My 24h-blind experiment

In my first month at PANDA Guide as a product designer, I spent 24h blindfolded to experiment with the feeling of living as a visually impaired.

PANDA Guide is a French start-up aiming to make the world more accessible to visually impaired people by providing them the right technological tools necessary for their autonomy. I joined as a product designer in September 2019, and as every new employee, I spent 24h blindfolded.

Of course, 24h is quite limited and didn’t allow me to explore most pain points a blind person can encounter, such as doing their groceries, but it gave me very interesting insights on some aspects of their daily struggles. My colleague put me the blindfold at 12am and the deal was to keep it until the next day, giving me some “tasks” to do throughout the day. Here is what I’ve learnt:

Lunch

We went to have lunch at a sushi place and a colleague read the menu to me as there was obviously no chance I could do it on my own. To pay (by card), there is no other way than trusting the waitress, as I can’t check if the correct amount is written on the machine. I ate with sticks, which I’m thankfully used to, so it wasn’t such a struggle, aside from the few times I would bring them to my mouth to realize they were empty.

Social interactions

It is much more tiring to keep up with conversations, and it is during lunch that I noticed how strongly we depended on sight to perceive gestures, looks… So many non-verbal elements are intrinsic to social interactions, which I was lacking by being blindfolded, that I had to be extra careful to what my colleagues were saying to keep up.

I also noticed that being blind, it was much more stressful for me to go talk to people around me, because I didn’t know who I was talking to, if they were even listening. The fact that they could see me but I didn’t created a feeling of unbalance I was quite uncomfortable with. In the street, however, I was surprised of how often people stopped to ask if I needed help.

At home

Outdoor is tricky to navigate, in the unknown, especially large spaces. When I arrived at home, I knew the location of every piece of furniture and had my routine, so it all became much easier. I managed to do some yoga, following the guiding voice of a video online, and play some ukulele, although I couldn’t see my music sheets. I even made some tea by putting the cup in the sink. Showering, getting dressed, brushing hair and teeth… It all turned out easier than expected. I managed to guess the clothes I would wear the next day as I’d seen them hanging the past days, but I wonder what it would be like after a laundry (especially for socks pairing!).

Mobility

Aside from my home, I was completely lost — even at my office, which I already knew pretty well by then. When I thought I had walked a certain distance, I had actually only done half, I would turn too soon, thinking it would be a 90° turn when it would actually be slightly more or less… I was quickly, completely disoriented.

Indoor vs outdoor

In the street there is a lot of unexpected happening; I had to watch out for cars, and there are more things going on around that I had to pay attention to, it was more energy-draining. I work in an open-space and I was afraid of disturbing or making a fool of myself because there are people I meet every day, but it was still more comforting to be inside. In general, outside would be a total change of scenery, luckily there are lots of people ready to help.

Digital tools

I had practiced using VoiceOver on my phone beforehand, which helped me during the day, although I struggled to unlock it because of face recognition (spoiler alert: blindfolded, it doesn’t work). Step by step, I got used to it, but it was an extremely long and frustrating journey. My computer, on the other hand, was unusable, as I didn’t know how to use the reader on it. Some apps and websites were simply not accessible: I tried testing a sport app I really liked, but I didn’t manage a single bit. This helped me realise a bit better how limited visually impaired users can be in the services they use, and how enraging this must be.

Summary

I was amazed by how long every little task was taking me and had the feeling of having done pretty much nothing all day. Of course, some things get better after a while, but I painfully realized how so many things are necessarily longer or simply impossible. People were all very kind and ready to help, but I also noticed how easily we feel left out, or lonely, even though I knew in my case it was only a 24h-challenge.

It was important for me to do this to understand a bit better the constraints caused by visual impairment and the lack of accessibility in daily life. They have to be more aware of details we usually don’t even consider, as an unclosed door, etc. All these processes are energy-draining. Although it wasn’t a pleasant experience, it was overall deeply enriching as a starting product designer for visually impaired.

Written by

Product designer and traveler. Take a look at some of my work: http://leanathan.com or follow my adventures on Instagram: @leanthn

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