Personal robots: what older people think

Are personal robots the next best thing for companionship for older people – is this what they want? A study carried out in the UK used three types of robot – abstract, pet, and human-like. Publicly available videos of the robots were used in the study.  As with all laboratory and simulated studies there is no guarantee that the results will play out in real life. Nevertheless, it offers a guide of older people’s attitudes to personal robots. 

In terms of companionship, older people liked the pet personal robot the most. The pet-like robot responds to human movement and sounds. Image of MiRo pet-like personal robot.

A white personal robot resembling a cat or dog with black ears and a red collar.

The participants were over the age of 60 years and living in the community, not residential care. The three types of robot were Afobot, MiRo, and Sanbot. Afobot is similar to Siri and Alexa in assisting with activities. MiRo is designed to interact at an emotional level and to respond to actions such as hand clapping and stroking. Sanbot is a human-like robot with a head, arms and a screen and uses face and voice recognition. 

Participants viewed publicly available videos of the three robots and then answered a questionnaire. The purpose of the study was to measure the attitudes of older people to the three types of personal robots. The researchers note that as the study participants were “young old”, attitudes might not be attributable to those 70 years and older. 

The researchers caution the results because participants did not interact with the robots face to face. This means they were not able to explore the robot’s behaviour and their own reactions. The study was conducted online towards the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The title of the study is, Measuring Older People’s Attitudes Towards Personal Robots.

From the abstract

It is important to have a way of measuring older people’s attitudes to personal robots and how they might support them. 249 older people in the UK  viewed videos of three different types of robots (abstract, pet, and humanoid). They rated their attitudes to each using a questionnaire.

Analysis revealed three components to attitudes to the personal robots, They were: Positive User Experience; Anxiety and Negative Usability; and Social Presence. There were significant differences between the three personal robots with the pet robot receiving the most positive attitudes.

These results help understand which robots may be useful in helping older people choose appropriate robots to support themselves.

Equal access to information

People who can’t use the internet or complex digital tools are being left behind. This issue is often mentioned in our increasingly digital world, but is anyone taking notice? Everyone has the right to equal access to information and resources. However, this means providing information in different formats. 

According to Cathy Basterfield, we are talking about nearly two thirds of all Australian adults. Information needs to be provided in different formats to suit the different skill levels.

Graphic of a man with glasses and a beard. He is leaning on the desk with his head in his had and looking very unhappy. His laptop is open on the desk.It means designing for users who can’t: 

  • navigate two-factor authentication
  • understand how to use a one-time access code
  • read a letter or an email


And it also means making websites that work for all users – that is, those who can use it. More than 95% of high ranked websites don’t meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines – the global standard for people with disability. And that’s just their home page. 

A website is not accessible if a user has to click through six levels to find the information they need. Or if they have to navigate an intricate system, and deal with things that flash, blink or scroll. Add to that the people with low literacy skills and the number of excluded people really starts to add up. 

See the article in Medium titled, Global Accessibility Awareness day. for more information on this topic.

Social media meme. Text across top. Think online means everyone? 1 in 4 Aussies are not connected. Text across bottom. Access Easy English Image in middle 3 people standing together with wifi symbol over their heads. 4th man in shadow working away with empty wifi image. Equal access to information?



Colour checker for images

Colour is used in may ways to communicate information. This is where a colour checker for images comes in handy. Maps and bar charts are everyday examples of using colour to differentiate one feature from another. Advertisements, and web pages use colour to attract the eye and convey messages. But what if some people can’t distinguish colour in the same way as the chart or web designer?

Colour vision deficiency (CVD), commonly called colour blindness, occurs in approximately 8% of the population.

Colour diagram showing the three different types of colour vision deficiency. Colour checkers for images.

Colour checkers and contrast checkers are not new with various apps available, mostly for websites. From the University of Glasgow comes Colour Quest designed for conveying statistical information in various chart forms. It’s a free application that tests histograms, bar charts, line charts, scatter charts, and box plots. However, it will test any jpg or png image.

Colour Quest shows how a chart or image looks for people with either one of two types of CVD: red-green vision deficiency (Protanomaly), and blue-yellow deficiency (Deuteranomaly). It’s rare to have both where colour becomes various shades of grey.

Screenshot of the heatmap mode of the colour checker.

Screenshot of the Colour Quest colour checker application showing the differences between red-green CVD and blue-yellow CVD

The Colour Quest application is easy to use and to explore the best colours to use from the standard palette. You can try any png or jpg image and experiment with colours chosen from the left hand bar to see how it works.

