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Society 5.0 herald the coming of the ubiquity of technological systems in our environment. Those systems won’t be an option, as they will become one of the primary ways we will interact with our environment.
Designers, especially UX Designers, have made great strides in the past decade to create products that are increasingly more intuitive. Fierce competition made sure that products with clunky controls would be cast aside by paying customers. As this reality inches closer, we need to start addressing it.
The road ahead, however, will take far more from designers than better interfaces targeted toward a techno-savvy public. All types of designers will need to make their work far more accessible than ever before. UX Design (that’s user experience design to the uninitiated) will continue to grow as a field, even faster than before. Other areas of design, from system design to architectural design will need to pay attention to these new publics are design accordingly.
Society 5.0 is bringing advanced technological tools to the masses, trying to ease and better their lives. We are talking about self-driving vehicles, IoT-backed remote medical consultations at home, AI-assisted data analytics to feed you better tailored information and much more. Society 5.0 aims to address the plight of many oft-neglected segments of our population (such as the elderly or the handicapped) by giving new technology-driven opportunities to receive care and participate in all aspects of society.
What does accessibility mean?
Decades later we still make jokes about how complicated it was to set the time on a VCR. Designers of all stripes have learned since that nice, thick user manuals are thrown in remote drawers without being read and then instantly forgotten, or find a new life as door stoppers.
Today’s designs must be intuitive. Either people should understand instantly how to use the item, or the object itself should show the user how to operate it. This intuitive design becomes even more crucial than it is today as technology will permeate everyone’s life more than ever before.
Just think about self-driving cars. Yes, there will be training to use them and reading the manual will be important. But not everyone will take the time or have the leisure to do so. If there’s an emergency and you have to use a self-driving vehicle without proper training, hope that it can guide you through its safe operation.
Intuitive design is one thing, but we still need people to want to use the tools made available to them.
Simplicity, speed, and rewarding experience is the only way to make sure whatever tool or service we create will actually be used. Creating a remote system to allow low-mobility elderly people to get medical checkups from home isn’t helping if they refuse to use it.
This also applies to people. Managers making themselves more accessible and open to frank discussions offer convivial access. Welcoming discussion groups who keep a positive attitude and avoid falling into toxicity are another example.
When we talk about physical accessibility, we usually conjure up images of wheelchair ramps and text magnification. In Society 5.0, which aims to include as many people as possible, it will need to be much more than that.
Whether it is to allow disabled people to participate in the workforce easily or to offer proper health monitoring at home to the elderly, we will need IoT-connected cyber-physical systems. Those systems need to be designed and made available.
Think about chairs that read your bio-signs and systems that translate brain impulses into digital commands to controls computers, self-driving vehicles, phones, and automated kitchens. All of these systems are currently in existences as prototypes or proofs-of-concept, but the lack designs created for general consumption leave them as mere dreams for the future for many people who would live much better lives with them. For all his prestige, even Steven Hawkins did not have access to those.
Just think of all the difference advanced 3D-printed prosthesis made. While some models include highly sophisticated electronic packages and cost a small fortune, it is possible to download some simpler models from the Internet to create new arms for kids for a few hundred dollars.
We are also now talking about exoskeletons allowing people to carry heavy charges for extended periods of time. When will similar constructs enable paraplegic people to walk again? We are not far.
The rise of DIY bio-hacking, especially for cybernetic implants, show a new realm of possibilities. People are replacing glass eyes with cameras and sensors. Now how can we combine that AR to close the remaining gap between reality and cyberpunk novels? People implant magnets to gain a new sense to feel magnetic and electrical currents. How can this be improved to gain direct, touch-less control of tools and systems around us?
When you take those new innovations into consideration, physical accessibility takes a whole new sense.
It’s not just people interacting with systems anymore. The Internet-of-Things (IoT) is on the rise: we are now living in a world where billions of devices are connected and talking to each other. That growth is not remotely done!
