Building a Better World Through Universal Design (quiz make-up)

November 30th, 2017

The advancement of assistive technology requires the perceptive eye of someone who recognizes problems from the perspective of those with disabilities. Often times, we try to find problems and create solutions from our own lens, instead of exploring other facets of life that affect those unlike us. Using the principles of Universal Design, I have noticed problems within MIT’s community that could be solved to allow more accessibility for people with disabilities. For instance, size and space for approach and use would dictate that the buttons on building 3 elevators could be lower for little people or those in wheelchairs. There are some areas on campus that do not have ramps despite the high density of people traversing those places, an example of improving the equitable use on campus. In addition, to improve upon the principle of low physical effort, making doors that aren’t so heavy for people with physical disabilities could make their lives much easier.

In addition to improving my perception, the laws of Universal Design have also improved my ability to design our product for Jim. For example, the principle of flexibility in use, helped my team and I recognize that we needed to tailor the shape and opening of Jim’s cardholder to the differing abilities of each arm. More specifically, the cardholder’s orientation and position on his half-table is such that Jim can use his less dexterous arm to slide the card out toward his more dexterous arm (left), in order to grab the card. Moreover, the principle of low physical effort inspired us to make the coefficient of friction between card sleeves low, and make his cardholder short, so he could effortlessly reach his right arm over the cardholder and slide his cards out with ease.

Ultimately, understanding Universal Design not only makes one more perceptive of the issues people with disabilities face; it makes you a better engineer, able to effectively tackle problems that are not apparent at first glance.

 

The challenges of a restricted developer

November 27th, 2017

In Team Erica, we have been designing an iOS application that allows Erica to communicate with her desired audience in around three taps on her home screen. Our vision of the app and its layout has been simple to deploy within XCode, the only application that Apple authorizes for software developers to build applications across the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch product lines.

Nonetheless, in implementing the actual functionality of our application, we have encountered a few hurdles. Compared to other mobile platforms such as Google Android, Apple iOS places strict limits in certain freedoms apps developed by third parties exercise. One specific instance of this is in sending emails. We intended that our application be able to programmatically send emails in the background to certain contacts after a simple button press. However, Apple does not allow app developers to access the user’s email credentials and send an email message without an explicit preloaded message appearing for the user to confirm. Since the confirmation button is very small, we wanted to avoid having this screen. Thankfully, after some web searching, we were able to find a workaround by implementing the ‘MailCore’ API that is able to programmatically send emails by directly accessing email servers, bypassing Apple’s Mail framework.

For sending text messages, we encountered a similar challenge, solved by implementing the Twilio API text messaging service. As opposed to MailCore, Twilio, however, is not free. In an average case, it costs around 50 cents per month for a single person to use the service. As a team we have been debating who would assume this cost: Erica or someone else? Organizations place restrictions on the freedoms third party developers can exercise in their apps to conserver user’s privacy. Should assistive technology applications be the exception?

 

Designing for Dave: Individualized Design

October 12th, 2017

I’ve taken several classes at MIT where we’ve discussed the design process. My personal design process involves establishing the problem, creating prototypes, testing those prototypes, and iterating to improve. I’ve found that designing specifically for my team’s client, Dave, is a lot different than designing for a generic class of users. In many cases, it is easier.

For example, when designing for a class of users, it’s important to make the design general enough that many people can use it. If one user tester has very specific requests, it can be hard to weight how likely other users are to have the same problem without doing a wide reaching survey. Then, that can accidentally prompt respondants to respond in a certain way. Direct observation may be the best way to learn about the needs of a user class, but it is hard to scale to a large number of potential users.

When designing specifically for Dave, however, we can take any suggestions he makes during interviews, observations, and testing to be definitive user needs. For example, if we were designing a TV remote control app to be used by anyone with MS, we wouldn’t know which one of their arms is stronger. We might design a flexible UI which allows the user to position different elements on the screen as works best for them. However, this could lead to a complicated and confusing design. Since we are designing specifically for Dave, we know that he has the best ability to tap the screen on the left side, and thus we can put the most frequently used buttons on the left side. This specificity would not be possible when designing for a class of users, and it is one example of how designing for one user is easier than generalized design.

The plot thickens

October 9th, 2017

For PPAT,  I am in Team Erica, which is working towards developing a primarily software solution for our client. Our client undergoes certain periods in which she is unable to communicate verbally and, at times, also feel disoriented, for a variable amount of time.

