Winning Student Essay:

Accessibility within the future of human-machine interaction

Kamolnat Tabattanon, University of Michigan

With the development of new technologies, improved artificial intelligence, and autonomy, human-machine interaction (HMI) has become an increasingly important aspect of human factors and human factors research. This advent of new technological systems provides a great opportunity to improve the accessibility of HMI to both people with disabilities and older adults as new user interfaces are researched and designed. By considering the needs of these populations early in the design process, we can provide an end product that considers a full and inclusive range of users, and, in doing so, ensure that new technologies are accessible to all in the future generation. However, current research for HMI and the needs of people with disabilities is lacking, and tools available to help designers account for this user population are few. I believe that by specifically investigating the needs of people with disabilities within the context of new technologies and systems, HMI research shows promise of informing inclusive user design which could have a great and positive impact on the lives and experiences of people with disabilities in the next generation.

The United States Census Bureau estimates that approximately one-fifth of the US population has some type of physical, cognitive, or sensory disability [1]. This percentage is also expected to continue to grow. Accessibility research related to HMI is needed in order to realize the potential new technologies have to substantially improve the quality of life of people with disabilities. Take for example, autonomous shuttles. These vehicles may be operated without a driver or any other personnel and may be used in the future similarly to public transit or as a door-to-door service. These vehicles have the potential to greatly improve safe and independent mobility for people with disabilities and older adults who may otherwise not be eligible to drive.

I imagine myself supporting the vision of inclusive user design of technologies through my continued research in accessibility. My current projects are within the context of low-speed autonomous shuttles. Such shuttles have been deployed and tested in a number of campuses and cities across the country, however few are currently equipped with accommodations for independent use by passengers with disabilities. Results from this line of research will provide evidence-based design recommendations to stakeholders, vehicle designers, and manufacturers regarding the needs of people with disabilities when interacting with autonomous shuttles and what type of user interface will most efficiently and effectively support their needs.  For example, an inclusive user interface on a shuttle must consider the situation where a user with a visual impairment may be required to access, understand, and communicate information with the shuttle without the potential assistance of transit personnel.

It is also my hope to contribute to the effort of developing evidence-based design tools to support the design of accessible user interfaces. Such tools require HMI research to inform cause-and-effect relationships of various elements of independent travel and needed information and overall usability. The abilities and limitations of a human user determines how effectively they can interact with a particular design; therefore, it is crucial that people with disabilities are also included in HMI research endeavors, so their needs and limitations are not overlooked.

In conclusion, I believe HMI is a key aspect of designs of new technologies, and HMI research specific to people with disabilities is greatly needed in order to ensure that the next generation of users will have inclusive access to technologies and designs. I hope that through my continued accessibility in transportation research, evidence-based recommendations and design tools to support HMI and HMI standards may be gained.

[1] United States Census Bureau. (2016). American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates.

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