Touch-free is the future of design, but what does that mean for accessibility?

 22 Apr 2021

Written by Zip Water and Eric J Martin AM

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a wave of innovation, with a number of businesses pivoting to create touch-free equipment for shared commercial spaces, including office buildings, hospitals and aged care facilities, to reduce the risk of virus transmission.

But what does this mean for accessibility? What about vision impaired people who rely so heavily on their use of touch? And what if sensors require users to stand to operate them, what does that mean for wheelchair users?

One new contactless innovation that has carefully considered accessibility as part of the design process is the Zip HydroTap Touch-Free Wave, a contactless version of its flagship HydroTap system dispensing instant filtered boiling, chilled and sparkling water.

The product was developed when Zip Water identified that there was growing demand for contactless equipment to create COVID-safe workplaces. Research conducted by commercial fit-out specialists, Aston, found that a person will come into contact with 43 different touch points on an average workday.

In addition, according to a global survey conducted last year by market researchers Qualtrics, 74% of people working remotely through COVID-19 wanted employers to focus on taking action to make them feel confident about returning to work.

The design uses proprietary sensor technology detecting hand motions to operate the system within a range from 15mm to 50mm. Direct contact with the tap will not operate it.

The safety lock for boiling water is also contactless, with a twin sensor activation command, so that boiling water is dispensed only when two of the four sensors are engaged, which can be done only through a very intentional hand motion.

From initial concept to installation, Zip Water was able to get the product to market within six months – a process that would usually take up to a year. Zip Water is manufacturing the HydroTap Touch Free Wave out of its factory located in Condell Park, Western Sydney. This gives the company complete in-person oversight of every stage of the product design and manufacturing process.

Accessibility is an important consideration in the design of any new product. The Zip Water team thought about this carefully when designing the HydroTap Touch-Free Wave.

Zip Water Marketing & Strategy Director, Mike Abbott, says: “Many vision impaired people use touch as their main source of information, particularly with the use of Braille. With the right training, the Zip HydroTap Touch-Free Wave may be easier to operate than traditional taps, especially for vision impaired people who find it difficult to operate taps with lever handles, or buttons.

“Zip HydroTap Touch-Free Wave dispenses instant boiling, chilled and sparkling water with a simple wave of a hand”.

Zip Water Product Development Manager, Kevin Moult, added: “Following feedback from customers including wheelchair users, we created a touch-free bottle-fill function, which once activated enables continuous flow for chilled or sparkling water for 15 seconds. Ease of use has been improved for people who use wheelchairs by removing the need for users to hold their hand consistently over the sensor and stand over their bottle to monitor when it is full.”

The new wave of touch-free equipment should encourage further research and development around accessibility. Whether or not future touch-free innovations will consider people with disabilities is something to follow with keen interest.

Innovations such as the Zip HydroTap Touch-Free Wave will be critical for preventing the spread of germs and disease. However, it will be crucial, that like Zip Water, new innovations consider how people with disabilities use these facilities as an integral part of the design process.

Republished with permission from Access Insight, Summer 2021- a quarterly newsletter from the Association of Consultants in Access Australia Inc.