As requested, we are developing an iOS mobile application that will allow her to communicate and even send her location to others according to the severity of the episode. Before our second meeting with our client, we shared mockups of a potential app solution and asked for feedback on its main communication function.

However, towards the end of our meeting, something struck me. We were merely prefacing how the app would also have an “analytics” section which would automatically monitor instances in which Erica would report an episode and after it, allow her to add more data to the event, such as time of day or potential environmental causes. I realized that Erica’s episodes were so variable to the extent that neither she nor her doctors could identify clear causes. As such, it became apparent that our app solution would not just have one main role, which we thought would primarily be facilitating communication, but also in helping Erica ascertain what exactly pushes her to experience a nonverbal episode. For example, our client suspects that her episodes occur more often during specific seasons of the year, but she does not have the data to prove this correlation.

I believe that this was a very valuable meeting with our client since it added dimension to what our assistive technology could accomplish. Rather than solely assisting Erica in her time of disability, it could potentially help discover the root cause of it and even help her avoid these in the first place.

User-based Design

October 4th, 2017

Design. It is difficult… to create the ‘perfect’ design. It is difficult… because perfection is at the user’s discretion. It is difficult… for one design to satisfy a large user base such as people with disabilities. Given that designing is difficult, it is a common misconception that great design skills stem from an innate gift. Such skills are more likely to be the fruit of hard work and practice. Even then, design skills for one discipline probably do not give an edge when designing for another discipline.

As a student in PPAT, I have already encountered some of the difficulties of design. When learning about Clovis and the ” Video ‘keyboard’ ” project, I founded a few misconceptions. The client profile states that Clovis expresses himself via video clips, and it featured the image of Proloquo2Go, a symbol-based communications application demoed in class. As a result, I jumped ahead and reasoned that the project would be to build an app like Proloquo2Go except with Youtube videos instead of short sound bytes.

I was wrong. Upon meeting Clovis and his family, I realized that my preconceived ideas were misguided. The idea of storing videos to be played back upon a simple tap strayed far from the desired activity. In fact, the video aspect of Youtube was not what they wanted in the first place; it was the dynamic user interface. After a few meetings and discussions, my team arrived upon the notion that we are to build a dynamic typing interface. My original mistake embodies a critical design mistake. A design that isn’t based off what the user wants. We look to work with Clovis step by step to get the app that he wants and needs.

Bottom line, design is difficult… but its that difficulty that makes it so challenging and great.

Breakthrough Assistive Tech for the Blind

October 1st, 2017

Blindness continues to be a debilitating condition that affects the productivity and poses as a challenge to obtaining and sustaining employment. Some estimates posit that over 70 percent of those considered legally blind are unemployed. This figure, paired with the fact that most wearable technologies that aim to ameliorate blindness have hefty price tags – some totaling to over 13 thousand dollars, represents a veritable challenge in delivering solutions to the blind.

 

During the 2017 Invictus Games, an international Paralympic-style organized by advisors of Prince Harry, a promising breakthrough was showcased at a product innovation exhibit. Here, an organization called eSight Eyewear demonstrated its potential to disrupt the high cost of visual assistive technology by presenting its Muse eye headwear. Boasting a retail cost of $299, the device is already a game changer within its industry niche. It works by using an external camera to project images onto two high-definition screens facing the user’s eyes. To cater to each user’s visual abilities, the device provides a remote control to allow optimization of magnification, contrast, and other variables.

eyeSight product on person's head

eyeSight Eyewear demo

The novelty of the device does not end in its price.  eSight Eyewear’s device includes a meditation function. It works by incorporating analysis of a user’s brain’s electrical activity in conjunction with a mobile application that plays sounds recurring from nature. The reasoning behind this additional functionality lies in the proposition that eSight wants the product to cater to athletes’ recovery needs as well as reduce stress for the user. Although this may be considered a gimmick by some, the eSight Eyewear is certainly a breakthrough in assistive visual technology that won’t break the bank. Nonetheless, the product faces many challenges, most notably being since it can only assist the visual ability of blind people with relatively high functioning eyesight.