The National Eye Institute has more information about colour vision deficiency. See also previous posts on readability and CVD, and older adults and colour.

The title of the research paper is, Color Quest: An interactive tool for exploring color palettes and enhancing accessibility in data visualization.

From the abstract

The significance of color palette selection goes beyond aesthetics and scientific communication, encompassing accessibility for all, especially individuals with color vision deficiencies.

To address this challenge, we introduce “Color Quest,” an intuitive Shiny app that empowers users to explore color palettes for data visualization while considering inclusivity. The app allows users to visualize palettes across various types of plots and maps to see how they appear to individuals with color blindness.

Colour Quest enables users to visualize palettes on their own custom-uploaded images. It was developed using open-source standards. Color Quest aligns with accessibility discussions, and is a practical tool and platform for raising awareness about inclusive design.

Being open-source fosters transparency, community collaboration, and long-term sustainability. Color Quest’s practicality renders it indispensable for scientific domains, simplifying palette selection and promoting accessibility. Its impact extends beyond academia to diverse communication settings, harmonizing information dissemination, aesthetics and accessibility for more impactful scientific communication.

Emergency awareness and universal design

A smartphone with a map and wording of Fires Near Me. It is the app of the NSW Rural Fire Service. It helps with emergency awareness.

Why do some people appear unable to take in what is happening around them in an emergency? Being able to act quickly requires a good sense of the situation. However, not everyone has a sense of emergency awareness. Consequently they find decision-making difficult and fail to act appropriately. A Norwegian study has investigated a universal design approach to mitigate this lack of awareness.

In an emergency, sight, hearing, use of hands and ability to concentrate can all be impaired. Smoke, dust, cold, noise and paralysis from fear can affect anyone’s ability to think clearly. Smart phone apps are a good way of reaching people quickly with important information, but do they account for likely cognitive and physical changes?

The issues and solutions for “situational disability” are outlined in a technical paper from Norway. It raises our awareness that individuals are likely to behave in unexpected ways during a disaster. With an increased rate of climate-based disasters, and the move to digital information systems, this is a timely study. The underlying concern of how people respond is an important one. The paper shows that universal design principles can guide the way in compensating for a lack of emergency awareness.

The full title of the article is, Towards Situational Disability-aware Universally Designed Information Support Systems for Enhanced Situational Awareness.

Emergency Design: Designing as you go

A woman is sitting on the ground and is being helped by a person in protective clothing and a hi vis vest. The woman looks distressed.

Designing FOR an emergency IN an emergency requires a different design approach to existing tried and true methods. When urgency is the driver of design, processes and methods need a re-think. COVID-19 is a clear case of designing for an emergency during the emergency. So how can “designing-as-you-go” be done?

Designs for emergencies, such as wars or an earthquake, are usually devised before the event. Or they are designed after the event in preparation for future events. The COVID pandemic arrived without notice and few countries were prepared. Hence the need to design for the emergency while it is happening.

A different approach

A case study from Brazil shows how a totally different design approach was required. Rather than using standard methods the researchers took an organic approach to the problem. It was basically designing on the run. The process encouraged the inclusion of people who are often marginalised. While history tells us that Brazil is has not fared well during the pandemic, the study still has value for future situations.

Their approach is based on qualitative techniques. They relied on the knowledge of local people and processes of working together in a horizontal rather than hierarchical format. This approach also allowed participants to see how they could deal with the current situation as well as improvements for the longer term. 

“As a path, we point out the importance of identifying areas of convergence of interests, the creation of win-win policies and the daily encouragement of a culture of collaboration at the differing levels.”

The title of the paper is Design amid Emergency. It charts what they did, how they did it and what they learned from the process. Identifying areas of common interest and developing win-win policies to encourage a culture of collaboration was key. In summary, they found the co-creation design process the key to success. It can lead to improved quality of life in both the short and longer term. It also helps to embed resilience within the population. 

The government saw the value of co-design with citizens. It remains to be seen if they actually follow through on this networking approach to solving issues.

From the abstract

This article presents the process for the “Design of services under the COVID19 emergency social protection plan”. It was drawn up by a team of researchers and designers from Porto Alegre in collaboration with the Porto Alegre City Government.  The focus was on the provision of essential benefits to homeless and other vulnerable people during the pandemic.

The process was developed for the designers involved: without prior notice, within very short time frames and completely remotely, using only digital platforms. As such, the process was developed to respond to the emergency and amid the emergency. The objective of the article is to discuss how to design amid emergency.

