2003 Conference Proceedings

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Kitch Barnicle
Ryan Hatch
Gregg Vanderheiden
Trace R&D Center
5901 Research Park Blvd
Madison, WI 53719
Email: barnicle@trace.wisc.edu


A commercially available cell phone that supports third-party Java applications was chosen as the research platform for the first in a series of projects that explore accessible interface strategies for people with disabilities. This prototype, allows researchers to demonstrate interface strategies, gather feedback from consumers, researchers and manufacturers, as well as collect basic user data such as keystroke selection.


The use of cell phones within the last ten years has accelerated at such an amazing rate that today nearly half of the U.S. population - more than 130 million people - use mobile phones (CTIA, 2002). However, the convenience of this communication advancement - whether you need to call work to let them know you're running late or need emergency assistance - is unavailable to a significant portion of the population - people with disabilities.

By its very nature, the design of a cell phone interface can pose accessibility barriers, especially to people with visual impairments - the display area is small, the buttons are small and printing on them even smaller. However, the practical use of a cell phone is no less important for these individuals. Therefore, the need exists for cross disability accessible interface strategies. The introduction of cell phones that run software applications other than those developed by the manufacturer has created new development opportunities for researchers. The phone chosen for this series of projects runs applications developed in Java 2, Micro Edition, a version of Java designed for portable devices.

Initial Interface Strategy

The first interface strategy implemented on the cell phone prototype is the Use of Existing Display for Label Presentation (Vanderheiden, 1999.) The goal of this interface strategy is to improve access to button labels for individuals with visual impairments. Although cell phones have small displays and small buttons, the size of the phone's display is often several times larger than the size of the buttons. An interface application was developed to take advantage of this distinction.

The application allows users to view the phone's button labels on the display in large, high contrast print using various techniques. Users can choose to identify the keypad or function buttons using the display or users can choose to review the digits that have already been entered by viewing them in large print on the display one by one. In this way, users who are visually impaired, or who may have forgotten their reading glasses, can identify the buttons on the phone before choosing to activate them.

The cell phone prototype also supports basic data collection for use in usability testing. The application can record and save keystrokes and then transmit this data via the phone's wireless web connection to a server for data analysis. The project staff can use this capability to gather specific information on how users employ the experimental interfaces under development.


Cell phones that run third-party software applications are a promising development environment for interface researchers, especially because users reviewing the interface prototype can experience the true look and feel of the device. However, at this time, there are still limitations. It is difficult, or in some cases impossible, to create third-party applications that interact smoothly with a phone's existing functionality, and certain buttons on the phone may not be accessible to third-party applications.

Today, although Java-enabled phones are among some of the most expensive in the marketplace, the research flexibility they offer is invaluable. Ultimately, the project goal is to work with manufacturers to transfer accessible interface strategies into inexpensive cell phone products.


The next step in the development process is to continue usability testing of the prototype interface strategies with individuals with visual impairments. Successful strategies that improve access for users with visual impairments will be shared with manufacturers of wireless phones and other interested parties.

The research team is continuing the development of the research platform and other interface applications that address the needs of consumers who are blind as well as consumers with cognitive and mobility impairments. The results of user testing and further interface developments will be presented at the conference.


Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (2002). Current US Wireless Subscribers. Retrieved October 1, 2002 at http://www.wow-com.com/

Vanderheiden, G.C., (1999). Trace Center Reference Design for Cell Phones. Retrieved October 1, 2002 from http://trace.wisc.edu/docs/phones/index.htm


This work is funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, U.S. Department of Education, under grant #H133E990006. The opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Education.

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