Product semantics

Much of AT product design is currently focused on the physical function of a product. However, there are many commentators who have highlighted the issues in user acceptance of AT products. (Philips 1993, Fuhruer 2003). High quality engineered products that function safely and effectively in relation to a given task or purpose are often discarded when they do not have an appropriate component of social and cultural function. The social and cultural function is often referred to as style or the ‘x’ factor of a product.

This text takes the viewpoint and context of a westernised consumer society and end user. Krippendorff (2006) proposed what he felt was a paradigm shift in the design of artefacts and services from how those products and services functioned to what they meant for those who consumed them.

Whilst Industrial and graphic designers have always worked within a user-focused or centred environment, the value of their work has only been fully recognised or utilised by business or engineering profession in the last five decades. A user-centred approach to the application of interfaces, technology or systems, now termed ‘design thinking’ has gained popularity over the last two decades. It fits with the application of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) principles, user experience, and social values given to a product or service also defined as affordances by Donald Norman (1988).

The cultural coding may be a word, symbol, shape or form, colour or texture. It may also be a sound, action, or change in state, or other physical response to interaction. The smallest component of coding is a grapheme, (language, spoken or written), or visual grapheme, (visual language of images, colours, or forms).

The application of semantics to an AT product design follows the protocol given (see below).

  • Identify physical, social and cultural context of the product or service;
  • Define the user, task and environment (as above);
  • Define physical constraints to the AT product design specification (standards, cost, guidelines, performance, market size);
  • Define keywords from user needs and aspirations
  • Convert keywords to form, colour, texture that embody the cultural meaning or coding for the target market (within the constraints of the PDS);
  • Realise an artefact or service that embodies, the functionality of the PDS and required cultural coding;
  • Check balance of PDS function and cultural coding through AT persona footprint and apply cognitive reframing as required;
  • Check/develop the balance of function and the coding through participatory design;
  • Produce a higher fidelity, detailed model or prototype of the product or service;
  • Undertake a wider check/validation using surveys/presentations.

Useful links

Barnes, C., 1995. Disability rights: rhetoric and reality in the UK. Disability & Society, 10, (1). pp. 111-116.

Fuhruer, M.J., Utai, J.W., Scherer, M.J., 2003. A framework for the conceptual modelling of assistive technology device outcomes, Disability and Rehabilitation, (25), 22, Informa PLC, London. pp1243-1251

Krippendorff, K., 2006. The semantics turn: a new foundation for design,CRC Press, Boca Raton.

Norman, D. 1988. Psychology of everyday things, Basic Books, New York.

Philips, B., 1993. Predictors of Assistive Technology Abandonment, Assistive Technology: The official journal of RESNA, (5), 1. Taylor and Francis, New York.

Torrens, G.E., 2012. Assistive Technology product to Universal design: A way forward, Design For All India, 7 (7), pp.182-205 Available at: (, Accessed:[23/09/2015]

Torrens, GE, 2011. Universal Design: empathy and affinity. In Karwowski, W, Soares, M, M, Stanton, A, N, Eds, (ed) Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics in Consumer Products, CRC Press, pp.233-248 Available at: (, Accessed: [7/11/2015]