Design Considerations for an Accessible Internet of Things

By Paul M.A. Baker, Ph.D., Chief Operations Officer, Center for the Development and Application of Internet of Things Technologies & Adina Martinez, Center for Advanced Communications Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology

The Internet of Things (IoT) is an increasingly important platform emerging from the development of information and communications technology (ICT) and wireless connectivity linking people, systems, data, and devices (Berman & Cerf, 2017). While a mind-boggling amount of ink, or in a modern context, “bits” have been expended on the topic, from an industry standpoint, IoT is best thought of as more than a collection of technologies. For instance, aside from the technical aspects, this includes societal impacts and benefits and market opportunities that can be advanced, enhanced and simplified by the considered design and deployment of these smart technologies.

So, depending on one’s perspective, IoT ranges from sensors, devices, smart systems, data collection devices, to ecosystems, or context of technologies – and which have begun to markedly improve the quality of life for individual users and to impact the industry, business, and governmental operations. The term Internet of Things (IoT), however, has been applied in a variety of senses depending on the specific use case. Here, we adopt the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)’s use the of term “Internet of Things” as an umbrella term to reference technological development in which a greatly increasing number of devices are connected to one another and/or to the Internet (NTIA, 2017). IoT technologies, including sensors, smart objects, and wearables, are powerful tools that can provide a variety of inclusive and assistive information services in real-time, and for a variety of use cases. IoT is generally thought of in terms of its components – electronics, software, actuators, sensors, and network connectivity that allow “things” to collect and exchange data and, when programmed properly and designed, allow larger systems to better respond to the needs of a given use context (CDAIT, 2018). Key characteristics of IoT include its location and context-related to display and sensors, as well as personalizability to meet the needs of specific users (Moon, et al., 2019). In terms of broader application, however, it is useful to think of IoT as a source of information-driven applications that are interoperable with a variety of software platforms and use contexts.

But how does this relate to accessibility? Too frequently, the design of technology takes a top-down approach. While this is fine for a lot of use-cases, from the standpoint of a number of end-users, particularly in consumer markets, this runs the risk of generating cool devices that draw attention and industry buzz, but may not actually meet the needs of a large segment of potential consumers – people with disabilities, and the aging. From a strategic standpoint, products with great usability can achieve great penetration, develop deep consumer loyalty and serve social sustainability objects in the process. But how does one take steps toward making products accessible and, ultimately, usable?

It is advantageous to consider the needs of people with visual limitations or, alternatively, contexts in which visibility is problematic – in this case, adjustable IoT displays might greatly enhance the usability of products. Similarly, the ability to use alternative outputs such as audio displays, can be valuable, not just for people with visual limitations but in industrial settings where augmented outputs can reduce cognitive loads. People with physical disabilities on the navigation spectrum could discover greater utility from smart home devices like IoT lights, thermostats, speakers, and appliances that can be controlled via smartphone or voice. Edge technologies, virtual assistants, and wearable technologies fulfill different services for people with different disabilities. Beyond this, the overall aging of the U.S. population results in a proportionate increase in aging related disabilities. Individuals with aging related disabilities may find “larger screens, text, buttons, and alternate input methods” helpful for them to have easy access to their IoT products and services (BIA, 2018).

The recent context of the COVID pandemic and continual IoT technological innovation has further impacted such considerations as security, privacy, and cost. However, the disruptive nature of the pandemic also opens opportunities for rethinking the various private and public sector use of IoT that could be implemented to provide enhanced assistive capabilities. Innovations such as single platform integration, evolution to “agnostic solution,” and the role of standards and best practices can be used to create, integrate, deploy, and maintain inclusive IoT design and development that not only address the individual needs of end-users, but more broadly, advance increased societal participation for people with disabilities.

While many companies—including device manufacturers, industry, carriers, application developers, among others, recognize the importance of IoT accessibility, considerably less make an inclusive design process central to device development. In order to create a supporting IoT that works for everyone, accessibility and more broadly, usability, need to be considered during each stage in the development process. Active user involvement becomes particularly important when designing applications to be used by people with disabilities due to their specialized user requirements as well as applicable regulations, standards, and guidelines. Accessibility, usability, and we argue, the ultimate objective—inclusivity, rely on many factors to be in place, including guidelines for standardization and interoperability of devices, the extension of broadband internet networks, protection of privacy, improved security of data, and a commitment to accessibility by all parties. Despite these challenges, it is important not to lose sight of the significant benefits of IoT to often-overlooked populations, such as people with disabilities. If industry stakeholders incorporate an inclusive design that involves active participation of critical populations, then smart home devices, and other IoT objects and services will offer greater independent living, more personalized care, more flexibility and mobility, and better employment and education outcomes through next-generation wireless technologies. The Industry thus has the rare opportunity to both achieve societal benefits, while fulfilling the needs of underserved markets.

Berman, F., & Cerf, V.G. (2017). Social and ethical behavior in the Internet of Things. Communications of the ACM, 60(2), 6-7.
Bureau of Internet Accessibility (BIA). (2018). Accessibility and the Internet of Things. Retrieved from

CDAIT (2018). Driving new modes of IoT-facilitated citizen/user engagement. Center for the Development and Application of Internet of Things Technologies. Technical report, July 2018.

CDAIT (2019). Digital Transformation and the Internet of Things. Technical report, November 2019.

Moon, N. W., Baker, P.M.A., & Goughnour, K. (2019). Designing wearable technologies for users with disabilities: Accessibility, usability, and connectivity factors. Journal of Rehabilitation and Assistive Technologies Engineering.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). (2017). Fostering the advancement of the internet of things. Internet Policy Task Force and Digital Economy Leadership Team, US Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C.