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Communication – Digital Communication

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Digital technologies increasingly support our daily activities and are central to enabling communication. Mass communication technology began with person-to-person exchanges using the telephone to relay voice data, and whilst this is still a dominant form of communication, we now digitally interact in many other ways too. But making digital technology accessible to all is a demanding task.


Digital technologies increasingly support our daily activities and are central to enabling communication.

Mass communication technology began with person-to-person exchanges using the telephone to relay voice data, and whilst this is still a dominant form of communication, we now digitally interact in many other ways.

Digital data can be communicated and received using sound, image, graphics, text, video and touch and can be exchanged between people, communities, devices, appliances, objects and environments.

The rapid growth in the number of handheld devices is representative of the significance of this technology and its aspirational value for people.

Digital technologies are becoming more convergent and more pervasive in both personal and professional lives – we rely on them for information and entertainment as well as communication. But with them come new barriers and new difficulties. Technology is not always easy to learn or intuitive to use and sometimes can be perceived as an engineering gadget rather than a lifestyle product or service.

Barriers to communicating

Technology is often produced to engineering specification rather than user need. Only 13 percent of the American public believes that in general, technology products are easy to use. This is particularly true of mobile phones. In the UK 85 percent of people of all ages find it difficult to set up a mobile phone. Companies focus on designing the product but not the experience of living with it on a daily basis.

The typical manual that accompanies most devices is unhelpful and can be difficult to decipher. Produced as cheaply as possible with small print and technical jargon, manuals do not generally offer help in an accessible way.

We can experience an overload of information as communication can happen in so many different ways. Managing the flow of voice mails, emails, texts etc. can become a daily struggle in the office, at home as well as on the move.

Achieving seamless connectivity is a continual problem. Connecting devices such as a mobile phone to a computer to synchronise information can be challenging.

Family and friends

It is important to understand the needs and lifestyles of people and look at how technology can enhance their connectivity and communication. On a daily basis, people communicate mostly with their family and friends and design should be sensitive to this context of use.

Family groups tend to have a fairly defined structure when it comes to communication technology. Different members can play different roles including:

Technology specifier: the person who is accepted by other members as being the most tech-savvy individual and is asked to recommend devices and services to others. They are typically younger and male.

Communication hub: this person is responsible for all the communication in the family. They know what is happening on a ‘day-to-day’ basis as well as across the wider social network of friends and extended family. They translate messages for everyone and coordinate and store information. In the family context, this person is typically the mother.

Technology teacher: this individual has the patience and know-how to teach other group members to decipher complicated menu structures and use their devices or services. They are not necessarily the technology specifier. Grandchildren quite often act as technology teachers for grandparents within families.

Technology purchaser: many communication devices are not purchased by the person who will use them. Parents will often buy mobile phones for their children and their own parents. It is common for an older person’s first mobile phone to be bought by another family member, who then has to persuade them to use it.

Technology for old population

Older age groups and people with disabilities are generally not considered to be core target markets for communication technology but actually represent a significant opportunity. As younger, more able-bodied market segments become saturated, these sectors remain unexplored and have the capacity to sustain growth and expansion. Both these groups have significant purchasing power yet receive very little targeted marketing.

Designing for older or disabled people can challenge designers of communication technology to create solutions that are better for us all. For example, addressing the needs of visually impaired people can produce ‘eyes-free’ mobile phone concepts that mainstream markets can benefit from as well.

Older people are in general less interested in gimmicks or gadgets. They want devices and services that will support their daily activities in a non-patronising way. Benefits of engaging with communication technology need to be made explicit.

Neither older nor disabled people want ‘dumbed-down’ or special needs devices. Mainstream devices are always preferred.

Both these groups cite the following reasons for not using communication technology: complexity of use; lack of awareness of what is out there and Expense.

Learning how to operate and use technology can present a real barrier. Older people tend to learn by reading the manual whereas younger age groups learn by trial and error. Technology should bend to each user and build on their existing mental models of learning.

Older people have to apply their analogue modes of learning – which can make it hard to understand complex menus for example – into the digital space. There needs to be a balance between over-complication and over-simplification. Technical jargon is confusing for everyone and does not aid learning.

Communication and life transitions

We think of young people as undergoing rapid and profound life transitions but these are also features of later life. The emotional and psychological needs of older people need to be addressed at this time and communication becomes increasingly important. Transitions can be broadly categorised under three headings:

Disruption: significant changes in life circumstances such as retirement, divorce or loss of partner.