 

Human-Centered Design: Emotions

October 1st, 2017

The paper “Assistive Technology and User-Centered Design: Emotion as Element for Innovation” published in 2015 focuses on the emotions evoked from the user perspective in using the Assistive Technology (AT). When we design for AT, our center of focus is usually one or more of the followings: user’s physical needs, capabilities and design constraints. However, in most cases, “it is the equipment not the functional problem that depreciates the person with disability to the eyes of other people.” The sense of isolation from use of AT therefore results in unfavorable use of the technology. Correspondingly, the emotional feelings of the user should be the priority of the AT design as means to truly offer satisfactory assistance to those in need. Instead of enhancing the physical capabilities of the AT design, it is by no means more important to innovate designs from an emotional standpoint.

This article relates greatly to the Human component of the HAAT model as well as to our specific AT project. It places greatest emphasis on how the user interacts with the AT as well as his/her feelings towards how others’ perceive of them under the help of AT. In particular, it is extremely important to understand where the inadequacy of some current AT comes from, specifically whether it is in fact a technological need or, more significantly, an emotional complaint. Technological complaints may be satisfied by advancement of most recent technology. Yet, emotional unsatisfactory requires a fundamental change in the AT designed.

“Pleasure and emotion support interaction and rehabilitation.” Where both user’s physical and emotional needs are met with the AT design is when AT achieves its success.

Living with a Disability

September 28th, 2017

I have a hidden, albeit temporary, disability that affects almost everything I do in daily life. My concussion has limited my abilities to read, exercise and socialize for the past five months. I am much improved now, but over the summer, managing my concussion took over my life, as I couldn’t walk, read, or talk to anyone without feeling very dizzy. Stuck in bed, it was often challenging to think of ways to pass the time. Many concussion guides online have great tips to cope with a concussion, but the paradox lies in that concussion patients don’t even have the capacity to go online and access those resources. These concussion guides also have very real stories and medical tips that can help a patient cope psychologically and thus heal faster – if only the patient could read them. I didn’t even know about Android’s TalkBack feature, which allows blind patients to use their phone. Such a feature could have saved me some agony and given me access to the online world, helping me in both medical and psychological ways. My point in writing this post is not to elicit sympathy, but to draw attention to the fact that not only is it important to make assistive technology, but to also make it accessible to those who need it. This includes the dissemination of information (ie making concussion guides available as books), or adequately publicizing technology so that those who are disabled can know about their options. Oftentimes, assistive technology seems to be purposefully hidden, which parallels the effect to which society attempts to hide their disabled individuals. Hopefully one day, assistive technology can be as public and glorified as technology for healthy individuals.

Changing the World for Countries in Need

September 27th, 2017

While the technical nitty-gritty of engineering does not spark passion in me, the ability to create something to help others keeps me motivated to find solutions. Since arriving to MIT, I have found it incredibly difficult to find my calling. Despite numerous failures, one thing that I have known I have always wanted to do is help people. Taking assistive technologies was a purposeful dive in to change the lives of someone in need. In pursuit of medical school, I would like to succeed in creating tangible change in the lives of someone who needs it medically.

One incredible article that I read over the summer that inspired me further to take this class was one on Economic Times about a start up working to improve the efficiency of blind people’s sensory input. Since blind people read braille and rely heavily on sound in their day-to-day, a tech startup called Tellmate, created smart glasses to read and translate words and images into sound for blind people. India has the world’s largest blind population and this product can change their lives.

Reading this story, combined with the thought process we have been taught in PPAT, I have gained perspective on how to go about changing the developing world with assistive technology. Rather than brainstorming products, it is necessary to determine where there are problems, assess what those problems are, and then explore a strategy to remedy that problem.

I am excited to carry out the design process for Team Jim, and potentially move on to widespread issues in developing parts of the world that need technological solutions.

Assistive Technology Beyond 2017

September 27th, 2017

“World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 285 million people are visually impaired worldwide. Another 360 million people globally suffer from hearing loss. Over 70 million people use a wheelchair.” As we rapidly innovate in each coming year, there also continue to be a significant portion of the population that is unable to access services in the same capacity. Assistive technology provides the ability to facilitate more universal access to the various opportunities encountered in life.

I was reading an article on some of the future innovations. One was a touch-less screen in which eye and head movement tracking would direct navigation for those without the ability to use their hands properly. Another allowed a person using a wheelchair to roll directly up a ramp into a car and begin driving using hand-controls. Another product is actually an exoskeleton that reduces physical exertion in the bending and picking heavy objects up for construction and blue-collar workers.There can be several technologies created to serve as a preventative for physcial strain and damage. It’s exciting to think of future prospects for some many as innovations continue to come.