The experience was guided by the methodological principles of action research and research through design. In addition to presenting the design results solutions aimed at the short, medium and long term. This article highlights the need to aim for the recognition of difference, the suggestion of alternative views, social innovation, the systemic transformation of society and sustainability.

Subtitles for slide shows

What if you could turn your slide notes into automatic subtitles during your presentation? That would be good for everyone. The advantage is that you can write out the presentation and then deliver it perfectly without having to use lots of text on your slides. As you give your talk you click through the subtitles (captions) in the same way as you click through your slides. Best part, this subtitles for slide shows tool is free from the Cambridge Inclusive Design Team.

The audience gets a better experience with the actual words, because there’s no reliance on speech recognition and no time delays.

Screenshot of the Cambridge PowerPoint slide ribbon showing the subtitles for slide shows option.

Presenting from pre-made subtitles is great for presenters who are prone to lots of ‘ums’ and ‘ers’. It’s also good for speakers who:

  1. Have to give a presentation in a language other than their native language
  2. Have a quiet voice, or substantial accent
  3. Need to customise the length of a presentation to an exact time slot
  4. Want to make a video of their presentation
  5. Have to deliver a presentation that was written by someone else
A young woman sits in an audience and is applauding the speaker.

How do the subtitles work?

The Cambridge Subtitles for PowerPoint tool splits the text in your slide notes into short subtitles and adds these to the slide as animated text boxes. The tool adds a new toolbar to your ribbon which adds subtitles to your slides from the slide notes. The tool is offered free until the end of 2024 and available separately for Windows and Mac. You can download from the links on their webpage.

This tool is now part of the Cambridge Inclusive Design Toolkit.

Creating an accessible online presence

Online shopping is here to stay and increasing rapidly. There’s lots of information about making a shopping site accessible. But people shop for more than goods – they shop for information too. So some of the ideas for shopping translate to information and service sites too. Here are some basic tips on creating an accessible online presence.

Anyone in charge of creating or maintaining a website should understand the basics of accessible design. It’s not just a tech person’s job.

A smartphone with graphics depicting a design problem being fixed.

A short article in SmartCompany magazine takes a business view of an inclusive shopping experience and lists seven things companies should do. Some of these points are well-known to many web designers and developers. When a website is difficult to navigate, people leave, they click away from the site as the video below shows.

Accessible online presence: key points

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)Regularly update your website to comply with WCAG standards. This includes text-background contrast, enabling keyboard navigation, and providing alternative text for images.

Responsive design: Ensure your website automatically adjusts to various screen sizes and resolutions to suit all devices, including smartphones, tablets and different computer screen sizes. 

Site navigation: Organising your site with a clear structure, clear headings and logical sitemap will improve navigability. Utilise Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) landmarks to help screen reader users navigate your site more effectively. Clear and consistent navigation aids users, especially those with cognitive differences, to understand their location within your site.

Enable customisation and ensure content accessibility: Include options for users to customise visual elements, like font sizes and colours, and consider integrating text-to-speech functionality for people with vision impairments. If you have audio and video content, provide captions and transcripts to aid users with hearing impairments. Avoid content that could affect users with photosensitive epilepsy and clearly label any content that could pose a risk.

Optimise customer service channels: Some users have difficulty communicating via traditional channels such as phone or text. Offer email, phone, video calls with sign language support and real-time chat, to accommodate diverse communication needs.

Checkout processes: Simplify the checkout process with clear instructions and error messages to minimise confusion and to enhance the user experience.

Test with users and commit to ongoing improvement: Conduct site testing with a diverse group of users, including people with various disabilities. View accessibility as a continuous effort. Regularly audit and update your site to keep pace with changing technology and standards.

The title of the article is, How to create an inclusive online shopping experience.

Other resources

This website has a section on ICT guidelines for practice. Here are just three items for quick reference.

Microsoft’s inclusive design toolkit.

Google spells out accessible, inclusive and usable.

Which font to use? All of them?

The Engineering Design Centre at the University of Cambridge has done a lot of work on product images and labelling. They claim that their design guidelines help increase sales by 29%.

Social media: hashtags and images

Social media posts rely on hashtags and images so it’s important to present them in a way that everyone can access. Access Central has two useful posts about digital accessibility: one about using CamelCase and the other is image descriptions. Of course, making online social media content accessible makes it easier for everyone to use.

CamelCase hashtags

A hashtag is a way to reach more audiences on social media, and most people use all lower case letters in their identifier. When the hashtag is multiple words strung together, it makes it difficult to read and interpret. For example, #universaldesignaustralia”. If this is written in CamelCase, it becomes #UniversalDesignAustralia”.