Displacement: downsizing from the family home to a smaller residence, relocating to a different city or country, or moving into sheltered housing.

Dependency: sudden dependency as the result of a fall or injury, the need for more support due to long-term illness or reduced functionality as the result of the natural ageing process.

Not all disabled people are older. There are significant numbers of younger disabled people whose expectations and daily activities are parallel to their able-bodied counterparts. There are many other disabilities beyond wheelchair users. Hearing impaired and low vision communities vastly outnumber mobility-impaired groups and are especially reliant on digital technologies to help them communicate.




‘I don’t want to have a conversation with a machine. I do not like its Stephen Hawking voice. Why does it sound so miserable?’ – visually impaired teenager on voice-activated phone

‘I am constantly losing my phone, even within my own bag, especially with mobiles being so small these days. It would be great if you could call out to your phone and it would let you know where it is’ – visually impaired person

‘I have a hand-me-down phone which used to be my daughter’s’ – older person

‘I don’t want a phone like those with lots of buttons. If I wanted something with a keyboard I would buy a laptop’ – visually impaired older person

‘I still can’t see why mobile phone companies cannot make a mobile you can fully customise – for example font size or colour’ – visually impaired person

‘I wait till I visit my daughter in Canada and ask her to show me how to use things. I cannot learn from my husband’ – woman in her 60s

‘I have a mobile but do not keep it switched on. It is for emergencies only. My son gave it to me’ – older person

‘We have lots of friends and family abroad but it is difficult because of time zones. We often feel we are interrupting people when we ring them’ – older couple

‘My phone is usually set to silent in the evening, because I do not want to wake the baby’ – working mother

‘When I travel I always leave my phone on UK time and then calculate what time it is abroad. That way I always know what time it is at home, and what my girlfriend will probably be doing … and almost what mood she will be in’ – nomadic worker

‘I do not want a phone that is made for blind people – a blindy phone’ – visually impaired person

‘I am a complete technophobe … I know how to receive calls but only ring two people. My husband gave me the phone and he complains that I never leave it on’ – 67 year old woman

‘I do send texts but it is easier to talk. No one wants to talk anymore … they are all too busy’ – 67 year old man

‘I wouldn’t use my phone when I was out and about. I need to be aware and it distracts the dog’ – visually impaired woman aged 76

Case studies

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This project explored ways to involve the local community in creating content for on-street digital networks.

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Multi-sensory Memorabilia

This study with HP Labs explored new ways for visually impaired people to save and share personal memories.

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The project developed a compact folding mobile phone specifically for use by older people who struggle with screen-based digital technology.

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Glowing Places

This design study explored the use of digital technology in looking at how individual patterns of activity can influence the ambient quality of light in public environments.

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Audio Sphere

The design team worked with a young, profoundly deaf office worker to develop a software-driven spherical device that visually indicates the flow and direction of communication and speech.

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U Control

This project worked in partnership with a blind artist to develop a new, easy-to-use remote control based on a modular system of components.

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A project to develop a small, portable, digital writing scroll with removable e-paper for use as an additional device by deaf people using sign language.

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Magnifeye / Eyewonder

Two innovative aids to improve communication for people with sight loss: Magnifeye is a flat magnifying tablet device; Eyewonder is a pocket-sized projector.

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TwoTone Phone

This project with BT set out to address digital exclusion by developing creative new ways to connect the over-60s to the communication benefits of broadband.

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Communication in transition

A design looking at into how mobile communications can be made more accessible and relevant for older people by responding to critical transitions in later life.

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The Sound of North

This project explored the use of new technologies to improve wayfinding for visually impaired people in public buildings and environments.

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This project worked with an older person to develop Chalk, a device which makes the functions on the mobile phone available in a large, accessible and familiar ‘blackboard’ format.

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This project created a series of high-tech ‘charms’ to help people with disabilities to maintain independent lives without drawing attention to themselves.

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Out of the Box

A design study to create new and more engaging ways to help older people to set up and use a new mobile phone.

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Alternative View

This project investigated the needs and aspirations of people with sight loss in using smartphones by working with two user groups – teenagers and over 65s.

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Fashioning Technology

This project explored the growing interaction between communication technology and fashion in order to propose new forms of digital etiquette in using mobile devices.

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