Commonwealth Bank 'Albert' EFTPOS tablet: Working through assumptions and technical issues

A recent press release by the Digital Gap Initiative has highlighted the challenges faced by a blind woman trying to use the recently introduced ‘Albert’ EFTPOS tablet in a local doctors clinic. The issue relates to the interface, basically an app on an Android-based tablet displaying a visual keypad, but no tactile or audio feedback for the blind user, making it inaccessible. This article explores some of the technical issues behind Albert and what can be done to determine a practical solution. 

The challenges of accessibility and security

In 2015 it may seem both logical and surprising that such an issue exists; logical that a tablet would be used as a way of inputting information, and surprising that it’s not accessible. Given the tablets provided by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) are based on Android, and the operating system has great accessibility features such as the TalkBack screen reader, it may seem odd that the device is inaccessible.

The main issue is security. While TalkBack could provide audio feedback and vibration through its Explore By Touch feature that would ensure a blind person could use the app, the issue is that any audio feedback would need to read aloud the PIN number as the user moved their finger onto the correct numbers, essentially broadcasting to the room the PIN number being entered. Unless headphones are provided (which is likely to be difficult in a fast-payment environment such as a department store), there’s no way to make use of the accessibity features due to security, rendering the device useless for people who are blind or have low vision.

In an interview conducted with Peter Greco on 5RPH discussing the difficulties, there has been some progress in finding a solution, but not to the satisfaction of people who are blind. The current proposed solution operates similar to the Talking Dialer app available from Google’s Project Eyes-Free. The idea is that whenever you put your finger on the screen it represents the number ‘5’, and you then select other numbers by navigating from there (e.g. slightly left is 4, slightly up is 2, and slightly down is 8 and so on). However, unlike this app, there is still no opportunity with Albert to receive audio feedback, making it very difficult to determine if the correct number has been selected. While this has been CBA’s suggested solution, there is no word yet as to whether it will be rolled out.

Potential solutions

While the logical response to the issue is ‘just keep EFTPOS machines with physical buttons’, it’s likely that providing a tablet with software is significantly cheaper to produce than a customer EFTPOS terminal, hence it’s likely that we’ll see more of these devices in the future and a solution needs to be found. 

One possibility is to model a solution based on the ThinkGeek JOYSTICK-IT. The stick was created when people wanted to play retro computer games on a tablet, but were limited to tapping virtual gamepad buttons displayed on the tablet screen. To make the gameplay more comfortable, the JOYSTICK-IT was designed. It is basically a rubber stick with suction cap and small grooves at the end, meaning that when the stick is slightly tilted in a direction, the groove pushes against the virtual button activating it. As a result, gamers can now use a physical thumb-stick to easily activate touch-screen buttons using something more tactile. With similar suction cap gaming sticks available on eBay for around $10, it may be the case that something similar could be adapted to allow the CBA to keep using Albert but also provide a mechanism for entering a PIN discretely. Perhaps even a whole light rubber keypad overlay could be used.

Another option is to allow the blind person to use a device of their own to enter the PIN. With technologies such as Bluetooth and near-field communication (NFC) on mobile phones, it would be quite possible to have an app on the phone of a blind person that could connect with the EFTPOS machine and complete the transaction.  While it would require some initial setup, there is the potential to again address the issue and avoid the initial situation faced by the blind woman in the doctor’s clinic where she was encouraged to whisper her PIN number to staff so they could enter it into the EFTPOS machine.

Security issues need consideration

The rollout of Albert before any accessibility testing was undertaken highlights the fact that there’s a greater need for awareness of accessibility in security. The WCAG 2.0 ISO standard highlights the fact that there are security issues in place but rarely provides solutions. For example, the standard indicates the need to let users know a CAPTCHA is present but stops short of suggesting how to make a CAPTCHA accessible. As more of our daily technologies become dependent on new and improved interfaces, it’s important to ensure that solutions are found to assist people with disabilities before such devices get rolled out to the public. 

Include users with disabilities

A key approach for ensuring apps and digital services are accessible for people with disabilities are to include them and their needs in the design, build and testing process. While web standards such as WCAG 2.0 may not have provided a complete solution in this instance, combining people with disabilities with structured testing against available web accessibility standards would have identified the issues and maximised the opportunity for potential solutions before Albert was released.