Diving deeper

A closer look at the spectrum of vision impairment and interesting research insights.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve done a sizable amount of research, which has included interviewing people who are blind or low-vision (BLV) and subject matter experts in an effort to become subject matter experts ourselves. We spoke with technology and accessibility experts—including Verizon’s accessibility team and people at Verizon’s Open Innovation lab. In an attempt to experience vision impairment first-hand, we did immersive research through an empathy experiment and went on various off-site visits to vision impairment community centers and an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt.

In an effort to expand our knowledge we also attended events on topics like the relationship between urban design and human interaction as well as the intersection of mobility and future technologies. Most importantly, we connected and spoke directly with the BLV community about their personal experiences and learned about many of the difficulties they, and the BLV community as a whole, face.

Image: Darshan and Steph synthesizing our research findings using markers, a whiteboard and post-it notes.

The spectrum

Before jumping into research synthesis, we took some time to visualize our findings and understand our user base. After deciding to focus on the blind and low-vision community, we wanted to gain a better understanding of the broader vision impairment spectrum. It’s important to note that there’s a big difference between having low-vision and little to no usable vision. Those who are blind from birth, or congenitally blind, have little to no usable vision and rely heavily on their hearing, especially when it comes to navigation. Those with low-vision have some usable vision, but also rely heavily on their hearing and memory.

As a group of sighted designers, we wanted to understand this further. Below we’ve visualized how people with different types of vision impairments use their vision, hearing, and memory. Keeping this spectrum in mind was especially helpful when synthesizing our findings.

Diagram: Understanding how different people rely on sight, hearing and memory.

After a few weeks of research, we’ve come up with a few insights that will inform our concept. Below is an overview of some of the ideas we’ll be looking into.

1. People who are congenitally blind (blind from birth) and those who have been dealing with vision impairment for a long time are more in tune with their other senses than sighted folks.

People with vision impairment rely heavily on their hearing and often use sound cues to orient themselves. In certain cases—often those who are congenitally blind—this can be referred to as echolocation. Echolocation is defined as a method of determining the location of objects based on reflected sound and is commonly used by bats and dolphins.

People who are blind and low vision are able to adapt to life in their own unique ways that set them apart from the able-bodied. As one of our interview subjects put it, “Our senses are like muscles. When you use one more it just gets stronger.”

Questions based on this insight:

  • How might we tap into unique tools and “hacks” to create a navigation tool for the BLV community?
  • How might we look to nature and biomimicry for design inspiration?

2. People who are visually impaired intensively plan their trips — both short- and long-term — to ease navigation and avoid obstacles that prohibit them from getting around.

The fear of the unknown is a major factor that often prevents people with vision impairment from venturing outside their homes and exploring their neighborhoods. As a result, many people who are blind or low vision will do extensive pre-planning for each and every one of their trips outside, no matter the duration or complexity. This pre-planning extends to every minute detail of the journey, taking into consideration the least-crowded entrance at the subway station, the specific train car, and seat.

While pre-planning can take a lot of stress out of traveling for a someone who’s visually impaired, it is extremely time-consuming and not always 100 percent effective. Even though online research and pre-planning can somewhat assure a safe route and accessibility at certain locations, things are changing constantly. For example, construction on the subway can cause a train to skip certain stops or change from local to express mid-route. This small obstacle or sudden change, which might go unnoticed by a sighted person, can pose major difficulties for someone who is visually impaired. According to our users, having to pre-plan trips confines them and takes away the spontaneity in their lives.

Questions based on this insight:

  • How might we bring spontaneity back into their lives by encouraging our users to explore their environment?
  • How might we take the stress out of pre-planning for those with vision impairment and encourage them to confidently travel on their own?
  • How might we foster information exchange in order to ensure that people who are blind or low-vision have the most accurate information during their travels?

3. Sight canes and other wearable products (e.g. glasses) are essential tools for the BLV community, however, they have also evolved into symbols that signal one’s impairment to a pedestrian.

Many blind and low-vision people rely heavily on sight canes and other wearables as everyday navigation tools. Sight canes are commonly used for obstacle detection in navigation and way-finding, however, the BLV population also uses canes as a way to signal to others to stay clear of their path. To our surprise, we learned that sight canes often go unnoticed by pedestrians—our users shared stories of pedestrians tripping over their canes, even knocking them out of their hands.

Questions based on this insight:

  • How might we better inform a sighted passerby of vision impairment?

4. Current way-finding technologies do a decent job of getting a user from one address to another but leave them stranded once they pass through the door. That “last mile,” such as finding a specific room, aisle, or product, poses major difficulties for a blind or low-vision person.

When navigation technology, mainly map-based way-finding applications, end a route at the door, someone who’s visually impaired still has a long way to go to reach their final “destination.” The “last mile” poses many obstacles for someone with vision impairment.

Finding the right entrance, for example, is not as simple as it seems—people often have to resort to asking those around them for help. However, this takes cherished independence away from a BLV person and forces them to rely on others for guidance. Activities they struggle with include but are not limited to: shopping for groceries, finding a classroom, and getting on the correct subway.

Questions based on this insight:

  • How might we extend way-finding technology to truly be point-to-point?
  • How might we help someone with vision impairment better navigate an indoor space independently?

As we enter the next phase of our project, these insights will work as a guide to lead future ideation sessions with both designers at Moment and people in the BLV community. Keep following along!

Every summer, interns at Moment (which is now part of Verizon) solve real-world problems through a design-based research project. In the past, interns have worked with concepts like autonomous vehicles, Google Glass, virtual reality in education, and Voice UI.

For the 2018 summer project, the premise is to design a near-future product or service that improves mobility for people with disabilities using granular location data and other contextual information.

Our team has narrowed down the prompt and through secondary research, we have decided to focus on mobility challenges faced by those who are blind or visually impaired when navigating New York City and similar urban environments.

Darshan Alatar Patel, Lauren Fox, Alina Peng and Chanel Luu Hai are interns at Moment/Verizon in New York. Darshan is pursuing an MFA in Interaction Design from Domus Academy in Milan, Lauren is an incoming junior at Washington University in St. Louis pursuing a BFA in Communication Design, Alina is pursuing a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) with a Design Minor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Chanel is pursuing an MFA in Design & Technology at Parsons School of Design. They’re currently exploring the intersection of mobility challenges and technology in urban environments. You can follow the team’s progress this summer on Momentary Exploration.