Technology is created to improve people’s lives, but its development often overlooks the needs and desires of those living with disability.
Swinburne’s Centre for Design Innovation (CDI) has been working with disability support provider, Scope, to design meaningful assistive technology and bridge the gap between users and the prototyping process.
The project was based on in-depth research, including rounds of workshopping, in-context observation and user testing.
Centring human needs
The original prompt for the project centred on emerging technologies, such as augmented reality or artificial intelligence.
However, as the team consulted with clients from Scope, they found that this type of solution wasn’t aligned with what people with disabilities needed or wanted most.
Senior Industrial Designer at the Centre for Design Innovation, Mat Lewis, led the project.
“It was important that we understood what the end users of these potential designs actually wanted,” Mat said.
“Talking to the end users, we realised we didn’t need some futuristic tech solution. That's not what they were asking for.”
Instead, people wanted designs that met practical, everyday needs that current products neglected.
In Australia, it’s estimated that 1 in 3 people with disability have avoided a situation because of their disability, 34,000 are living with cerebral palsy and over 400,000 have an acquired brain injury which can impact fine motor skills.
“It’s easy for organisations to get carried away with all the buzzwords and emerging tech and forget the actual goal is to make people's lives easier,” Mat said.
The team wanted to ensure it was achievable for Scope to bring the product to market, so cost and commercial reality were also key to refining the project direction.
The plethora of initial ideas, including everything from high-tech to no-tech solutions, were narrowed down to products that could improve user daily life in the home and workplace.
Some of these included an accessible clothes drying rack, a modular meal prep station and a smart garden.
The USB conversion hub has a clean, contemporary style to ensure it fits well amongst other technology in the home or workplace.
Designing a better everyday
The idea for the final prototype was born from a comment made by a Scope employee who is also a person with a disability.
Zane McKenzie, Customer Partnership Lead at Scope, shared their experience of how inaccessible and frustrating USB ports can be for people with certain disabilities.
“Generally, products are designed for use by able-bodied people. If, like me, you're not an able-bodied person, you will experience barriers to using common products independently.
"Whether you're at home, in an office or in a community environment, what we all want, and need, are products that are easy to use, that help us to perform tasks, and actively participate equally in everyday life," said McKenzie.
The CDI team used this insight as a starting point to develop an accessible USB conversion hub.
The design is a simple tech solution that opens the possibilities of using existing and emerging USB-connected tech devices.
Its magnetic attachments and easy grip handles help those with varying levels of fine motor control and grip strength to connect devices.
Careful consideration was also given to the aesthetics of the hub, to ensure it had visual, as well as functional, appeal.
“When we looked at current assistive technologies, we identified that aesthetics didn’t seem to be a high priority and that just adds to the harmful stigma around these vital products,” Mat said.
The prototype went through further user testing and was presented to Scope as a practical and commercially viable product that could improve the everyday lives of those living with disability.
Scope's Manager of Innovation and Competitive Practice, John Scahill, says this initiative has returned a positive response from stakeholders.
"One of the most encouraging aspects of this project has been the positive response from people with and without disabilities," Scahill said.
“This suggests that we’ve got close to universal design, reflecting the CDI team’s ability to listen, learn and design creatively. The concepts developed are great examples of more accessible, inclusive and just easier-to-use products."