The Surface Adaptive Kit reminds us of the importance of accessibility in tech

Surface Adaptive Kit Box
Surface Adaptive Kit Box (Image credit: Microsoft)

Surface Adaptive Kit Bump Label

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

At the 2021 Surface Event, Microsoft debuted a range of hardware products showcasing the best of Microsoft's engineering prowess. Right in the middle, though, Microsoft also demonstrated its social conscience.

The Surface Adaptive Kit is a simple, but powerful set of tools that can add much-needed usability features to any laptop, not just Surface devices. It reminds us that the rush for minimalistic designs and stylish features often fly in the face of accessibility, designed for able-bodied users first and foremost. Much like the Xbox Adaptive Controller, the Surface Adaptive Kit is another step in a long journey Microsoft has kickstarted to start to chip away at inaccessible tech and software, changing perceptions and pressuring competitors to follow suit.

Surface Adaptive Kit: What is it?

The Surface Adaptive Kit is a suite of relatively simple tools and features that can be attached to products with adhesive to enhance usability and accessibility.

The Surface Adaptive Kit is designed right from the unboxing experience with access in mind, much like the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Inside the box, you'll find raised bump labels which can be applied anywhere on the device. For those with sight impairments, raised labels help you find your way to ports and buttons more easily, especially if they've been recessed into the design of the device as is often the case as companies go increasingly "minimalistic" with their designs.

Similarly to the bump labels, we also have keycap labels, which can help users orient their fingers for typing, or finding keys that are oft-less travelled. These come with designs like arrows and circles, which are more pronounced than key designs often are.

Surface Adaptive Kit - Port Labels

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

Additionally, Microsoft also added a wide array of port labels, designed to help users match up cables to specific ports. There's a shorter strip that can be added to a port, and a longer strip that can be tied around a cable to help you find and match devices up to their correct ports without having to potentially put your fingers over the ports themselves.

Finally, Microsoft also added an adhesive opening solution, which you can combine with a lanyard to any device to help with things like opening kickstand hinges, or opening laptop covers.

Accessibility for everybody

Much scrutiny has been poured over big tech in recent years, whose bottomless wealth and share price valuations are making us question the limits and fairness of our economic systems. Microsoft is at least one of the few that is investing heavily into giving back to communities, whether it's on climatological projects, general charity work, or accessibility tech.

IT pro and game streamer Cerebral Paul praised Microsoft's engagement with the disabled community, emphasizing the benefits of accessible tech. "The connection identifiers alone are worth the price of entry. MS continues to use the easy open accessible packaging, which is awesome. The tabs for opening the lid should be on every laptop," Paul emphasized, "I will say, as I have all along, MS is leading the way in accessibility. They reach out to the disabled community, myself included, to ask us what we need to make computing and gaming more accessible. They then act on that info."

Accessibility consultant SightlessKombat, who reminds us that accessibility features can help everybody, regardless of their ability. "I feel that this could be useful for individuals, regardless of their level of vision, who have issues finding certain keys, or remembering what cables go where for instance. It's just another element of accessibility that isn't always considered, but has been here, which is good to see. After all, design for one, solve for many I believe is the phrase."

Xbox MVP creator and accessibility advocate Steve Saylor also echoed SightlessKombat's sentiments. "On the surface (pun intended) the Surface Adaptive Kit seems like a simple sticker pack with subtle bumps and shapes. Once those stickers are applied to devices a user can by touch know what the function of that button or sticker is for. But, my favorite part of the Surface Adaptive Kit are the stickers you can adhere to the side of ports, and on the cables those ports connect to. This sounds great for those like me who are blind and low vision."

Surface Adaptive Kit Bump Stickers

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

"We're all going to be disabled someday, just some of us beat you to it. When we design products like this, we're designing for all of our future selves."

Steve continued, "But what Microsoft does is they create for one, but extend for many. Think about how many times you've had to fumble to figure out which cable goes to which port. The Adaptive Kit was designed with disabled users in mind, but this helps everyone."

Microsoft's Kris Hunter, Principle Director, Devices UX Research and Accessibility, emphasized Microsoft's dedication to inclusive design: "As we build products, there is a belief that drives us. When we don't intentionally include, we unintentionally exclude."

She remarked upon the ingenuity of home-brew methods, including glue dots, and kickstands with holes drilled in them to thread lanyards. While innovative, these solutions compromise devices, and warranties.

Dave Dame, Director of Accessibility at Microsoft, reminds us that one day, we'll all need accessibility features. While many of us enjoy the privilege of an able-body in our youth and adulthood, aging is an inevitability. "We're all going to be disabled someday, just some of us beat you to it. When we design products like this, we're designing for all of our future selves."

More work to be done

Surface Adaptive Kit on a table

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

Dave Dame raises a good point. Even if big tech companies lack the moral fortitude to see the social value in inclusive design, the fact that practically all millennials and below grew up with computing and smart devices as a cornerstone of their lifestyle is going to make inclusive design a profitable venture to undertake as we age. None of us are getting any younger, but I don't see millennials and Gen Z wanting to give up their technology habits even into old age. In this, Microsoft is ahead of the curve.

Microsoft is actively putting its mission statement "empower others to achieve more" into direct action.

Questions of profitability wouldn't even be part of the conversation in a just world. Thankfully, Microsoft has shown itself to be a moral leader in a corporate universe that is characteristically rudderless on social issues beyond basic marketing platitudes. Microsoft is actively putting its mission statement "empower others to achieve more" into direct action.

