Eye tracking, digital tools and environments, and accessibility

It was estimated that there are were 285 million visually impaired people in the world, with 39 million blind and 246 million having low vision (Pascolini & Mariotti, 2012). In fact, there are as many as three times more partially sighted people than people who are functionally or fully blind (Newell & Gregor, 1997). People with partial vision usually experience issues with visual acuity, contrast sensitivity, field of vision and color perception (Jacko & Sears, 1998). Another widespread partial vision condition is the age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is associated with a loss of acuity in the central visual field.This condition affects millions of Americans and is the leading cause of visual impairments for individuals 55 years and older (American Macular Degeneration Foundation, 2002). It is estimated that by the year 2030, in the United States alone, approximately 70 million people will be over the age of 65 (Jacko et al., 2000), which suggests that at least half of them are likely to experience decreasing quality of vision due to AMD. People with vision limitations make a distinct category of users who, in order to efficiently interact with the Internet and technology, require alterations of traditional user interfaces. When developing user interfaces, researchers continue to explore alternatives such as audio and/or tactile presentations (i.e., haptic interfaces) of textual information for fully blind users (Power & Jürgensen, 2010). Users with partial visual impairments, however, require a very different set of alternatives — they heavily rely on features like compatibility of content with screen readers, availability of tags on graphics, color schemes that take into consideration users with color blindness, ability to magnify content and manipulate contrast, etc. Despite federal attempts to make ICT accessible for people with a wide range of disabilities, up to this day, these well sought after and needed enhancements are still largely lacking, which suggests that visually impaired users remain inefficient users of technological advances (Jaeger, 2012).

Eye tracking could be a useful tool for evaluating accessibility of technology by empowering developers in their knowledge of principles of accessible design. Dr. Julie Jacko and her research collaborators conducted a series of experiments investigating how users with visual impairments suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), interact with technology (Jacko et al., 2001; Jacko et al., 2000). Their studies demonstrated that eye movement analysis could be an excellent methodological tool for understanding the peculiarities of search and selection strategies by low vision computer users compared to fully sighted participants. Researchers gathered eye tracking metrics (e.g., scan time, spatial density, and number of fixations) during a continuous matching task while manipulating the size of icons (9.2 mm, 14.6 mm, 23.2 mm, 36.8 mm and 58.3 mm), their number (two, three, four, five and six icons) and the background color (fully saturated black, blue, green, red and white).The findings from the experiments suggested that AMD users required less time to process information on the screen when the background was colored in black, blue or white than green and red; when the icon size increased; and when the number of icons displayed on the screen increased as well. Specifically, the icon identification time was the shortest for icon size of 36.8 mm but there were no changes in performance when the icon size was 58.3 mm and even a decrease in performance when the AMD users were simultaneously presented with five to six icons.

The general conclusion from this line of research is that users with AMD significantly differ from fully sighted users in their interactions with ICT; therefore, it is a big limitation in the design of technology not to provide users with limited visual capabilities an opportunity to become more efficient users of technology. When it comes to design and functionality of the majority of digital humanities technology, conformity to the principles of accessibility, or, to be exact, the lack of thereof, still remains an issue (Williams, 2012). Limitations in the design of these tools that do not allow to meet the needs of people with various impairments significantly narrow the pool of potential users and adopters of such technology. It is therefore with hope that eye tracking methodology along with other evaluation methodologies can provide useful take-aways for the accessible design of digital tools and environments.

Eye tracking, digital tools and environments, and universal design

Technology' compliance with the principles of universal design provides its users an opportunity to utilize technology on the move, instead of in a stationary setting, and access it from a variety of mobile hand-held devices (e.g., smartphones, tablets, personal digital assistants). As a way of promoting universal design of digital tools and environments in humanities research, an opportunity to present information in different formats on multiple devices needs to be taken into consideration as well (Zundert, 2012); however, not all tools can benefit from this approach.This claim is supported by several reasons. First, the number of active mobile devices keeps growing (e.g., by the year 2017,2,890 million smartphones were reported worldwide) (statista,‘Smartphones worldwide installed base from 2008 to 2017 (in millions),’ 2017); second, there is a significant overlap between making an information resource accessible from a mobile device and for people with disabilities (Williams, 2012); third, there is a growing need to use digital tools in naturalistic work environments (de La Flor et al., 2010; Warwick et al., 2009).The fourth and unofficial reason is that for most scholars their projects and research activities become an essential part of their daily lives that occupy a significant amount of their professional and personal time. As a result, they may need a quick reference with research material in order to confirm or refute spontaneous ideas and serendipitous discoveries could be a necessity.

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