Enabled by Design 2014: Designing for accessibility and social inclusion

Over the weekend, James, Nhung and I spent 48 hours immersed in the world of design and disability as participants of the Enabled by Design-athon. Hosted at University of Technology Sydney, this event was the first of it’s kind in Australia, having run in the United States and the United Kingdom previously. The Ripple Effect Group has shared history with Enabled by Design, as our former Headshift team in London were involved with developing their first website – so it was great to support and be part of this design event here in Sydney.

We use concepts including design thinking, gamestorming, empathy mapping and persona development in our work with clients, and we were keen to understand how similar techniques could be applied to issues around accessibility and social inclusion.

Part of the success of the Enabled by Design-athon was due to the diversity of participants. The event brought together industrial designers, audiologists, social workers, electrical engineers and animators, each providing different skills sets and perspectives. All of the 120 participants were divided into teams, then guided by mentors and facilitators over the course of the weekend with the ultimate aim to design a product or service to aid a person with a disability.

The event kicked off with a series of ‘lightning talks’ to set the tone for the event. These talks introduced participants to concepts such as universal design, the business case for designing for accessibility and a great example from Dr Jordan Nguyen who shared the inspiration behind a thought-controlled wheelchair developed at UTS.

Experiencing vision impaired

Experiencing vision impaired – by @SOUPlabs

Through an empathy exercise, teams learned ‘walk someone else’s’ shoes’ and experience the challenges of someone living every day life with disability. Participants navigated hallways on crutches, while blindfolded or while distracted by background noise. This helped teams to narrow their focus to a specific problem, and create meaningful solutions to that problem.

Some of the designs presented included:

Memory+: An app which combined the emerging Internet of Things to provide cues for people with memory issues

Memory+: An app which combined the emerging Internet of Things to provide cues for people with memory issues

  • Memory+: An app which combined the emerging Internet of Things to provide cues for people with memory issues
  • Follow-Me-Trolleys: A supermarket trolley which ‘follows’ shoppers, making it easier for a shopper on crutches or in a wheelchair to navigate the aisles
  • ThermoEcho: A heat sensor to help vision impaired people to pick up after their dog
  • Pecunia: An easy-to-open wallet designed for people with low dexterity
  • MyOm: An app which added crowdsourced commentary to maps, helping vision impaired people avoid hazards

There were a few key takeaways from the event which stretched beyond the final designs:

Universal design is key. While the successful designs were designed for a specific disability, the attendees shared a commitment to accessibility and universal design. This meant they were useful for wider society. Over the weekend, concepts such as the Bradley Watch (designed for blind people) and Oxo Grips (designed for people with low dexterity) were lauded as great examples of universal design.

The need to engage with empathy. The empathy exercise was crucial in orienting teams for the weekend. Empathy is the key element of human centred design. The ability to be in the user’s shoes challenges our original assumptions or stereotypes. It helps the designer to see the issues from the perspective of the user, what they’re trying to achieve and the context of use of a particular product, technology or service. This in turn ignites insightful findings that inform and validate the final design solution.

The value of a design thinking process. While the ideas that were generated over 48 hours were valuable, the participants take away not just the final solution, but the wider design thinking process: Discover. Design. Do. Design is an iterative process, where we continuously strive for better solutions, based on solid research, sharp insights and deep empathy with our end users.

Thanks must go to the Cerebral Palsy Alliance and the University of Technology Sydney for hosting the design-athon, and the host of sponsors and supporters who contributed to the weekend.