CamelCase is named after the way its capital letters protrude like a camel’s humps.

Camel Case helps people with vision impairment and people with dyslexia.

A graphic of a hashtag symbol with the word hashtag next to it. The background is deep blue and the text is white.

Using Camel Case shows consideration for readers especially people who use screen readers, and people who are neurodiverse. It makes technology more accessible for everyone.

Image descriptions

Images are an important part of social media posts, so it’s important that everyone has the chance to benefit from them. That means, people who are blind or have low vision need a text description of images. This is referred to as alt-text, or alternative text. Screen readers access the alt-text descriptions and read them out to the user.

The description of the image will depend on the purpose and context of where an image appears. For example, a photo on a dating app has a different context and purpose than that same photo on a book cover.

Some social media platforms prompt you to apply a description of your image when you upload it, which is a useful reminder.

Applying alt-text

Using examples, AxessLab has a useful guide on writing meaningful descriptions. The key is to keep it relevant and concise. A sighted person will glance a photo and it is that glance that you should try to convey.

Screenshots of text are also images and therefore all the text should be repeated in the alt text description. Avoid beginning the alt-text with “image of…” or “photo of”. The screen reader will say “image image of…” And remember to put a full stop at the end so the screen reader knows to complete the sentence. It makes for a more pleasant reading experience.

Descriptions of images are also picked up by search engines, so it is worth taking an extra minute to write a description. The AxessLab guide to alt-text is full of good tips.

Using digital technology – skill or talent?

Digital technology is here to stay but not everyone has the talent for it. Gregg Vanderheiden says there is a difference between digital skill and digital talent. Skill is something you can learn, but talent, like a sporting or musical talent is inherent. So this might explain why some people find websites, smartphones and computers difficult to master.

Vanderheiden explains that low digital affinity is not the same as intelligence. Some very bright people have trouble using digital interfaces. This is like being tone deaf and being unable to sing in tune. Or unable to be athletic because of poor coordination.

Image: Professor Gregg Vanderheiden

Professor Gregg Vanderheiden is in a dark suit. He has a grey beard and is wearing glasses at the end of his nose. He is smiling.

Consequently, as the digital world expands into all sections of life, some people will face limitations to their independence in everyday activities. People who rely on digital assistive technologies such as screen readers, and read and write programs are likely to be further challenged by technology.

Making it easier to use computers

Computers and technology have transformed the lives of many people with disability. This is largely due to additional technologies loaded onto their computers and smartphones. However, unlike others, unless they take their computer everywhere with them, they cannot access computers in libraries and at school. That is, unless they have a computer dedicated to them which probably means others can’t use it. Vanderheiden has a solution.

Morphic is an extension to Windows and Mac operating systems to make it easier to use a computer. Morphic is open source software with a great add-on. What if the settings for your home computer were able to follow you around in the Cloud? And what if it gave you confidence you wouldn’t “break” the computer?

Assistive Technology on Demand” or AToD, is a companion service to Morphic. It allows users to have the assistive technologies they need on any computer at any place, any time. When you log out of the computer, your settings disappear and the computer goes back to the original settings.

Digital equity for AT users

For the first time

  • AT users can use any computer
  • People who don’t have a computer can be AT users
  • New employees can set up on their first day at work
  • If computer fails or is lost, a new one can be set up in no time
  • IT departments can save time – all computers can have AT when needed without needing to install anything
A young boy leans on the tabletop with his hands under his chin. He is smiling at the screen on a laptop computer.

With one click Morphic retrieves your assistive settings and when you leave the computer your settings completely disappear. That leaves the computer free for others to use in the library, university, or school. It is also good for people who struggle with technology because their device can be set up specifically for their requirements. This could be something as simple as creating one click to join the family Zoom meeting.

A one page review of Vanderheiden’s keynote from 2020 explains in more detail how it works. At the AAATE 2023 conference, Vanderheiden describes the roll-out to 7000 computers in major universities. AT users now have the ability to access computers in the same way as their peers. This gives them a new level of digital equity so they can better compete and succeed in all aspects of life, work and education.

Tech and older adults

The stereotype of grandchildren helping grandparents with their phone or remote controller is often perpetuated by older people themselves. Skill in using phones and websites depends on the motivations for using them. Younger people can have different interests from older adults meaning they use different apps and software. This doesn’t mean tech and older adults don’t belong together.

“Grandma cannot use her phone because it was not designed for her. Ubiquitous mass-market tools should not present obvious and avoidable hurdles to everyday users.” Robert Schumacher.

A smartphone with graphics depicting a design problem being fixed.

