ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES AND DESIGN: AN INTERVIEW WITH SARA HENDREN
Future Cities Catapult just launched a major project: Cities Unlocked in collaboration with Microsoft UK and Guide Dogs. As one of the project partners, we worked with blind and partially sighted people to identify the characteristics of future cities which will enrich their experiences, and to develop potential cityscapes which would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. We will be sharing a detailed report about our approach, methods and outcomes in the coming days.
Image from our workshop with visually impaired people, city planners, technologists and designers.
Today, I’ll start by sharing an excerpt from an early research interview with Sara Hendren, an artist, design researcher, and writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She teaches socially-engaged design practices, adaptive + assistive technologies, and disability studies for engineers-in-training at Olin College.
SF: Can you give us insights into how you approach themes in your work around adaptability and accessibility? How should designers go about collaborating with people using these technologies?
SH: I think a good general rule is to start by asking detailed questions about the kinds of technologies, low and high, that people with anomalous bodies are already using—including, significantly, their own highly adaptive and embodied sensing systems. These skills tend to get overlooked in tech development. So: canes, animal partners, and then a combination of aural, tactile, olfactory, and other skills are going to be richly in play already. Knowing as much as you can about those experiences will help prevent you from inventing a problem set, as it were, and also be potential (and potentially hidden) sources of inspiration for your design work.
I spoke to scholar and adaptive device user Georgina Kleege about these issues for the Atlantic Tech channel; she has much to say there about the interplay among the senses and assistive tools of various kinds.
SF: You think a lot about the “the future of human bodies in the built environment”. What are the most important insights you have gained in your research so far, about how the human body and prosthetics adapt to the built environment, or the other way around? How can we design a more symbiotic relationship, that is inclusive, but also unique to individuals?
SH: Those are questions I think about all the time! I’d say broadly that design researchers need much, much more user interview data than we have now—too often there’s a very small sampling of data that’s used to represent human-centered design research with user-experts. Because aging and sightedness and autism and so many other conditions are wildly various, we need much bigger and more robust data sets for understanding wayfinding and product use. See Boston’s Institute for Human-Centered Design’s new user expert lab as an example. They want to be as large a resource as possible, and one that clients can access and pay for when doing market research.
I also think there’s so much more thinking to be done at the systems level, rather than at the product level—but it should be systems research where designers and artists are key contributors at every stage. I think, for example, in cultures like the US and the UK, there’s a pretty narrow focus on individual independence as the only goal worth seeking out—and that independence is thought to be delivered solely via personal technological devices.
But what about community support programs that would be points of contact throughout a city, for help when a person with developmental disabilities needs help after a bus line has been rerouted, or when an elderly person needs assistance getting groceries in the door/shoveling snow? These kinds of systems would help people get and stay employed and stay in their homes for longer than might otherwise be the case.
Images from Sara’s work titled ‘Inclined Planes’
Engaging at the systems level would also help designers address issues of equity and access, rather than just shiny gadgets for those who can afford them. That privilege gap is forever plaguing the discourse on new assistive tech, and rightly so.
SF: What according to you are the drivers / weak signals / to which inclusive design for cities should be paying attention? From a technological, as well as social and cultural perspective?
SH: I think designers should first try to be more granular in their approach to “canonical” disabilities: blindness, deafness, and so on. I’d think, for example, about the gradations of sightedness that tend to get overlooked in tech for vision impairments: Most people who are technically blind, after all, *do* have some kind of visual field. They see high contrasts or bright lights only, perhaps. But they don’t operate in total darkness and they do use their vision to see. There’s much more to be done with design accordingly, especially with *editing* cities for enriched use. Like: consider the high-contrast black and yellow markers along stairs and crosswalks and subway platforms and so on. What would users say about making those more tactile environments—even more than they are now? What else would they like to see in structural and architectural forms that could be better imagined or augmented, again with partial and low vision in mind? This would also address aging and the overall slow degeneration in vision as well.
Relatedly, Georgina Kleege and others have pointed out a category of what might be called “print disabilities”—also in that interview—meaning, looking at an excessive cultural reliance on printed text for city wayfinding and information. What could be done with pictorial icons and sounds and tactile environments that make the city *legible* to those who don’t process print, either because of vision or dyslexia or other learning disabilities? Grouping these sets of users together is a really interesting design challenge.
But there are many other “weak signals” that could become design opportunities. If you listen to some of Janet Cardiff’s work, for instance—there are really interesting opportunities to reconsider sensory wayfinding in cities. She makes alternate histories and tours of physical places with aural cues alone. She does part fact, part fiction sound works that would be fascinating as wayfinding that’s *enriching,* not just *more information,* which is where app design so often ends.
I also think the olfactory sense is woefully underexamined as both a useful tool for wayfinding and a potentially rich alternate experience of the city for everyone. I was thinking about this back in February as I walked to work on an especially cold day—I was so bundled up that my (quite ordinary and adept) vision was partially obscured by my hat and coat and scarf. But that day my route included going by a candy factory—and if you hit it at the right time, the building breathes out butterscotch in the most fantastic, immersive way. I can imagine a wayfinding tour of London that’s indexed completely by scents, and all the socio-cultural geography that would result. I was also intrigued by that taste map of the London tube that made wide rounds in the press last year.
This is all, in a way, revisiting Kevin Lynch’s heuristics for wayfinding again: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Seems to me there’s lots of good ways to dig into alternate and invisible counter-histories or supplemental tools when thinking at cities and access and wayfinding.
In the end, it’s less about seeing “accommodations” tailored to each individual population as though those needs were unique to them; it’s about finding interesting ways to make new Venn diagrams out of multiple publics: multiple uses and users of cities. The overall disposition to look at what seem like mere limitations—*starting* with impairment but pointing outward from diagnostic categories to richer, more unusual experiences for all—this is the kind of orientation that can yield much more interesting research and design.