We are all aware of the rise of smart home gadgets, ranging from the useful to the pointless, and giving rise to creepy stories. In the medical field, 87% of organizations have adopted IoT systems for anything from remote monitoring to mechanized pills designed to deliver medication in specific parts of the body. There are examples like that in virtually every field.
Designing for both human and IoT connectivity is going to be a must. At the same time, simple connexions are not enough, and security must play a critical role (see Security, below).
At its core, Transparency can mean availability of information.
I’m not advocating for total transparency of all information at all times (see Security below), but a lot of information is often restricted or inaccessible for no good reason.
I see four main barriers to transparency:
Power: There is power in controlling information. In many jobs, people use that control to justify their continued employment by turning themselves into gatekeepers. In some instances, people will restrict access to information strictly to create unnecessary power dynamics. We can find these information tyrants pretty much everywhere.
Bureaucratic process: From pretend security processes who make legitimate access to information difficult but do nothing to slow down criminal access, institutionalized lack of trust and ridiculously long chains-of-command, all the way to substantial bureaucratic processes that keep growing without ever being questioned, so much information would be freely available to you if you could just provide that damned permit A-38…
Lack of communication skills: Clear communication is a skill. As such, it isn’t innate but must be learned and can be improved throughout our entire lives. And yet it is something we neglect regularly.
The key to communication is to stop assuming the other person will understand what we are trying to communicate and try a bit of empathy. How can we make whatever information we communicate easier to access, simple to understand, clear in content and actually useful to the other party?
Fear: Humans are a fearful species. We tend to be paranoid for no reason, or the wrong reasons. Companies hide financial problems from employees for fear they will stop working. Bosses hide mistakes for fear that their subalterns will lose trust in them. Parents tell tall tales about the upstate farm where the dog has gone to avoid talking about death with their kids. When did this acts born of fear actually made any situation better? We don’t only delaying the inevitable, we actually make it worse.
We are also pretty good at inducing fear into other to shift their attention from what they really should be fearing. Want an example? Equifax, the large company that holds pretty much all your credit information, will frighten you with how you can reveal your information to bad people and try to sell you products to make that information more secure… all the while being themselves hacked through a mixture of negligence and stupidity, giving away all our information.
By creating transparency around information, we speed up processes, ease work, and avoid much guesswork that can lead to mistakes. Transparency reduces the senseless fears, and paranoid fantasy people have when they know you are hiding things from them.
A critical part of the discussion on accessibility is the security around the information that you don’t want to share. Little things like personal information, passwords, confidential records, restricted access, you know, all those things that get hacked and stolen several times a week these days.
There are several challenges in front of the security experts:
- how to make systems generally more secure while staying easy to use?
- how to make sure sensitive information remain accessible when without being at risk of being stolen?
- how can smaller organizations protect themselves from well-funded, government-backed hackers?
- how to remove people as the weakest link in any security system?,
- how can private citizens protect themselves if big corporations that require their private information can’t keep it secure? (again, think of the Equifax leak as an example).
The security issue has large communities of experts already debating and exploring new avenues to improve security. As citizens, will the custodians of our private information get on board and listen to them, or just ignore the issue as it would imply additional expenses? We need to make to send a message with our wallets and aim to work only with those organizations who take all the necessary steps to protect us.
Designing for new publics
When high technology permeates everyone’s environment, whole swaths of the population who were often ignored or addressed in “future updates… probably” are now part of the core public.
Not only these people won’t be able to avoid those technological systems anymore, but many of them will have to be explicitly designed for them.
The physically impaired
Physical impairment encompasses a wide range of conditions.
We got motor issues, from a broken limb to quadriplegia, to neurodegenerative afflictions attacking coordination or causing tremors. We got sensory input issues, from color-blindness, partial or complete blindness, muteness, deafness, loss of sense of touch. There’s a lot more, but those can already get us thinking.