The stereotype is not based in evidence, and it might not be the tech that’s the barrier – poor vision or hand dexterity can also cause problems with using phones and computers.

It’s about mental models

According to Schumacher, the main difference between younger and older generations is when their mental models of how things work was formed. He explains how these mental models can widen any gap in understanding in how things work. Every generation has its own mental models of the world.

Schumacher’s article discusses more on this topic and how to remedy the situation. More testing with older adults is essential. Their mental models aren’t the same as the developer’s – what’s intuitive for a seasoned tech user is not intuitive for everyone. However, it doesn’t mean older people are averse to using technology or too “stuck in their ways” to learn.

The title of the article is, Gran Got Tech: Inclusivity and Older Adults, published in the Journal of User Experience.

Mental models and autonomous vehicles

The concept of designing tech from the perspective of mental models is a factor in a research project for autonomous vehicles. As concepts evolve, eventually the need to design in-vehicle interfaces will be minimal with presets for each rider. In the meantime, touchscreens and audio controls will still be needed. These need to be co-designed with users to develop prototypes.

The title of a research paper on this topic is Designing Interaction with Autonomous Vehicles for Older Passengers.

Update to the WCAG

For anyone in a role that takes in diversity, equity and inclusion it helps to know if your company or organisation’s website is meeting accessibility standards. The long-awaited update to the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) has finally arrived. But as with all standards they focus on minimum requirements.

Novices to web accessibility might like to have a look at WCAG for people who haven’t read them. Mobile devices and touchscreens are also covered.

Dark blue banner announcing WCAG 2.2.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released the WCAG 2.2 with updates for web designers and web developers. An article on the CANAXESS website gives a good overview. There are 7 new criteria for designers and 3 for developers. If you are responsible for finding a web developer or designer, it is useful to know if they are up to date with the latest even though it is not yet a requirement,

It’s important for designers and developers to start thinking about WCAG 2.2. Internal accessibility policy in organisations and governments tends to lag behind the WCAG version changes. Adopting the new 2.2 criterial will future proof digital content when policy changes catch up.

“Web accessibility (inclusive or universal design) is the degree to which a website is available to as many people as possible. Accessibility is most often used to describe how people with disabilities can access the web.” Laura Kalbag.

Graphic indicating web design.

CANAXESS lists the new criteria in their article and goes into some detail. There is increased support for cognitive impairments and conditions and alternative input interactions.

Websites need to be accessible from the ground up. Otherwise it defeats the object of creating accessible content in the form of documents, blog posts and videos.

CANAXESS offer a course to help designers and developers.

DIY – IT Accessibility

Part of the handout with the six steps.

University of Maryland has a neat one page with the six essential steps for accessible online content. None of it is rocket science or geeky. This ready reference just has reminders to be a bit more thoughtful about how you go about it.

The aim of the six steps is to give everyone equal access to information and services. It’s simple things such as colour contrast, alt-text for pictures, and appropriately placed links to other pages – not “click here”, for example. It’s a handy reference to print out and pin up at your desk. Good for designing online-learning and adding content to an organisation’s website.

There is more on the University IT Division website on the six steps.  

Wayfinding by pictures

The Nambour Aquatic Centre has a website that uses pictures to help people to find their way once they reach the facility. It’s done through a simple app on the computer. Wayfinding by pictures is not a new idea, but it is a universally designed idea. Google Map’s street view is obviously catering for a broad audience, so why not other organisations?

Cérge is a communications platform – a digital concierge. It helps organisations provide personalised service to customers with disability. That means it’s also good for everyone.

Aerial view of the Nambour Aquatic Centre - wayfinding by pictures.

Wayfinding by pictures is useful for everyone, but especially useful for people who like to know something about a place before they get there. It’s not just knowing what a place looks like, it is about feeling safe and in control.

The visual story

The visual story begins with the arrival at the aquatic centre with pictures of the car park and pathway to the building. Then there is a section on Sounds, Smells, Feeling, and Sights that you might experience. For example, hearing birds chirping, car smells, the weather, and shaded areas.

Next are pictures of the entry showing the arrival area and the kiosk and a view through to the swimming pool area. These are accompanied by the same four sensory aspects. More pictures show the pool and splash park, along with expected sights and sounds. Images of the indoor pool and the assistive equipment complete the visual tour.

While the content of the website is intended to help people with disability, the website design requires more thought. It requires left to right scrolling as well us up and down scrolling. And there is little information about whether the place is inclusive and accessible to all. Nevertheless, it is a useful example on how to add value to a website with wayfinding by pictures.

Accessibility Toolbar