Good product design has universal appeal

PointerWare’s interface is easy to use for seniors and people with disabilities

Do you know why movie theatres in the US have 299 seats? According to investigative reporter Edward Jay Epstein in his new book The Hollywood Economist it’s because of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. It dictates that in a theatre of 300 or more seats, wheelchairs must have access to all rows.

The irony is that in the age of the multiplex, theatres are now realizing that all customers like the extra space afforded by wide seat rows and are willing to pay extra for it. It’s time we recast disabilities legislation from being a hindrance for making profit, but as an opportunity for product differentiation.

In 2005, the McGuinty government passed the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in order to “improve the identification, removal and prevention of barriers faced by persons with disabilities.” This was followed in 2007 with the Accessibility Standards for Customer Service (customer service standard), the first specific standard created under the authority of the AODA.

Many entrepreneurs are realizing that it’s possible to create a business model that recasts the engagement of people with disabilities as a source of value rather than a point of grudging compliance with provincial law.

Last year, the popular Montreal restaurant O. Noir opened a restaurant in Toronto. At O. Noir, customers dine in complete darkness in order to simulate the sensation of eating while blind. The entire wait-staff and kitchen staff are also blind, creating a unique environment for customers that fosters empathy and makes for a great story at a cocktail party. Their entire value proposition is built around the disabilities of its staff.

The popular business strategy book, Blue Ocean Strategy essentially argues this same point for product differentiation: that truly profitable companies make sure they are different from their competitors in unexpected ways. In a world of an aging population, the companies that figure this out in North America are going to make a killing.

For every Blackberry user, there is another potential customer who can’t make out the tiny font and tiny keyboard on the Blackberry. The market is ripe for a disability-friendly smart-phone, which would get snapped up by tech-savvy seniors who want big font, big buttons and an easy way to keep in touch with their family.

PointerWare interface screenshot
PointerWare interface

PointerWare is a MaRS client working in this space. They offer a computer desktop interface that is deliberately designed with large simple icons and simple usability to appeal to people with poor eyesight. Their company has been expanding into the disabilities market on the simple principles that such good design has wide appeal.

In early 2011, MaRS will be launching the AccessAbility Design Award, a website stamp that will identify participants as having either Bronze, Silver or Gold standards of accessibility design. The criteria used have been set up by the National Quality Institute, who seek to foster high quality products and services that go beyond the minimal requirements of law.

This award is part of the Ministry of Community and Social Service’s EnAbling Change Partnership Program, which will see MaRS as a partner in raising awareness of the AODA and creating programs that will support entrepreneurs in understanding and meeting the requirements of the customer service standard.

The companies that embrace accessibility as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, will make a healthy profit in Ontario’s highly diverse market.