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Designing Inclusive Products with Image Schemas

Final Report Summary - INCLUDIS (Designing inclusive products with image schemas)

In an ageing society that increasingly depends on technology, the question becomes how to maintain access and usability of technological products for individual users. Previous research has shown that with increasing age users make more errors and become slower in using interactive products. More recent studies could show, however, that it is not old age per se that causes the performance decline, but rather a decline of cognitive abilities and a lack of prior experience with technology.

The aim of this project was to investigate a methodology that promises to help with designing user interfaces that are robust against cognitive decline and that cater for heterogeneous user groups. This methodology was derived from image schema theory. To investigate its usefulness for inclusive design, the project had three overall objectives:
(1) Theoretical: to integrate the theory of image schemas with a model of prior-experience with technology.
(2) Empirical: to test the predictions of the resulting theoretical framework for different applications and to verify their fitness for practical purpose.
(3) Practical: to develop practical guidance for designers, to evaluate the usefulness of this guidance, and to promote the framework as a unifying approach to inclusive product user interface design.

The theoretical part of the project involved the adaptation and development of a model of human information processing that integrates conscious and subconscious components of processing. A second model of a continuum of knowledge sources was adopted to show the relationship between prior experience with technology and more basic sensorimotor knowledge like image schemas.

In the empirical part of the project, the first study was about verifying the assumption that user interface design can alter the dependency of common usability measures on prior experience with technology. It could be shown that it is possible to influence the relationship between several experience variables and usability measures by designing a user interface (in this case of a ticket machine) more inclusively.

A second study was designed to test the validity of metaphorical extensions of image schemas. The results confirm the validity of the metaphors for gesture-based interaction with a mobile device. In general, no differences between older and younger participants were found. The metaphorical gestures that they made were largely independent of their prior experience with technology and their cognitive ability, confirming the hypotheses of robustness and universality of image schematic metaphors.

A third study was designed to compare the usefulness of user interfaces based on image schemas and on familiar tool knowledge. The results show that two image-schema solutions of a central heating controller are superior to a solution based on familiar tool knowledge - on all usability measures taken. The pattern of results is the same for the older and younger user groups. However, the correlations of the usability measures with cognitive ability and prior technology experience do not differ between the prototypes as was predicted. Further analysis of the data needs to clarify these issues that are of relevance for judging the robustness and universality of the image-schematic designs.

In the practical part of the project, the methodology used for designing the image-schematic heating controller prototypes was further developed and tested with practitioners in two workshops. It could be shown that the methodology can be learned within three days of practical training and that it was rated as suitable for producing novel and intuitive to use user interfaces.

The conclusion of the work is that image schemas and their metaphorical extensions can be a useful tool for inclusive user interface design. Thus the project served as an important bridge from theoretical assumptions to a practicable tool that can help to make living with technology easier for as many people as possible.