From Heroes to Superheroes

Designing for disabilities by marrying GoPro with Google Cardboard.

The Problem

One billion people in the world have a disability that limits their movement and capabilities. Because of these limitations, many disabled people are unable to experience the thrills and joys of outdoor adventures or extreme sports.

The Opportunity

GoPro and Virtual Reality

GoPro’s motto is “Be a Hero”, with intentions to inspire others into action. They believe in passionately pursuing what’s possible in this world by capturing, sharing, and celebrating memorable moments together. As CEO Nick Woodman says, “The sharing of our collective experiences makes our lives more fun.” GoPro has recently partnered with Google Cardboard to be the main manufacturer of JUMP, a 16-piece 360 Virtual Reality camera that will help propel virtual reality into users’ everyday lives. Between GoPro’s brand personality and virtual reality partnerships, GoPro is perfectly positioned to create alternative experiences for users with disabilities in innovative ways.

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard is a $5 headset made out of foldable cardboard, allowing people to experiment with VR in an easy and inexpensive way. In the context of people with disabilities, having an accessible, cheap, and enhanced way of seeing the world allows these disabled users to break the barriers of their limitations.

The Process

Discovery & Research

  • Screening Surveys
  • Contextual Inquiries
  • User Interviews
  • Comparative & Technical Research

Screening Surveys

To effectively design for disabilities, we had to spend time with those disabilities and target our research to those who were living with a mental or physical condition. Our first step was to research how to talk about disability in a way that wasn’t insensitive or offensive. We crafted a screener survey to find users who had a disability that affected them daily, and had some interest in outdoor physical activities. We reached out to our own personal networks, as well as contacted many organizations and pushed our survey out there. We screened 63 participants.

Based on the questions we asked in our survey, it was clear that many of our users were limited in their everyday movements, but expressed desire to move beyond that.

Contextual Inquiries

For a broad understanding of the day-to-day challenges and adjustments disabled people need to make, we conducted multiple contextual inquiries. We repeatedly visited the Center for Independence of the Disabled, and also went to Central Park where we watched an adaptive baseball tournament for the partially blind. In both instances, we spoke with disabled participants as well as leaders of each respective organization, and were put in contact with more leads. It was also helpful to see how someone with a disability has to make adjustments that I wouldn’t have thought about, had I not seen it firsthand. As a group, my peers and I were beginning to get more comfortable with the complex landscape our users were coming from.

User Interviews

Our screener and contextual inquiries led us to 9 user interviews, both in person and conference call. We wanted to be authentic to their needs and avoid making assumptions down the road, so we asked questions about the specifics of their disability, and the context surrounding it. What was it? What did it mean for them on a daily basis? How and when did it begin? What tools do they use? What adjustments have they made? What was their support system like? We aimed to understand their history, current state, and hopes for the future. Their disabilities ranged from hearing loss, partial blindness, late stage muscular dystrophy, paralysis, and celiac disease.

Speaking to a user in Holland about his muscular dystrophy and how it affected him.

Our main finding was that every person and every disability is a unique story. Two people who may have the same condition will have entirely opposite experiences. We also were surprised to hear every interview touch on the subject of normalcy. Some people had accepted their conditions embedded into their lives as a “new normal”. Some sought to return to their “old normal”. There was even a lot of gray area in between. Attitudes about their futures typically depended on the significance of the disability and the context of their support system or adaptive technology.

Comparative & Technical Research

We then looked at three categories of competitors based on the different industries our project was immersed in: Virtual Reality, Media Channels, and Disabled Services.

As we compared other companies experimenting with and/or selling VR as an everyman’s experience, we knew our challenge was twofold. First, we’d have to get creative about how to assemble a VR video prototype. Second, we’d have to learn about designing within an augmented interface without having fully defined industry guidelines. We compared large photojournalism and media companies to see how they pushed visual content through various digital channels, and our biggest takeaway was to always defer UI to content.

User flow indicating how assistive technology took twice as long to accomplish tasks.

We had to pay close attention to what our users needed and how they already used their devices. User flows were helpful because they showed that when a user enables assistive technology on their phone or their computer, it takes them twice as long to accomplish a task due to the extra assistive steps.

Synthesis & Ideation

  • Affinity Mapping
  • Persona Creation
  • Feature Ideation & Prioritization

Affinity Mapping

As always, to find trends and shared user sentiments from our research, we put everything up on a wall. It didn’t work. Huh? This was the first time affinity mapping, tried and true as a the crux of all helpful UX practices, failed me. Our users were so complex, so nuanced, so unique… it was terrifying to think that we had come this far and couldn’t find our next step. Especially after a few emotional interviews. It was time for a long lunch break.

