Social networking websites are is becoming ubiquitous in our culture and Facebook is the most popular social networking site in the world, with 1.15 billion monthly active users (Facebook, 2013). The authors of the current paper argue that being able to engage with social networking sites, like Facebook can enhance ‘social capital’. Social capital allows people to connect with other people and therefore access information and resources that can provide emotional, social and physical support.
However, people with learning disabilities often have social networks that are limited to their families, paid carers and other people with learning disabilities and their access to social networking websites can be restricted because of the cognitive demands of using the websites. (see LD Elf post here)
As the websites are often not designed to be cognitively accessible for people with learning disabilities, this excludes them from mainstream ways of gaining social capital and therefore, being more visible and present in the online social networking world.
The current study described the development of a cognitively accessible interface for Facebook, called Endeavour Connect and piloted it to determine how easy it was to use for people with learning disabilities.
The development of Endeavour Connect
Before and during the development of Endeavour Connect, the authors interviewed people with learning disabilities, their families and carers to gather their ideas about what their needs were in relation to Facebook. The results of the interviews shaped the development of Endeavour Connect. Best practices in the use of applied cognitive technologies were also gathered to inform the design and development of Endeavour Connect. Endeavour Connect is not a separate social networking system; it is a programme that allows access to existing Facebook accounts, but without needing to use the main Facebook interface.
Endeavour Connect was developed to resemble to mainstream Facebook site, but with changes made to make it more cognitively accessible. The main changes were:
- Removing non-essential features, buttons and menus to make Endeavour Connect look less cluttered
- Integrating a text-to-speech feature that allows posts to be read aloud, and reads the name of people who post pictures, to make it easier for non-readers of readers with lower levels of ability and/or confidence to understand incoming posts
- Providing two toggle buttons to allow for volume of the audio and size of the text to be increased
- Providing two options of making posts: one uses text and written prompts; the second allows for users to audio-record their message by clicking on a microphone button. It also uses audio prompts.
- Making the pictures that appear on Endeavour Connect larger than those on mainstream Facebook.
Furthermore, any changes that are made in mainstream Facebook will also carry over to Endeavour Connect and vice versa. So, if someone posts something in Facebook, it will appear in that person’s timeline on Endeavour Connect. Audio recorded messages that have been posted using Endeavour Connect appear as audio links on the mainstream Facebook site.
During this pilot study, the participants received training and were observed using mainstream Facebook and the Endeavour Connect interface. They were asked to complete five Facebook-specific tasks in both conditions. These five common tasks were:
- Reading/comprehending an incoming Facebook post
- Making an outgoing Facebook post
- Posting a picture
- Navigating to a designated friend’s Facebook page
- Navigating back to the home page
The observed tasks occurred as soon as the training for each task had been completed. During each task for the observed trials, the task was discontinued if the participant required more than three prompts to complete the task or made more than three errors.
The participants for the study were recruited from Colorado, in the United States, via adult community service provider organisations. Twelve participants were recruited; five women and seven men. Their ages ranged from 20 to 45 years of age and their average age was 29.5 years old. The average IQ score for the participants was 53.5, with a range from 38-66.
For each condition (Facebook and Endeavour Connect), the researchers observed:
- The number of tasks successfully completed
- The amount of assistance required to successfully complete each task
- The number of errors made in completing each task
The results were analysed both descriptively and empirically, using Sandler’s A-statistic to examine mean differences in the three dependent variables above. Each participant was also interviewed after each task sequence to gather their thoughts about whether they preferred Facebook or Endeavour Connect or Facebook and how easy they thought each programme was to use.
Eleven of the 12 participants were able to complete all five Facebook tasks while using Endeavour Connect, whereas only four participants were able to do so while using mainstream Facebook.
However, there were also aspects of the Endeavour Connect interface that appeared to be confusing for the participants: when they were using the audio prompts to post audio messages or photos, the audio prompt said: ‘Select the post button to post this picture to Facebook, or press cancel to start over’. Unfortunately, many people paid attention to the last part of the message, and pressed the cancel button, when they meant to post the message or photo.
In terms of participants’ feed-back, they said that Endeavour Connect was easier to work with, liked being able to record their voices and being able to hear others’ posts read aloud. Also, participants also thought that they could use Endeavour Connect in order to support their social networking.
The number of tasks completed using Endeavour Connect was better than for mainstream Facebook (4.6 vs. 3.8 out of five tasks, respectively; p = .006). Furthermore, participants had fewer errors per task when working with Endeavour Connect compared to Facebook (.05 vs. .30, respectively; p=.013) and participants needed fewer prompts when using Endeavour Connect, rather than Facebook (.22 vs. .58, respectively; p=.024).
Strengths and limitations
This is a really promising pilot study to demonstrate that it is possible for people with learning disabilities to access mainstream social networking sites, such as Facebook, but with a few adaptations. The biggest strength of the Endeavour Connect interface, in my opinion, is that it allows changes to be made in Facebook to show up in Endeavour Connect and vice versa. This means that people who have learning disabilities who may have been put off joining Facebook can do so in a way that is accessible.
Although there have been attempts to develop social networking sites run by and for people with learning disabilities, e.g. ‘Special Friends Online’, in my experience, people want to join the social networking sites that everyone else has joined. Endeavour Connect allows people to do so, thus potentially reducing online social exclusion and enhancing the capacity to develop social capital, as the authors describe.
As it is a pilot study, caution should be applied when interpreting the statistics, but the descriptive results are encouraging, particularly when participants described enjoying the audio recordings and when one participant spontaneously tried to make a post. Furthermore, given that the researchers recruited people with learning disabilities, their families and carers to help gain their views to develop Endeavour Connect, perhaps future research could involve people with learning disabilities as co-researchers. This could potentially lead to unforeseen issues being spotted and fixed earlier, such as participants cueing in to the last part of an audio prompt, thus making it more likely that they cancelled a post, rather than posting it.
Also, I was wondering whether the ‘Friends’ used in this pilot study were hypothetical friends, or genuine offline friends for those taking part in the research. Perhaps if the researchers used genuine friends, then it may have provided a greater degree of ecological validity to the research and those participants may have made fewer errors in the friends-related task.
Although the focus of this paper was on reducing the cognitive barriers to accessing social networking sites, perhaps future research could focus on the social barriers to accessing social networking, which affect many people online, both with and without learning disabilities. These social barriers may include: not understanding sarcasm, difficulty with managing when friends do not reply as quickly as expected, how to recognise valid profiles compared to fake profiles, or even how to manage trolling and online abuse.
One of the biggest issues facing people with learning disabilities is the risk of social exclusion, both in the physical and online world. Given that more and more people are using social networking sites to enhance their offline social networks, it is important that people with learning disabilities are not left behind. This paper described the development of Endeavour Connect, an interface which aims to reduce the cognitive barriers to accessing Facebook and it appeared as though many participants found it easier to use Endeavour Connect than mainstream Facebook. Hopefully this will lead to a larger study and widespread use with people with learning disabilities.
Davies et al (2015) An interface to support independent use of Facebook by people with intellectual disability. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 53 (1), 30-41 [abstract]
Facebook (2013) Key Facts- Statistics. Retrieved September 12, 2013, from http://newsroom.fb.com/key-facts