Thursday, August 11, 2016

Seven Days Left: Technological discrimination

This is the fifth of seven items in seven days on left handedness.

Left Handedness and Technological Discrimination

The primary problem with left handed computing is software, not hardware.  It's unrealistic to expect hardward manufacturers to build left hand specific devices because of economies of scale.

But there is absolutely no excuse for software developers not to accomodate left handed people.  Changing the screen layout and behaviour of software has no physical limitation.  The problem is a lack of consideration for left handed people (in both meanings of the word, kindness and thinking).

I have written to literally scores of software developers asking for them to make minor changes that are easy to implement which would benefit left handed people.  Unfortunately, monolithic companies like Microsoft, Google and Apple only pay attention when there is bad publicity.  And even then, they often ignore it (re: the iphone, as discussed below).  The only developers that have responded to me are small companies (one to five people).  They are receptive and understand the problem, but they don't have the power to change the industry.

Millions of dollars are spent on purposeful software enhancements for the visually impaired (e.g. text readers, large fonts) and for the physically disabled (e.g. "sticky keys") which make computers easier to use.  Millions of dollars are also spent on frivolous and unnecessary things like skinning, themes, icons, etc.  So why is almost no money spent accomodating left handed people, who are 10-15% of the population versus the visually impaired who make up only 2%?

Some of the most obvious changes that would benefit left handed people and easily done and cost very little to implement.  It's not a matter of money, it's a lack of will and thinking by corporations.
1) Put the scrollbar on the left side

2) Allow users to reverse forward/back behaviour

3) Allow users to move application controls (e.g. minimize, resize and close on Windows, the "dock" on Apple devices)

Put the scrollbar on the left side
Touch screens became commonplace in the early 2000s with PDAs, and around 2010 desktop screens and laptops had them.  They are becoming ubiquitous with computing, and may eventually become the primary means of input.  So why is it that in more than fifteen years of touch screen computing, few software makers have included the option of a left side scrollbar or produced a patch to allow it?
Why are left side scrollbars important?  Look at this image of two screens and see if you can figure out why this would be a problem.  (If your response is to say, "Just use your right hand!" then you are displaying right hand privilege.)

Firefox is one of the few programs that allows left side scrollbars, but they do not make it convenient for users.  First, you must open the about:config file and add "layout.scrollbars.side" as a preference.  Then you must change the value to "3" and restart Firefox.  The option for a left side scrollbar is not included when you download and install the browser.
Most importantly, there is no physical or a software limitation to putting the scroll bar on the left hand side.  If a screen has a horizontal scroll bar in landscape mode, it is on the bottom.  When you turn that screen to be in portrait, what was the bottom is now the left.  The scrollbar WAS on what is now the left side.  So why can't it be on the left if the user wants it?
There is no excuse for not offering left side scrollbars.  They don't exist because of arrogance, indifference and ignorance.

Allow users to reverse forward/back behaviour

Have you ever seen Japanese manga comics?  The book spines are to the right of the front cover, not the left as with European language books.  The cover and the pages open to the right, not the left.  They are not "wrong", they are different.

When you use an e-reader or view a "gallery" on your computer, the software is designed so that touching the right side of the screen is "forward" and touching the left is "backward".

It's the same problem as with scrollbars.  Left handed users are forced to reach across the device and touch the right hand side of the screen.  Why is there no option to swap this behaviour and make LEFT forward and RIGHT back?  (Again, if you can't figure out why this is a problem, check your right handed privilege.) 

In almost every operating system and most programs dozens of hotkeys can be reconfigured by the user.  And yet there is no option to switch the forward/back touch screen behaviours.

Allow users to move application controls

I said above that it's unrealistic to expect manufacturers to build left hand specific hardware.  However, it is inexcusable for a company to arrogantly ignore, refuse to fix or worse repeat a design flaw that they already know about.

Apple's iphone4 was poorly designed.  If a left handed person held it, the antenna didn't work.  That was bad enough, and the iphone5 didn't have that problem.

But Apple did it AGAIN with the iphone6.  They knew it was a problem, and they repeated their mistake.  Even worse, their operating system, "dock" and applications are so poorly designed that left handed people cannot use the phone.

Tim Cook was made aware of his company's poor design of the iphone6 and the problems it causes left handed users.  What his response to complaints? 

"Use the phone with the other hand."

The arrogance beggars belief.

Hardware really isn't a problem

Hardware really isn't a problem for left handed people.  Most things involving computers are hand neutral, and in one case, it is more beneficial to left handed people than right handed.

The most common keystrokes and hotkeys on nearly all operating systems are easily done with the left hand, combinations of Ctrl, Alt, Shift and Esc with the alphabetic keyboard (ZXCVBN, ASDFGH, QWERTY).  Most left handed people control the computer two handed - the keyboard with the left, use the mouse with the right.  Compare that with right handed users who constantly waste time switching their right hands from the mouse to the keyboard and back.  It's one of the few advantages left handers have.

Often what is labelled "left handed" is unusable.  I personally do not know anyone who uses a "left handed mouse", though people claim online that some do.  Some keyboards are built with the numeric keypad on the left, but they do not reverse the keys.  If I wanted a numpad on my left, I want 3, 2, 1 on the bottom, not 1, 2, 3.

What can hardware software manufacturers do to help?

How about listening?

Too often, companies think they have all the answers.  They think that the know all the potential problems that could exist.  They think their idea of a "solution" is somehow helpful without ever consulting the person who has to use it.

Companies should involve and listen to left handed people in the product testing phase and implement solutions.  As seen with Apple, Google (no left hand options in Android) and Microsoft (re: PDAs without left side scrollbars), companies know these problems exist and do nothing to solve them.  They arrogantly think the market is big enough that they can ignore customers.

These are not "first world problems"

The most common ignorant response when these problems are discussed is to say, "use your right hand".  The second most common ignorant response is to label these as "First world problem".  Wrong.
When software and hardware is exported from the US and other countries for use in Asia, Africa or elsewhere, their products never contain any left handed options.  When people in other countries see it, the right-only bias of the products reinforces local biases against left handed people, especially against kids.  It makes people feel justified in their discrimination. 

Friday, part 6: Left Handedness and ergonomic discrimination

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