The Surface Adaptive Kit might seem like a simple product to those who don't need it, but it sends a powerful message. It can adapt every Surface device Microsoft announced in different ways, and showcases how relatively simple things can make a big difference to those who need it. Microsoft's championing of accessible tech and social responsibility in general puts pressure on its competitors to follow suit, and regardless of the mechanism for that action, hopefully, it will gradually lead to a world where nobody is othered.

Jez Corden
Managing Editor

Jez Corden is the Managing Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

18 Comments
  • I think this is brilliant on many levels, but one overlooked one is this: non-"disabled" people can also benefit from these ergonomic add-ons. In fact it's just good design (but in this case, modular and customizable). Why is USB-C superior to micro-USB or USB-A? Because you can plug it in without checking for the orientation of the plug (it's reversible). Take that one step further: Put a small bump next to the jack, and you don't even have to look - you just feel your way to the correct jack. In any case, this kit is a great step in the right direction. Re: "Questions of profitability wouldn't even be part of the conversation in a just world." A world without profit would be a nightmare of political control over the economy. We've seen it before and there's nothing just about it. Profit is what guides investment decisions and leads to new efficiencies and products. If profit-seeking guides Microsoft to make more inclusive products, that's a good thing.
  • With regards to your second paragraph, I often see people miss the mark with arguments like this. The article says that profit wouldn't be a factor in a just world and you then go on to argue how the world wouldn't be just without profit. In that case, you're not arguing against the statement made in the article. The presupposition is that the world is just and that leads to a lack of interest in profit. While you are almost certainly correct in practice, the article is dealing with theory, so you're not talking about the same thing. I find I get similar reactions when I say that, in theory, communism is the best system but it simply cannot work in practice on a large scale and people go off talking about Russia and Cuba and completely ignore the distinction that I made myself between theory and practice.
  • In the real world, Communism is a monarchy in drag.
  • "A world without profit would be a nightmare of political control over the economy. We've seen it before and there's nothing just about it" ?? So to put it in perspective the concept of "profit" dates back to the 13th Century and is about 720 years old. Modern Mankind as we know it is about 300,000 years old. So your statement is true for about 0.002 % of human history. For the other 99.998% of human history mankind ("the world") managed to survive without the concept of profit. But I think all of this is completely off-topic. Imho MS has done great in developing this small add-ons that make a HUGE difference.
  • The word profit may or not date back a few hundred years but the concept and pursuit of it dates back to the caves. Try checking out the code of Hammurabi. It features price controls. From the economist:
    https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2020/01/09/why-price-con...
    "...the Hammurabi code, includes elaborate price and wage controls: 2.5 grains of silver per day for a rowing boat, six for a labourer." Naked Apes will by nature prefer to charge as much as they can and pay as little as they can get away with. Haggling is even older than Hammurabi.
  • We don't live in a just world, so yeah we agree.
  • "Questions of profitability wouldn't even be part of the conversation in a just world." True, but then there would be no incentive to do anything, really. As long as there is a shortage or overage of a good or service, we need a mechanism in which to balance out the inconsistencies of those shortages and overages. At its core, capitalism is simply a more sophisticated version of barter. Microsoft has to pay the supplies of these adaptive accessories and they likely don't want Surfaces or Windows licenses in exchange. So, we turn to cash and as Microsoft is a publicly traded company, they have a fiduciary responsibility to make a profit. Even if they are losing money on paper, Microsoft is getting a huge return on investment with this product. The good PR from the Adaptive Kit is likely worth more than the equivalent cost in advertising. So, Microsoft is not exactly getting nothing out of this.
  • "True, but then there would be no incentive to do anything, really." Except the statement in the article makes the presupposition that the world is just, so justice itself is the incentive. In practice, justice is not a big enough incentive to enough people for such a system to ever work. The statement in the article is obviously dealing with a theoretical, idealised scenario though, not the practicalities of the reality we live in. In short, the article is talking about an theoretical just world with full knowledge that we don't live in such a world. Basically, you are correct but you're not actually arguing against the statement made in the article.
  • Cheers for highlighting this lol. People get so sensitive and jump at the opportunity to show off their politics, when what I said wasn't vaguely political.
  • For more information on the Surface Adaptive Kit, please feel free to go to https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/surface/surface-adaptive-kit-guide-c...
  • the presentation was interesting because they highlighted how even the packaging was designed to let the person with disability experience opening the packaging. But they didn't actually show him being able to open it. They cut away from him trying to grab the tab, to it already being opened and he just lifted up the box top. then it's opened and there are all these really tiny stickers that you know would be impossible for the person to be able to add to their computer on their own. shouldn't it have been designed in some way to let the disabled person remove and apply the stickers by themself?
  • I suggest you post your ideas how to improve the product to Microsoft and they will be open to listen adjust / improve accordingly. So what are you waiting for? Please keep us updated on your actual proposals for improvement.
  • Yay I'm dyslexic really appreciate the read me functions in the edge browser 😁
  • IDEA was originally established by a congress man who had a child with special needs and was frustrated with the educational system. So, it doesn't surprise me that Microsoft is champion a world of placing all individuals on even ground. Considering the fact Nadella has a child with Special needs. Kudos for people with power worked their hardest so that they can make their children's and other kids life more fulfilling.
  • The bump stickers would be useful for users who find the Surface keyboard icons to be too similar to each other. I still have a hard time figuring out the brightness vs. audio controls.
  • I'll wait to hear how the user like this. Good intentions are good, really! But does it help them?
  • I'm thinking to use the lanyard sticker for surface duo, so that I have it secured to the hand.
  • Doesn't Duo have a lanyard hole? Maybe a cover?
    It is a good idea.
    I've had lanyards on my small portables since the PDA days. It helps pulling tbem out of my pocket.