The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #108 — Our 5 Senses Are Swappable

picture of brainport deviceOver 285 million people are visually impaired in the world. What if they could see using their taste buds in the tongue rather than their eyes?

A woman who is blind puts on a pair of glasses that contain a camera. The image from the camera is sent to a small device about the size of a postage stamp that sits on her tongue. She feels a sensation like soda bubbles on her tongue—this is the camera signals being sent to electrodes on her tongue. This information then goes either to the visual cortex or to the part of the brain that processes taste signals from the tongue. The scientists who developed this technology say they aren’t sure which part of the brain is actually receiving the information from the tongue in this situation.The taste buds are seeing — The experience of the woman when her brain receives the signals from her tongue is that she sees shapes. The vision is not the same as normal sight, but she can see enough that she can better navigate her environment. People who are totally blind can find doorways and elevator buttons when they use the device, called a BrainPort. They can read letters and numbers and pick up everyday objects, for example, a fork at the dinner table.

The brain is learning — When someone uses the BrainPort at first, they don’t see anything. It takes fifteen minutes for them to start to interpret the signals as visual information. Interestingly, it’s not that they have to “learn” anything —it’s not that they are conscious of practicing. The brain is unconsciously learning to interpret the information as vision.

Design to augment — According to the World Health Organization, over 39 million are blind and 246 million have moderate to severe visual impairment.Over 360 million have disabling hearing loss. Until now, designing devices for people with visual, auditory, or other physical impairments has been an area that a small number of designers have worked on. The rest of the designers have been told to make their designs “accessible” so that the special devices (such as screen readers) are compatible and can use the mainstream technologies. Keeping accessibility in mind is always important, but now more designers will be directly designing devices that are specifically created to augment the impaired sense.

What do you think? Will these devices become more common? If you are a designer would you like to work in this field?


If you liked this article, and want more info like it, check out my newest book: 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People. 



Top 5 Reasons Your Site Might Not Be Accessible

Picture of part of a keyboard with an accessibility symbol on the Enter keyToday’s blog post is a guest post from Jeff Horvath, Ph.D., who owns Balanced Experience — a user experience consulting firm. 

Can you afford a $10M lawsuit? In 2006, the National Federation of the Blind filed a class-action lawsuit against Target claiming that blind users couldn’t access much of the content on the web site nor independently purchase anything.  Their position was that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 applied to eCommerce web sites.  Eventually, Target settled with the plaintiffs for almost $10M.  The judge in the case concluded that the case had “broken new ground in an important area of law” and that the “litigation [extended] important areas of disability law in to an emerging form of electronic commerce that promises to grow in importance.”  It probably would have cost a lot less than $10M to design the site right in the first place.  Ever since then, disabled shoppers, citizens, and employees all over have argued for their rights to be able to use the same web sites and software that everyone else does.

Do you know anyone who doesn’t use the internet?  I don’t.  In today’s world, just about everything is available online – shopping, banking, taxes, socializing… pretty much everything.  Do you know anyone who’s disabled?  If you said no, you’re lying!  More than 10% of the US population qualifies as disabled.  When we hear the word “disabled”, people usually first think of someone who is blind or deaf.  Those are definitely disabilities, but there are a lot more kinds of disabilities that affect web site use.  Do you have a harder time reading small print than you used to?  You might have a visual disability.  Did you get some of those eye drops at the eye doctor today?  Visual disability.  Break your hand and can’t use the mouse?  Physical disability.  Hard time hearing certain tones?  Auditory disability.  Short-term memory problems?  Cognitive disability.

There are lots of people with disabilities our there that need to use your web site (or app).  If you don’t design your site in a way that lets them do that, you open yourself up to legal action.  Companies like Target and Netflix found that out the hard way.  

Here are the Top 5 Reasons Your Site Might Not Be Accessible:

  1. Missing ALT Text – ALT text is used to provide textual descriptions for the graphics on your site.  Many people with visual disabilities use screen readers to browse web sites.  These tools read the content of the site out loud.  Since they can’t “read” a graphic, you need to provide text alternatives (i.e., “ALT text”) for your graphics.  Most sites forget to include this for some or all of their graphics.  Many who do have ALT text don’t make it meaningful enough.  If you show an image of your special Holiday offer which tells us about the 25% discount shoppers can get during your special sale next week and all your ALT text says is “Holiday Special”, you have ALT text… but it’s not very useful.
  2. Keyboard Focus Problems – many disabled visitors to your site will use some form of “assistive technology” – some other tool or application that helps them browse your web site.  These tools essentially “read” your site and present the information to the user in a way that is easier to understand and use.  One of the biggest places that assistive technologies have problems with sites is with keyboard focus.  Many assistive technologies rely on tabbing to navigate (i.e., no keyboard).  If users can’t get to all of the right places, in the right order, by simply tabbing, there is a problem.  Imagine a web site where the Pay My Bill functionality is in a modal window that you can’t get to by tabbing.  That’s a serious problem to someone using a screen reader or other assistive technology.
  3. Sloppy Forms – Forms are complicated things.  For most of us, we get a lot of information about the relationships between the various bits of data by the visual relationships presented in the form (or table).  We can tell what a text entry field is about because we see a label to the left of it.  We know which fields are required because we see a little asterisk next to it.  We know what all the numbers in a column are about because there is a heading above it.  If you can’t see, however, how will you know all of that?  It has to be communicated another way.  A good accessible web site will provide enough information about the structure of the information for a screen reader to be able to tell the user what’s what.
  4. No Alternatives – We’ve already talked about problems users with visual disabilities can have when information is only presented in a visual format.  Now, imagine trying to use an important web site when key information was only presented audibly (perhaps as part of a video clip).  Or, how about using a site where all the information is in complicated graphs and charts when you have a cognitive disability that makes understanding those very difficult?  Good accessible sites will provide key information in more than one format – visual and audible, text and graphic, etc.
  5. Lack of User Control – Lastly, it’s hard to design a single user experience that will work well for everybody.  So, give the users some control.  Let them adjust the font size.  Let them speed up or slow down time-based media.  Let them turn features on or off.  If your site allows users to control their own experience, they can make it one that works for them.

Nobody wants to panic and then redesign their web site because their lawyers told them they need to.  That’s a disruptive, stressful, and expensive way to do it.  It’s much smarter to be proactive and ensure that your site is accessible before someone else makes you do it.  On top of that, it’s just smart to have an accessible web site.  I don’t know any business that would intentionally cut out 10% of their target audience just because they didn’t want to design a better web site.



Thanks for the guest post, Jeff. So readers — What do you think? Are you building in accessibility factors?

Special Offer: The TeamW is a Balanced Experience partner. If you’d like help understanding how accessible your web site or app is and what you might need to do about it, Balanced Experience is offering a 10% discount ($1,500 savings) on accessibility audits to anyone who signs up before the end of the calendar year.  You can contact them at  Let them know you heard about it on the BrainLady blog.