What should you know before building a smart app for the visually impaired?

Illustration by Magdalena Tomczyk

In January, together with a group of four friends, we participated in Campus App Challenge — 24h hackathon organized by Indoorway at our university. Our task was to create an app that uses Indoorway’s indoor positioning system that tackles a real problem our alma mater struggles with. We decided to use our programming skills and energy to help our peers, who are misrepresented at the university. These are the visually-impaired.

Three months later, as we’re still developing the app, we’d like to share with you our ongoing journey to building Indoor Available app, along with some tips for anyone creating innovations for the blind.

Proof of concept — check!

The starting point for our app was a 24 h hackathon. After the challenge we were able to deliver a prototype of an application, which is controlled in a unique yet simple way, based on gestures and multiple taps. This gives instant and intuitive access to the app for everyone, including the blind. Our idea was appreciated by the jury and we were awarded the first prize (read more here). We’ve made it to TechCrunch and we talked about our idea to a dozen of Polish media. But when the dust settled we have quickly realized that navigation for the blind is a very complex problem, and many innovators have already tried to deliver such solution. In many cases, unsuccessfully.

Indoor Available team during Campus App Chellenge, January 2018

Further research — check!

Did we quit? Actually, we did the opposite. A part of the main prize in the hackathon was the possibility of turning the idea into a ready-to-market product side by side with a Polish venture builder Daftcode. Thus, we decided to finish the app. At the very beginning of our road, we’ve learnt that if you build something for a specific group of users, you should ask them what they need first. This words are repeated by every fresh entrepreneur.

Unfortunately, there are still initiatives that dare to produce ”the miracle” solutions for the visually impaired without asking them, “Hey guys, do you need it? How do you handle with such challenges now?”. Imagine aliens coming to our beautiful planet to develop a social platform for sharing photos, funny films and chatting with friends. They do a blue-themed platform and are surprised that no one wants to use it. How many of you would use an alien-made Facebook?

So we started sounding out opinion on our app among the community of visually impaired people. Our first expert was a colleague of our team. We didn’t know what questions we should ask, so we decided to keep it short and simple. We asked:

- Would it be helpful?

And the answer was:

- I think, yes.

Oh! It is uplifting to hear that you are able to help someone. We asked further questions about where such system would be useful. The answer indicated most of public spaces meaning “nearly everywhere”. That made us curious, if such thinking is shared by wider public. The natural choice to start our research was the Invisible Exhibition in Warsaw — a place where the visually impaired guide guests through locations known from everyday life, but in total darkness. This is a great awareness-raising experience (don’t miss it during your stay in Warsaw!).

The manager of the Invisible Exhibition agreed to meet with us. During our conversation she gave us a very precious piece of advice:

Create solutions for the blind only with their full and active participation.

She mentioned a few “miracle” products for the visually impaired that were built without proper consultations. During the meeting we were joined by Sebastian (a blind guy) who recalled stories of unconsulted inventions designed for the blind and as a result unadjusted and not useful at all. He also showed us how he uses his iPhone. This meeting filled a big gap in our knowledge. You know Apple’s Voice Over? Blind people often prefer it over Google’s Talk Back. But both of those voice assistants make smartphones accessible for the visually impaired. So there is no need to create your own screen-reading solution. First lesson learned!

Online survey — check!

Now with hope that we are creating something useful, we wanted to check a few of our ideas. We made a survey and posted it on Facebook.

The most important finding is that indoor positioning is a needed feature. Nearly everyone confirmed that they would use accessible indoor navigation apps. If you consider building such app (or probably any other technology for the visually impaired) responders insisted on its energy efficiency, reliability and adjustment to the voice assistants mentioned before. Walking with headphones on is not so popular among this group, but if someone is accustomed, 3D sound for navigation would be appreciated. What’s more, some comments indicated that information in the app must be up to date and automatically adaptable to the ever-changing environment.

The survey was a source of extremely useful data — but not the only one. Social media’s comments provided us with additional clues. Most valuable ones concerned existing solutions and their drawbacks. However, a few voices presented position of negativity and doubt. But it was constructive feedback , which led us to discovering a set of rules for adjusting indoor navigation to the blind, prepared by Wayfindr!

Discussing the future of our app with Daftcode, February 2018

Finding guidelines — check!

As I said in the beginning, many our questions have been already answered by other inventors, communities or organizations. Wayfindr is one of them. This non-profit organization based in the UK created the Open Standard — a magic key to the world of navigation for visually impaired people. What can you find in the document? Wayfindr describes design rules for inclusive audio-based network navigation systems (IABNNS) (the document can be found here).

Let’s consider setting the direction as an example action. How do you carry out this when you are not able to display an arrow on the screen? Wayfindr indicates three ways to achieve this, using:

  • directional delimiter — a word or phrase that usually follows a verb and communicates direction, e.g., left, right
  • cardinal delimiter — communicating direction on the base of a compass e.g., north, east
  • clock face directions — referencing direction with analogue clock with 12 o’clock being straight ahead

It’s likely that everyone knows those forms of setting direction. But usually, when we give instructions to someone we use “turn left”, “then go right”. However, comments from our survey indicated that left/right is not always sufficient or that blind people have custom preferences about telling them the direction.

The most developed part of the standard deals with the navigation process itself. According to the paper the app has to:

  • define the starting point of the route, e.g., “Welcome to Central Station. You are now on the main concourse. For your train, walk forward to the ticket barriers”
  • define the ending point of the route, e.g., “You have exited Central station. You are now on the east side of Alpha High Street facing the Town Hall”
  • define the direction to the next segment, pathway, decision point, landmark or object e.g., “At the bottom of the stairs, turn left and walk forward to the ticket gates”
  • reassure users that they are following a route that is communicated by audio instructions and inform users of any curves in the pathway, e.g., “Keep walking forward” and should be provided every 25 m on routes where there are no changes of direction or decision points
  • communicate a change in direction prior to reaching an environmental feature, e.g., “At the next tactile paving intersection, follow the tactile paving route to the left”communicate information about the location of the next environmental feature, e.g., “The down escalator is the one on the left.”
  • communicate information about an environmental feature that is close to the user, e.g., “You are approaching the escalators.”; “You are approaching the stairs”
  • deal with using lifts, stairs, escalators, type of surface or information about all walking surface indicators; everything of that is detail precisely described in the standard.

For us, the most revealing were definitions on the beginning and the end of a route. We got used to navigation apps presenting first direction straight away after pushing „start” button. Intuitively, description of current location is irrelevant — but that rule cannot be followed while creating application for the blind. The same applies to the moment of achieving the final destination. Usually, navigation process would be finished with information about near presence of target building. But what if the entrance is located on the opposite side of the building? It is a great example, how providing additional data is a crucial element of navigation dedicated to the visually impaired.

Staying motivated — check!

Now as we know that the first step to create a navigation app accessible to the visually impaired should be getting familiar with Wayfindr’s standard, we totally recommend it to anyone who works on similar technology. It’s open, clear and built side by side with the people who, at the end of the day, will use your product. Features mentioned in the document seem to be a must-have before testing the app. That’s why we are implementing the Open Standard’s rules to our app and setting for first real tests!

Sadly, some people commented in the survey that beacon-based indoor navigation seems to be a plan for the distant future. They are worried that even if their favorite mall already uses this technology, many small towns or poor countries will not dream about such futuristic solution for the next decade. However, we’re staying optimistic about indoor positioning system and its real-life implementations. It’s getting more and more popular, and — what’s crucial — more accurate and practical. The raise of smart cities is a fact, and we’ll do our best to digitize buildings to make them accessible for everyone.