Upon my group’s return, I realized that our failure was partly because we were making assumptions and looking for specific trends. I tried to map out each user’s story on the wall, chronologically. What was their life like before? What was their history with outdoor sports? With sickness and disability? Where was their disability first introduced into their lives? What happened next? Then after? What about after that?

Each user presented in their own columns.

Voila. Now we could see trends by grouping users together who had a similar historical context (before their disability), similar recovery/treatment methods, as well as similarities in their disability’s intrusiveness. They all spoke on different ideas about what “normal” meant to them.

Persona Creation

As our affinity map now shined a light on this concept of normalcy, it was important to see our users through this light. We created a persona for each attitude towards normalcy.

Feature Ideation & Prioritization

Our users relied heavily on a support system to assist or beat their limitations.

We needed to incorporate a social aspect, and avoid the possibility of our users being entirely isolated within the VR experience. Strong support systems motivate those with disabilities to integrate into communities and beat their physical or psychological walls.

Our users weren’t looking for a solution.

We weren’t here to cure their ailments. Our experience should be delightful and defer to its content. We were going to keep things really simple and avoid any flashiness, unnecessary features that would slow a user down, and focus on our information hierarchy.

Accessibility settings exist in a device’s hardware.

We would build a settings panel when a user was in VR mode, as well as design the rest of the app based on current accessibility standards. This way, our user could avoid having to go into the settings and re-adjust.

Prototyping & Testing

Low Fidelity

Results from our design studio sessions.

Prototype: To arrange the layout of our features synthesized from our research and prioritized via the MoSCoW method, we did a series of design studios (5 minute sketching) on pen and paper, and dot voted to find the best layout of all our options. A single module layout affirmed our decision to defer to content, which would be our VR videos.

Our paper prototype.

Testing: A quick validation of our sketches showed that we should keep our single module layout. We learned from our three usability tests, that we needed to get rid of on-boarding. It was an unnecessary feature and our users should only be given information or asked to do something when it was necessary. Again, defer to content!

Medium Fidelity

Each designer’s interpretation of the home screen.

Prototype: We translated our paper sketches into a Sketch wireframe. Having decided on our main layout as a group, we individually went home and finished designing the rest of our interstitial pages.

Testing: No surprise, each designer was partial to their own designs so we conducted more usability tests with impartial users. We initially decided on a top navigation bar, thinking our users would accidentally tap on a different page much less. Upon further research into Google’s Material Design documents and Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, we were wrong! We built a friendly reminder of design guidelines to refer to.

High Fidelity

The evolution of our home screen as it shed away the unnecessary design aspects.

Prototype: We incorporated our new bottom navigation, side entry sign-in trigger, and built a VR video (including dynamic setting activation based on the direction the user was facing) for the full prototype.

Testing: After usability testing with 6 more subjects, we were ready to present our final prototype! All users were able to search for a specific video, save it to their Favorites, find the video again, play it successfully in VR mode, navigate within the VR settings, and enjoy their experience!

Wrapping Up

Our Solution

We wanted to incorporate a social feature to this app. In our final design, users can see how many people are currently viewing each video, allowing users to select videos that are popular. We wanted to track only live views, to make our users feel as if they were experiencing the VR experience together with other people.

In regards to our focus on accessibility settings and designing for disabilities, our current app is very simple and intuitive because we made a point to defer to content with every design decision we made. When a user is in VR mode, they are able to look down at their feet to activate the settings panel, and then face the direction that they want to ‘click’. Users can click by using the click button on the Cardboard headset.

We also wanted our app to be delightful as opposed to offering a solution. In order to avoid offending anybody by offering a ‘fix’, we also tested our app with able-bodied users who didn’t have any disabilities. They also expressed joy, delight and in innate curiosity and interest in VR, indicating that we had accomplished our goals.


Mitch is attracted to nature and loves learning about the wilderness. His condition has slowly worsened each year, which limits his ability to go outdoors safely. As a result, he loves spending time online to experience what he can’t experience offline.

Next Steps

We would have liked to test and build more of the app’s social functionality. Was there a use case for this product in rehabilitation programs? As a group activity? It would have been interesting to bring this product to some of the organizations we had been speaking to, to see their reaction.

Given that our prototype was a contained example of what settings would look like within VR functionality, we were unable to test and see if the head nod/tilt was enough to activate those settings. On this note, it would have been helpful to even speak with other app developers and designers who had experience with designing VR. It’ll be exciting to see what industry standard guidelines are in the next 5 years.

Last Words

I had fun with this process. There were a lot of questions, a lot of learned lessons, and only a little bit of foul language. Despite the tug-of-war of our struggles and accomplishments, one idea remained permanently inked in our brains: these were real people with real disabilities that affected them. I was proud to walk away from this project, knowing that I was capable of contributing.

See our prototype here!
And our deck.
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