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Accessible Electronics: ATP's Use-Ability Partners Lab

10/28/2011
Greg McGrew of ATP discusses Use-Ability Partners Lab testing

​Have you ever actually read the user manual for your smart phone from beginning to end? If you have, you are among millions of others who have found the instructions confusing or difficult to understand. For persons with disabilities, the task of implementing those instructions may be even more daunting.

Fostered by a common objective of helping people with disabilities to use these products, leaders like Microsoft, Nokia, and Research in Motion, makers of BlackBerry products, have recruited the Assistive Technology Partners’ product testing lab to aid in the development of user friendly devices.

With 25 years of experience in mechanical and biomedical engineering, Greg McGrew leads this charge in the Use-Ability Partners lab. McGrew has designed, implemented, improved, and delivered assistive technology products and devices for years in order to break down barriers to living independently. Now, with the support of a U.S. Department of Education grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation ResearchNational Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, McGrew’s team is testing the usability and durability of 50 products used by people with disabilities.

Unlike product testing in mainstream markets, assistive technology markets are small. The testing for a microwave oven is different than an assistive technology device, McGrew says.

The focus is in determining how a user interface should be made. By watching real people doing real tasks with real objects, Use-Ability Partners assesses where there are issues with using the technology.

There are factors that might prevent a manufacturer’s design from being used by persons with disabilities because they need someone’s help to set it up for them. Industry leaders have begun to recognize the importance of technology that is easily used, so this testing lab offers a unique advantage to the market. Most needed by consumers is the lab’s “out-of-the-box” usability testing which starts when the UPS truck delivers the product to the user and ends with the user demonstrating they can use the product after using the help instructions provided by the manufacturer.

The lab tests with software from Tech Smith called Morae, which uses computerized webcams to see what is going on. Video analysis and a user interview provide feedback to the industry that make a user experience more satisfying. Each product in the lab is tested on 5-20 users. McGrew cites that there are many connections with mainstream items, the most exciting of which is smart phones with sensitive touch screens.

In one test, a mother of small children was using a programmable audio book. However, the results of the test might extend to touch pad tablets or a Blackberry Playbook.

On the horizon, the lab is slated to test phone apps for persons with cognitive disabilities, a portable Intel reader for the Colorado Center for the Blind, and products for older users to develop an online consumer report and new standards for product labeling.

“This kind of testing isn’t being done elsewhere,” states McGrew. Although other labs offer some of these services, Use-Ability Partners’ product testing lab excels because of its unique industry relationships as well as its ability to make a difference to people who need it the most.