Every summer, interns at Moment (which is now part of Verizon) solve real-world problems through a design-based research project. In the past, interns have worked with concepts like autonomous vehicles, Google Glass, virtual reality in education, and Voice UI.
For the 2018 summer project, the premise is to design a near-future product or service that improves mobility for people with disabilities using granular location data and other contextual information. Darshan Alatar Patel,Lauren Fox, Alina Peng, Chanel Luu Hai and Alexis Trevizo are interns at Moment/Verizon in New York. Darshan is pursuing an MFA in Interaction Design from Domus Academy in Milan, Lauren is an incoming junior at Washington University in St. Louis pursuing a BFA in Communication Design, Alina is pursuing a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) with a Design Minor at the University of Pennsylvania, Chanel is pursuing an MFA in Design & Technology at Parsons School of Design, and Alexis is pursuing a BS in Integrated Digital Media at NYU. They’re currently exploring the intersection of mobility challenges and technology in urban environments. You can follow the team’s progress this summer on Momentary Exploration.
How we used prototyping, a quintessential part of the human-centered design process, to get closer to our final concept.
After weeks of research and ideation, our team came up with Thea, the concept for an artificially-intelligent, on-the-go navigation assistant for the blind and visually-impaired community. Thea utilizes a wearable haptic pad and a voice-activated user interface to communicate granular directionality. Thea first interprets a user’s natural speech, similar to voice assistants like Siri or Alexa, and then provides non-intrusive audio and vibrational feedback.
In the design process, we went through a phase of prototyping to unpack our research and generate a tangible representation of our product concept. This enabled the transition from initial ideation and conceptualization, to actual creation and solidification. Through multiple prototyping iterations, we determined how Thea would look and feel from a user’s behavioral perspective. Ultimately, we were able to deepen our understanding of Thea’s potential, improve gaps in our design, and to some extent, bring Thea to life.
PROTOTYPING THE FORM FACTOR
Initially, we had difficulty in determining Thea’s form, so we made paper prototypes of different types of wearables. Some of our rudimentary concepts include vibrational necklaces and belts that provide 360° positioning, and a circular patch that provides cardinal directionality. By constructing models with low-fidelity materials, we were able to make adjustments quickly and inexpensively. This first step provided us with an element of three-dimensionality to our illustrations. As a result, we gained an experiential view of Thea’s visual attributes.
Eventually, we decided on a haptic pad, packaged in the form of rectangular strips. These pads could be placed on any part of the body that the user would deem optimal, enabling a tailored experience. Users could also wear multiple pads that allow for left and right signals to be distributed on separate, wider areas of the body, which deviates from a mere single-piece form factor.
To build the pad model, we played with materials like silicone and kinesiology tape. The tape — made of cotton fiber and polymer elastic and typically used by athletes — provided structure without restricting the body’s range of motion. Likewise, silicone is flexible and comfortable, and at the same time, offers mechanical resiliency that can support vibrations.
PROTOTYPING THE HAPTIC LANGUAGE
After we decided on the haptic pad shape, we then had to figure out the nuances of the vibrational pulses by creating a pseudo haptic language. The pulses should help orient the users and prompt them to turn a certain way or number of degrees, or walk a specific amount of steps. We wanted Thea to be able to communicate information in an instinctive way that adheres to the user’s body movements. In order to prototype our haptic language and determine how exactly these commands are conveyed, we employed the technique of bodystorming.
We first took a trip to Visions, a rehabilitation and community center for the visually-impaired, to meet with a youth group. There, participants tested and identified the optimal part of the body for the haptic pad. Although we designed Thea to be rather open-ended in terms of where on the body it could be placed, we found that when the pads were worn on both shoulders, users had the easiest time navigating. With this feedback, we later conducted another in-office bodystorming session.
For the internal session, one of us would walk around the office blindfolded. Another would walk behind the blindfolded person, providing directions while tapping on his or her shoulders, to simulate Thea. These taps let us to physically experience what Thea’s vibrations would be like — we steered the user to different areas of the office through turn-by-turn steps. Bodystorming allowed us to put ourselves in the user’s shoes, simultaneously testing our concept.
We decided on the haptic language to be a series of quick consecutive pulses cascading down the pad. This provided the most intuitive directionality, for turning left and right. We also determined that a steady, rhythmic pulsing would indicate a forward motion, and the quick pulsing would indicate the need to stop.
Ultimately, bodystorming propelled us to take our idea out of abstraction. Interacting with the youth group and with our office surroundings revealed flaws in our design and ensured the success of our key decisions.
REFINED LO-FI PROTOTYPING
When we determined Thea’s form factor and haptic language, we subsequently wanted to create a more refined prototype by actually engineering the vibrations onto the pads. This would act as a backbone for Thea, representing its sensory skeleton.
We assembled a quick circuit with vibration motors, wires and the Arduinocomputing platform. This circuit enabled us to envision the cascade of pulses, and showcase complex design interactions in a simplified experience.
Building these prototypes ultimately allowed us to continuously refine and validate our design decisions, making Thea inherently more valuable for the visually-impaired community. Essentially, prototyping is a critical part of the iterative human-centered design process — enabling us to get closer to the final product concept with every step of the way.