I’m currently working on a project this summer as part of the Verizon Internship Program, with Moment NYC, a design firm and one of Verizon’s recent acquisitions. Every summer, interns at Moment 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 Moment’s 2018 summer project, “Inclusive NYC,” the premise is to:
Design a near-future product or service that improves mobility for people with disabilities, using granular location and other contextual data.
We’re still in the early stages of conceptualizing our project, and over the past week, we’ve been completing research and narrowing down who exactly we want to design for. After learning about the types of disabilities, analyzing infrastructural problems, and challenging establishments like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority - we ultimately decided to focus on people with vision impairment.
As part of our research process, we took a trip to the Cooper Hewitt Museum, situated between 5th and Madison Ave. For a limited time, this Smithsonian Design hub offers an exhibition called “Access + Ability” on its first floor, which showcases prototypes and products specifically designed for people with disabilities.
BRIDGING BEAUTY AND FUNCTIONALITY IN WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY
At the core, the pieces in the exhibition are technologically-advanced and serve their purpose of facilitating independent movement. But at the same time, they follow aesthetic principles. In particular, products like prosthetic leg covers and personalized canes, are highly customizable, which enable self-expression. These pieces have the potential to create a sense of empowerment for their wearers, and to some extent, the restoration of personal agency. In the company of aluminum, silicone, and thermoplastic, we witnessed a delicate intersection of fashion and technology.
What did we need to keep in mind, in order to design a product or service that could be as visually appealing as it was functional? How do we blend the elements together and ultimately pinpoint that sweet spot?
EXPLORING MULTISENSORIAL DESIGN
Next, we visited Cooper Hewitt’s third floor, which housed a sensory design lab. As interns interested in designing for the blind/low vision (BLV), we got to see how this lab revealed a design realm that extended beyond the conventional way of “viewing” a piece. Instead, the pieces were holistic and interactive - stimulating all of our senses and inspiring us to expand our design repertoire.
If we, as humans, activate more than just our eyes, then why couldn’t art?
Oftentimes, people who lose the ability to use one sense can gain a hyper-ability in another sense. For example, those who lose their sight rely more on sound — their ears are sharper than the ears of those who can see. Certain materials can also activate different senses, and with deeper exploration, we can discover how to optimize the impact that our product will have on its users.
MAINTAINING AN OBJECTIVE OF INCLUSIVITY
On an individual scale, everyone has a different sensory repository. This is a quintessential element of the human condition, and that’s why inclusive design is so important. Within the BLV category alone, vision impairment encompasses moderate impairment, total blindness, and everything in between. The sheer diversity in condition severity makes it difficult to design a single device or one-size-fits-all product. Thus, as designers, we need to experiment generously and thoroughly, while thinking critically about user-profiling.
“Our greatest asset when we design is human diversity.” -Tim Allen
Ultimately, sensory design is inclusive. It embraces users with different abilities and special needs. After viewing tactile braille maps and architectural layouts that increase mobility for blind people, we were inspired to design for our subset of the visually-impaired.
But we also saw pieces that would not only be beneficial for people with disabilities, but for able-bodied people as well — like utensils to minimize spilling for people with arthritis, grab bars designed for wheelchair users, and a smart voting booth with an audio controller for those hard of hearing. Hence, subtle adaptations to existing designs can integrate people with disabilities into societal structures, instead of providing an entirely separate way of conducting life. This is smart, inclusive design.
This, in turn, breeds desegregation and champions equality.
Through inclusive design, we, as designers can generate communication and navigation solutions for all people. As technology proliferates and improves the lives of the general public, we need to make sure that people with disabilities do not get left behind.