What you don’t see in Fittle and why design needs to be deeper than the surface?

On how certain poor design get away as great design

This is an overdue critique that I wanted to write long ago but got delayed for reasons unknown. Maybe it is better late than never. So here it is.

Design is becoming a buzz word to sell any bullshit as a valuable design thought. If you are a designer or a design enthusiast, you might have come across this project called ‘FITTLE’ — a learning aid for blind. This small project packaged beautifully with tons of self-promotion, claims to make learning easier for the blind. At first look, it appears like a simple and may be even an effective solution for the perceived problem of the blind. But on a second look, aren’t you wondering how come such a straight-forward solution does not already exist in the market? Now if you’re like me you’d have googled it up — and well aren’t you surprised to see tons of similar products that already exist in the market.

And then if you dig a little deeper into the subject of how a blind person actually learns or perceives the world, you will be terribly surprised to learn that the very foundation of FITTLE is severely flawed. And it makes you wonder how did FITTLE manage to be a finalist in Interaction14 awards?

There exist many professional studies that clearly prove that visually impaired people cannot ‘understand’ or ‘discern’ shapes in isolation. Cognitively, shapes are perceived by the visual memory of our brain. And for someone whose visual memory has been compromised, the shapes do not mean anything. Thus piecing pieces of a FISH together to touch and feel the shape of a FISH, does not make sense to the visually impaired. Although it may make sense to people with normal vision, which is why we think it will work.

It may sound counter intuitive. And that’s why it is easy to miss it. And that’s why design needs to investigate things deeper than the surface. Many professional studies are easily available online for any designer to investigate into the subject before building a fancy product based on popular stereotypes of blind. In FITTLE’s case, they claim to tackle both perception and learning of the blind. The above mentioned issues are just with the aspect of perception let alone learning of the blind. Learning is a much more complex problem in the case of the blind, I really doubt if FITTLE is even looking at it, although they claim to solve it.

Design is becoming a key differentiation in all industries. People who have not even heard of design are trying to understand and learn our way of thinking. Why do they do that? Yes, certainly we are cool, awesome and can make beautiful things. But more importantly, as designers we think beyond the obvious. We look deeper than the surface and design for that. And that’s why design is powerful and that’s why people try to learn our way of thinking.

But as said in the movie Spiderman, power comes with responsibility. In that sense instead of investing effort in taking a 3d printed fish to mountain peaks and different media events,

had they invested one tenth of that time & effort in actually understanding the blind and the way they learn, we will not be having another “me too” product in the name of FITTLE, packaged as an elixir for blind learning disabilities.
And that’s what design is meant to do.

About the author: Ella is an Interaction design consultant based out of Chicago. Prior to have started her own design consultancy, she was working with IDEO for almost a decade. She teaches design thinking in various design schools in US and UK and passionate about design and its various manifestations.

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