Travelling for the Visually Impaired

In 2011, Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) completed theBarrier Free Accessibility Programme. The aim was to improve public transportation accessibility for people that are physically challenged such as the elderly, wheelchair-bound and visually impaired.

While effective, the visually impaired are still constrained in some ways by the infrastructure. So my group which consists of 3 members, over the course of 2 weeks, set out to answer the question:

how can we help LTA redesign the public transport experience to better empower the visually impaired?

We believe we might have some answers. Please watch the video below.

So how did we arrive at these design features?
User Research: Visually Impaired

Approach 1- Organisations
We first contacted various associated organisations listed below. The goal was to locate a few visually impaired persons who are open to be interviewed so that we can learn more about their travelling experience.

Unfortunately SAVH and SDSC were too busy and Guide Dogs Association of the Blind (GDAB) was uncontactable during the timeframe of this project.

My teammates outside Guide Dogs Associate of the Blind. From left: Doreen, Bryant, Ivan( I am behind the camera and not the dog stand-up board)

Nontheless we made personal visits to GDAB and SAVH. At GDAB, we wanted to see if the place was open and if so, speak to the store owners and clients. As you can see from the picture above, that did not go so well. However visiting SAVH was for a different reason.

Approach 2: Ethnography Study
To be precise, we were not vising SAVH but was instead waiting in the vincinity to observe how the visually impaired travelled to or from SAVH.

We managed to observe and speak briefly with 5 visually impaired personnel outside SAVH and the key takeaways are:

Observation: Relied on audio alerts at traffic lights
Finding: Sounds are a means of constructing the environment

Observation : 1 person spoke to himself while walking
Finding: When asked, he told us that he likes to update himself on his current location. This also means that he has a mind map of how he navigates.

Observation: At bus stop, asked public for assistance to flag and board bus 
Finding: Signaling the bus driver is challenging. We were told that if there is no one around, they would use phone apps to estimate bus arrival times and try flagging.

Approach 3: Friends of Friend for Interview 
Fortunately, we manage to find 3 persons for interviews through our friends.

Key Takeaways:
- Able to sense and follow the human traffic flows. As such, empty places make it harder to navigate
- Able to use apps, but should not be too over reliant. Personal ability to navigate is still critical.
- Simple structures like steps are typically not considered as hazards but they are to the visually impaired
- Hard to find way around MRT interchanges with various lines and also to know which train goes in which direction
Comparative and Competitive Research

While looking for people to interview, concurrently we were looking into existing technologies and competitors with regards to navigation for the visually impaired.

Comparative Research

“The Enabling Village is a community space combining retail, lifestyle and training in an all-accessible public space.”

We visited Enabling Village to see some of the assistive devices that are available today as they have a permanent exhibit.

Magnifier for hardcopy documents at Enabling Village

We also researched online to see if there are any other technologies that we can consider during feature ideation.

New technologies for the visually impaired that are not mainstream

Competitive Research
We first examined LTA’s My Transport.SG app and map out the flows. The travel guide was restricted to only 1 mode of transport between two points which seemed unrealistic given how people transit between bus and MRT in one journey frequently.

User flows of My Transport.SG: Journey Planner

From our use research we learn of a popular app that they all used called Blindsquare. We could not test this as the free demo only works overseas. But we took a look at some of the screens to see how it is designed.

In addition we also looked at Youtube to see if we can get more info on Blindsquare.

This video allowed us to see how interactions are done with the app. It was surprising to see them operate the app with ease and speed. One more thing to note is also that the audio speed is set at a higher pace.

This video gave us insights on how the app is used in real time with user feedback on pros and cons. The other person commenting seems to be the developer for Blindsquare. 
At 3:35 in the video, it was interesting to note that the user did not know how a particulr feature worked and hence hindered her experience. But from the deveoper’s point of view, there was some design intent behind it. At the end, the user also stressed that apps and tools cannot replace personal mobility skills.

Affinity Mapping

With the findings from our user research, we wrote insights onto post-it notes which allowed us to manoeuvre them on walls. The point here is to find trends/essences that we can focus on for persona generation and feature ideation.

Essence Grouping

Some of the key essences we drew:

  • Hazard Prone
“I have a narrow field of vision, and it might cause me to have accidents.”
  • Tech Savvy
“iPhone is a stronger platform than Android for the visual impaired.”
  • Elephant Memory
When I travel on a new path, I will need to do it 2–3 times to learn and remember the route”
  • Fiercely Independent
“I will only ask for assistance from the bus driver if I’m unfamiliar with the place.”
Persona Generation and Journey Map

From the essences of the affinity mapping, and based on our interview pool, we created Mike!

User Journey Map
Next we did a User Journey Map based on Mike’s persona. The scenario was that he was invited to a housewarming party but the venue is new to him. This scenario requires him to transit both Bus and MRT, travelling through day and night time.

The map recorded the emotional curve, pain points, pleasure points, touch points with other entities (public, digital device, physical infrastructure). From this we generated feature ideas to address issues while making sure to retain the positive aspects of Mike’s journey.

Feature Prioritisation

Features were placed on a 2 axis chart. Axis Y (Importance) reflected how important they were to the visually impaired based on user research. Axis X (effort)was based on our consultation with developers regarding the amount of work required to create the feature. Area in pink was what we decided to focus on.

Features in focus: Design Studio to Prototyping to Testing

As a group, we sketched out ideas for the features, beginning with low fidelity paper prototypes to mid fidelity screens. Our primary platform is IOS due to feedback from our user research and desk research that IOS was more accessibility friendly.

  1. Bus Flagging system

“When I’m alone, I need help to flag bus. But it’s tough to get help during rush hours.”

Kiosk, physical implementation
Digital screens on app

The bus flagging system was unique as we planned for both a physical kiosk as well as digital screens. This is useful when the user forgets his smartphone or the battery has died.

2) Journey Planner

“New places are unfamiliar so I need to learn the route first”

Journey planner was meant to help you learn about your route prior to your trip, thus helping a save option for actual navigation later. Within it also embeds the next 2 features: indoor navigation and hazard alerts.

3) Indoor Navigation

“Changing platforms at the MRT, especially at the big stations is difficult. There are 4 levels to navigate through.”

Intially we had some screens for indoor navigation but it was clunky. so we did away with the screens. Instead we planned to install ibeacons such that when a user enters the round tactile guides, he will hear relevant information.

round tactile

3) Hazard Reporting System

“Once i fell down some steps because I did not know it was there”

By allowing the visually impaired to report hazards, they would be able to identify hazards that are unique for them. LTA can verify these reports and incorporate it as alerts when the app detects that the user is in the location via gps or with the journey planner activated.

Simulated Users

We were unable to get visual impaired users to test our prototypes. What we did was create glasses that limited vision and had people test our prototypes while wearing them.

Since the testers were not the actual users, we had to be careful with the feedback we received.

“Audio is too fast, I can’t make out the instructions”

This feedback was filtered out as we knew from research that the visually impaired listened to voiceovers at high speeds.

“I can’t locate the button because the rows have different heights”

This feedback was noted as we agreed that the different row heights would be confusing for a low vision user.

Future recommendations and conclusion
  • Braille wordings for MRT map
  • 3D Tactile floor plan
  • Public Awareness Banner
  • Traffic Light Vibration

Thats all folks! Thank you for reading this article which is slightly longer than previous ones.

We learnt alot from this interesting project, especially on filtering feedback from user testing. I would like to thank my teammates Doreen Zheng and Bryant Tang for making this happen. It is always a great feeling when you are designing to make someone else’s life better.

If anyone has any feedback on our ideas, please do let me know!

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