is, The need to personalize fonts for each individual reader. It has some surprising results everyone should consider in their written and online communication. The title of the research paper is, Towards Individuated Reading Experiences: Different Fonts Increase Reading Speed for Different Individuals

Abstract

In our age of ubiquitous digital displays, adults often read in short, opportunistic interludes. In this context of Interlude Reading, we consider if manipulating font choice can improve adult readers’ reading outcomes.

Our studies normalize font size by human perception and use hundreds of crowdsourced participants to provide a foundation for understanding, which fonts people prefer and which fonts make them more effective readers.

Participants’ reading speeds (measured in words-per-minute (WPM)) increased by 35% when comparing fastest and slowest fonts without affecting reading comprehension. High WPM variability across fonts suggests that one font does not fit all. We provide font recommendations related to higher reading speed and discuss the need for individuation, allowing digital devices to match their readers’ needs in the moment.

We provide recommendations from one of the most significant online reading efforts to date. To complement this, we release our materials and tools with this article.

Plug and Pray?

Front cover of Plug and Pray report

People with disability are often early adopters of new tech, but these new ideas can also come with unintended barriers for users.

As we improve accessibility in the built environment, it is important to make sure we create and maintain accessible digital designs. A report from the EU, Plug and Pray? outlines the opportunities for emerging tech and people with disability. The report highlights the need to be inclusive and provides practical recommendations.

The title of the report is, Plug and Pray? A disability perspective on artificial intelligence, automated decision-making and emerging technologies.

New opportunities

New technologies are emerging every day and hold a promise of greater inclusion for people with disability. For example, devices and operating systems that automatically adjust to the behaviour needs of the user. This is most useful for people with sensory and cognitive conditions.

Many technologies are in early stage of development, so the promise of greater independence needs a note of caution. However, the speed of digitalisation and AI poses risks of creating barriers to use. Another issue is the potential for infringing human rights and widening the equality gap.

Some people have more than one functional disability. For example, speech recognition software not understanding commands by a person with Down syndrome. So design issues are multi-faceted.

Regulating AI

The European Disability Forum has a position paper on this topic. The Forum welcomes the EU’s proposal for regulating AI in the EU. Briefly, the important points to consider are:

  • Accessibility of AI-based technologies and practices;
  • Protect persons with disabilities from potential AI-induced harm;
  • Strong governance mechanisms, human rights impact assessment, and accessible feedback, complaints and redress mechanisms;
  • The same legal standards for European AI used outside of the EU;
  • Involvement of persons with disabilities and accessibility experts in the development of European and national AI policies, as well as promote their inclusion in AI  projects and technical development teams.

The European Disability Forum has several publications related to human rights and inclusion.

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