While we certainly can’t account for all impairment for all systems at all times, we still have the option of addressing the impairment itself and give the afflicted person better access to a much wider range of systems.
The mentally impaired
When I was younger, my grandmother took care of a group of people with intellectual disabilities. She had them start their own small business, creating crafted items to be sold in local stores to finance fun activities of their choice. The activities were nice, sure, but it was nothing compared to the pride they had every time they saw their items for sale in a real store. Like everyone else, it was vital for them to contribute to the world, to matter. Society 5.0 believes they just need the right tools to do so.
People with intellectual disability aren’t the only ones who could be considered “mentally impaired.” Several afflictions, many brain injuries or neurodegenerative conditions fall into this categories. Hell! Being drunk isn’t called being impaired for nothing! Still, all of them will need to move around, as well as to operate systems in their house and out in the world.
How do you design for people who have trouble with complex operations? Or people who can’t remember instructions after a minute or two? Or people who are unable to read?
The elderly tend to be a bit of the two previous categories but in a different package.
More and more of our senior citizens are well enough used to technology by now. However, as age progress, even the tech-savvy ones can become confused or merely insecure about using unfamiliar systems.
Our society is aging and fast. Not only we had fewer children in the past five decades, but more people are living longer. A rapidly aging population was one of the main drivers behind Japan’s Society 5.0 reflexion, and the rest of the world isn’t that far behind. Elder care is going to be one of the most critical aspects of our society from now on.
Our lovable little monsters are all too often treated like second-class citizens. We either design specifically for them, or we assume their parents will take care of things for them.
However, as technology will spread to all aspects of our living environment, kids are going to interact with those new systems continually. Kids can be rough with electronics, inquisitive with new systems and love to learn to do things by themselves (well, when they want to). My own daughter can’t read yet, and when she uses a child-restricted tablet designed for especially for young kids, she will still find her way to eBay or fiddle with the tablet’s settings. Every. Single. Time.
Kids play outside, visit shopping malls, use washrooms. They do a lot of the same things adult do and should be able to use many of the same systems too. They can’t only have their own versions, as duplicating systems everywhere would soon be cost-prohibitive.
We have a lot of pets and, in an automated world, some systems will have to be designed for their needs too. Even wild animals, such as raccoons and coyotes, are now getting used to life in urbanized areas. Better tracking and control of their movements will allow us to design our cities better to accommodate these new “citizens” that, whether we like it or not, are here to stay.
As research demonstrates that animals are more complex and intelligent than we first thought, as a society, we will need to recognize their needs better and cater for their recreational needs.
Robots and other cyber-physical systems
Finally, all of our new robots, toys, and tools have some needs that must be fulfilled if we want them to serve us properly.
Machines have a variety of need as significant as ours, larger even if we consider that they require more maintenance and an increasingly large number of them will require to be connected to other systems.
We tend to design those machines themselves, but not their environments. Autonomous mobile robots are still a curiosity, apart from the odd exception (like those robotic vacuum cleaners), but this will change faster than we think. Fully human-like androids are still far in the future, meaning that between now and then we need to design for somewhat mobile, somewhat autonomous, somewhat intelligent machines.
Get involved in the discussion
Society 5.0, while making a lot of exciting promises, involves quite a lot of challenges that are all too often glossed over. Accessibility and all of what that means for the design industry is but one of those challenges.
The best designers of tomorrow are those who will start exploring these new challenges today. We are at the dawn of an era of new possibilities.
At Hivernité, a Montreal’s think tank with a focus on reinventing our world for the era of Society 5.0, these discussions involving the experts of the field, both veteran and new, are quite important. If you are interested in participating, I invite you to keep an eye on our website to see when and how you can contribute.
I am a futurist, system thinker and organizational transformation expert, dedicated to easing our transition into Society 5.0. I am available as a speaker through the think tank Hivernité (www.hivernite.ca) as well as a trainer and organizational coach through Moabi Formations (www.moabiformation.com).