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Approaches for Influencing the Design of New Telecommunication Systems and Services

Dr John Gill
February 1999


The "design for all" message has had limited impact upon the area of telecommunication systems and services. This is despite considerable effort being expended by various groups around Europe. Therefore it is appropriate to examine strategies for improving the situation.

The basic questions are:

  • Who needs to be influenced?

  • What is the message?

  • When do they need it?

  • Who is best placed to do the influencing?

  • How to deliver the messsage?


Who needs to be influenced?

At first glance it would seem that the list is almost endless, so it is important to identify the key players who include:

(a) Politicians who influence legislation and general policy of governments and the European Commission.

(b) Authors of policy documents - typically these are civil servants who have experience of telecommunication or regulatory issues.

(c) Standards bodies such as ITU, ETSI, ISO and CEN.

(d) System developers. Often these are commercial companies where general policy may be determined by the board of directors, but product specification emerges from the middle of the organisation such as the marketing department, and the product designer may have little input to the product specification stage.

(e) Service providers where there is also a board of directors, but service specification is often done by people distant from the departments responsible for direct contact with the customers. All too often customer training is not developed at the same time, but afterwards only if it becomes essential.

For example in the case of a cash dispenser, the company manufacturing the equipment sees their customer as the bank purchasing their equipment. Even though they may have incorporated design for all features in their range of terminals, it is to no avail if the bank is not interested in offering it to their customers. Within the bank it may be a technical department which is responsible for selecting equipment for the bank, but it will be the local branches who have direct contact with disabled customers and who may provide a modicum of training in the use of the cash dispenser. Unfortunately local branch staff are unlikely to be aware of the technological possibilities for improving the accessibility of the equipment.


What is the message?

At the policy level it may be sufficient to specify that the equipment and services must be accessible to as many people as is reasonably possible. However this leaves open many questions including what does "accessible" mean? Also what is "reasonable"? Also it does not cover the often crucial question as to who pays for any additional costs such as training.

However with new equipment and services which are only in the early stages of specification, such as UMTS, it is difficult to be more precise. However if the influencing is left to the stage when it is clear what features will be incorporated, it is often too late to get anything significant changed.

Standards are crucial in the telecommunications industry where there is a rigorous, but if sometimes slow, process for developing standards. In the television industry, the process is somewhat different in that the technical standards are frequently determined by bodies made up of only industry representatives and there is no policy for involving consumers. The situation is different again in computer software where the commercially dominant players set the de facto standards with apparently no consultative process. This means that convergence is going to involve a clash of cultures as well as the more obvious problems of integrating three different groups of technology.

Information for product designers may be detailed design guidelines (eg the maximum height and angle of a display so that it can be read by a wheelchair user). However this approach is only possible for established technology for which detailed design guidelines exist. In other cases it will be necessary to provide generic guidelines backed up by recommendations on how to test prototypes with a cross-section of potential users. For telecommunication designers the problems are shortage of time and lack of an established system for evaluating with disabled users. This is an area where user organisations could take a more active role in providing speedy evaluation of prototype systems and services.


When do they need it?

Often the best time to influence is when the matter is first being discussed at any level. It becomes harder to incorporate changes as the decision making process advances. However user groups tend not to react until the process is well advanced and sometimes not until after the equipment or service is in use.

This implies the desirability of having contacts on the inside so that one is aware of what is currently being discussed. At the policy level, the European Commission often publish discussion documents, but standards bodies tend to make little effort to publicise what is currently under discussion.

The development time in telecommunications has been decreasing which means that the time between a project being proposed and the specification finalised is short. Also secrecy is considered essential by many commercial organisations. Therefore the possibility of having direct contact with the product specifier at the right moment is remote. So, in practice, it is essential to provide the information, or a signpost to it (eg a web address), in advance and hope that the recipient remembers it at the relevant moment. This can be assisted by the company having a design checklist which includes questions on the accessibility of the product by disabled users.


Who is best placed to do the influencing?

Policy documents from the European Commission are written in a special language which is difficult to understand by the uninitiated; only recently have some of the organisations representing disabled people taken on staff with the skills to interpret these documents. However these organisations frequently do not have the technical expertise to understand some of the implications. Therefore there needs to be some form of collaboration between those who understand the language and the regulatory issues, those who have a good grasp of the technology, and those with lobbying skills.

For standards there are two aspects - policy (ie what needs to standardised) and the detailed work in writing the standard. In the case of the former, in depth technical knowledge is not essential so many groups who represent disabled people could be involved. However the detailed writing must be done by people conversant with the technology which greatly restricts the choice of participants. Standardisation is time consuming, often has low academic content, and is a long term activity. In the disability area, there is often little obvious commercial benefit from being involved in the standardisation process. This means that it has been difficult to find appropriate people, with both knowledge of the technical and disability aspects, and with the time and independent funding to do the detailed work on the standards committees.

There is still much work to be done in preparing design guidelines and undertaking studies of the costs and benefits of incorporating features needed by disabled people.


How to deliver the message?

Methods include:

  • Conferences and seminars
  • Books
  • Booklets
  • Newsletters
  • Articles in mainstream periodicals
  • Websites

Conferences and seminars have the disadvantage that they reach only a relatively small audience, and few people read conference proceedings. Books are useful at providing a large quantity of information to the "converted". Booklets, if well written and attractively produced, can get through to the "unconverted" but needs a good circulation list if they are to reach the targeted audience. Newsletters can be useful but all too often they are uninteresting to the target audience and tend to be filed immediately in the waste paper basket.

Articles in mainstream publications is a useful way to reach the "unconverted" but they must be written in a style which encourages the casual reader to read more than the first paragraph. Websites are an inexpensive way to impart a large quantity of information which can be kept up-to-date; unfortunately experience has shown that they are mainly useful for reaching the "converted" but many sites could be presented more attractively.

The problem of language is always present in Europe. Although many senior people can read English, their reading speed may be slower than their native language. At a more junior level, it becomes almost essential to produce information in the local languages.


Conclusions

There is an urgent need to develop a coordinated approach to influencing the design of new telecommunication equipment and services. This will require training organisations representing people with various disabilities in the regulatory framework, standardisation procedures and the implications of the new technologies. Then their lobbying skills can be matched with the technical and scientific knowledge of organisations such as COST 219bis.

 

 



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