There are 8.54 million people currently living in New York City, 5% are blind or visually impaired.
That's over 300,000 people! Moment's 2018 summer intern group was tasked with designing a near-future product to improve mobility for the visually impaired in New York City. In a short ten weeks, our team conducted extensive research, synthesis, prototyping and more. Using the human centered design process, we came together to create Thea.
To understand who we were designing with, we chatted with many people in the visually impaired community in New York City. We also sat down with subject matter experts, some technology experts and some who worked within the disabled community. These discussions allowed us to identify the pain points faced by the visually impaired community when navigating NYC and informed the core problem spaces we were going to tackle in our research.
As fully-sighted designers, it was impossible for us to truly and fully understand what it’s like to live with a permanent vision impairment. However, by temporarily mimicking aspects of severe vision impairment, we were able to gain a better understanding of the difficulties faced by those with vision impairment. Along the way, our own emotional responses to the difficulty we faced and the frustrations we shared helped us gain empathy for the people we were designing with.
After synthesizing our research findings and understanding the difficulties faced by the blind and low-vision community, we synthesized our findings and ultimately determined four core problem spaces we wanted to tackle: pre-planning, sensory overload, path details and last-foot navigation.
People who are visually impaired intensively plan their trips, both short- and long-term, beforehand in order to ease navigation and avoid any obstacles that may prohibit them from getting around. While pre-planning can take a lot of stress out of travelling for a someone who's visually impaired , it’s time-consuming and not always entirely effective.
Appropriate path details
People who are blind or visually impaired use mobility teachers to learn how to navigate certain indoor spaces, down to the finest detail. For example, they will memorize the exact number of stairs they need to climb to reach their desired destination.
People who are blind or visually impaired rely heavily on sound as their main source of information output. They find that wearing headphones for information output can be distracting and force them to lose touch with their environment.
The last mile poses many navigational challenges for the visually impaired, they often need to ask for assistance in indoor public spaces. For example, getting to the subway station is possible but finding the correct subway platform is challenging.
It’s pretty difficult to design something for someone whose experiences you aren’t able to directly—or even indirectly—identify with. Given that, why do designers create solutions and services for people with disabilities when the members of the community could be co-designers in the participatory design process? With this in mind, we hosted a co-creation session with the visually impaired community.
The workshop we conducted was organized like a very quick a design sprint — with an aim to solve complex problems through interpersonal interviews, ideation, and rapid prototyping with low-fidelity materials. We chose to focus on mobility challenges in New York City, and more specifically, the “last-mile” challenges like finding a subway platform or a product in a store.
In the design process, we went through a phase of prototyping to unpack and generate a tangible representation of our product concept. This enabled the transition from 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.
Initially, we had difficulty in determining Thea’s form, so we made paper prototypes of different types of wearables. Some of our rudimentary concepts included vibrational necklaces and belts that would provide 360° positioning and a circular patch that could offer cardinal directionality. By constructing models with low-fidelity materials, we were able to quickly and inexpensively make adjustments. As a result, we gained an experiential view of Thea’s visual attributes.
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 language’s pulses should help orient the users and prompt them to turn a certain way or number of degrees or walk a specific distance. We wanted Thea to be able to communicate information in an intuitive way that also adheres to a user’s body movements.