Extreme innovation. Extremely good design

By Christine Hemphill | 11th November 2018

Inclusion-led innovation is a process that helps businesses build better products – for everyone. As an example, the typewriter was created for a blind Italian countess by her lover so she could write to him.

Beyond incremental change. Innovation

Starting the design process through the lens of more extreme users’ needs – such as ability, size, environment or use case – solutions will be significantly rather than incrementally more valuable to more people, more durable over time and more genuinely innovative.

Innovation is a hot topic just now and for good reason. New technologies, business models and service approaches have meant that the pace of change is high even in traditionally stable industries. Very significantly disruptive change is underway in many such as private and public transport, retail, banking, and energy services. Incremental improvements are no longer likely to be sufficient for success or survival. Established technologies are being used in new ways and emerging technologies are providing more power than people quite know what to do with as yet.

Most businesses want to be innovative to both build and protect value. If they are not, someone else may well be and disrupt their market sufficiently for their position to be lost. Current, new and emerging technology has provided a rich pool of under-used capability. It is a wealth of solutions waiting for the right question to be asked or problem to be identified for it’s real value to be uncovered.

Inclusion-led Innovation is a disability-first approach to innovation which can more rapidly identify valuable concepts, business models and products that powerfully leverage emerging technologies. This approach can lead to innovations with broad and lasting customer and business value, both to users with specific disabilities and the broader mainstream.

As Eve Andersson the Director of Accessibility Engineering from Google succinctly said,

“The accessibility problems of today are the mainstream breakthroughs of tomorrow”

Extreme needs generate extremely good solutions

Throughout history, extreme needs have provided powerful, constrained environments to think harder and innovate more deeply. From climbing the highest mountains to exploring the ocean depths, war, social upheaval, sending man to the moon or going faster, higher or further in a variety of ways have all catalysed innovation based on needs at the extreme that have become much more widely used in the mainstream later.

Did you know that CAT scans now used for cancer detection and cordless power tools were created as part of NASA’s Apollo program in the 1960s? Seat belts and modern road tyre compounds were initially created by F1 car designers. Siri the digital voice assistant was designed for the blind, and haptic touch interfaces (“Taptics” as used in Apple watches) were created in India to convey messages to DeafBlind students.

Extreme needs provide extreme constraints that can catalyse design thinking in interesting, valuable directions. When solved for, these needs provide products that are more adaptable to changing and challenging environments for all users.

Emerging technologies require human needs to be powerful

Today, we have a host of emerging technologies with significant power to transform experiences or business models.  Many organisations are not quite sure how to best leverage the new capabilities these technologies make available. Most of us know of tech-first AI projects, internet of things experiments or immersive technology designs that seem to be more about learning to use the new technologies than creating really useful, differentiated products or services.

The user constraints provided by considering and solving for the needs of disabled people can help sharpen and focus the thinking of design teams engaging with these new interfaces and solution types. Considering inclusion from the outset can help ensure that new technology provides solutions that are valuable, practical and usable by more people, more of the time.

A slide about the cross over between emerging technology and unmet user needs

Valuable innovations are discovered by understanding strong, unmet customer needs and how emerging technologies can efficiently solve them.

Who needs wing mirrors when the car drives itself?

Here is a small example. Autonomous vehicles could be brilliant for people who today cannot get around independently in a private vehicle due to disability, advanced or young age, or other limitations such as epilepsy. However, not considering the full experience for a wide range of users at the outset could exclude people who could benefit most from the technology.

If the vehicle is fully autonomous, it does not need side mirrors to “see” as it uses sensors. However, many vision impaired people identify where the door is to get into a vehicle by first locating the side mirror. If this current sensory affordance is understood and an equally useful option is provided such as a tactile change or sound indicator, then sight impaired people could also take advantage of the power of autonomous vehicles to travel independently, removing a barrier to travel that exists today. This is a group that would likely be early and strong adopters.

Alternatively, it could cost a lot more to retrofit something after the core design elements had all been established. In that case, besides costing more than if the need was considered up front, it is unlikely to ever work quite as well or be as good a match aesthetically.

For those of us without a current sight impairment, it is likely that we all use the same solution from time to time such as when the vehicle is parked somewhere dark or we have had one drink too many and can’t locate the door easily. Touch or sound cues then make it easier for us all. If we had been drinking we would be very glad of the vehicle’s autonomy!

What is essential for some people all of the time is often useful to many people some of the time. Good inclusive design is really just good design that works for a very wide range of people in a wide range of situations.

How can I access different insights to turbo boost my project / organisation?

The best way is to ask the people who know: your customers, staff or stakeholders with lived experience of disability or other access needs. If you are unsure how to ask, check in with your employees’ internal networks for those who have access needs, or ask a specialist organisation who can help you do this well.

Access needs can cover a range of categories including:

  • sensory loss (hearing and/or sight)
  • physical impairments (mobility and/or dexterity)
  • neuro-diversity (dyslexia, Autism spectrum, learn differently, memory loss etc.)
  • mental health conditions
  • multiple impairments and complex conditions
  • advanced age

Engaging a wide range of customers doesn’t need to be difficult, even if you are not yet experienced in inclusion-led innovation. Businesses such as our’s can help you understand the needs of customers who identify as disabled, have permanent, temporary or situational access needs, or are of advanced age. We generate insights from our research panel of over 350 people with long-term access needs to help our clients understand and meet the needs of the segments above. Insights from these communities often generate solutions that have a very long tail of value into the mainstream market.

Through our research, we have found that many emerging technologies have already been adopted by segments of the disabled community as expensive, specialist (non-mainstream) assistive technologies. They have lived experience of the technologies often before mainstream user groups.

For example, in the vision impaired community, assistive technology products like Orcam leverage artificial intelligence to audio describe live environments and IrisVision uses augmented reality to enhance users’ residual vision, allowing people to significantly extend what they can read or see. Voice interfaces, wearables, and haptics have also all been adopted by disabled users well before mainstream audiences found a compelling enough use case for them.

Asking the right question, the right way

Different research approaches are appropriate at different stages in the innovation and development lifecycle. For early-stage projects, questionnaires and facilitated focus groups can powerfully and quickly capture user insights. For technologies that take a while to adapt to, diary studies and contextual inquiry can be most helpful. For a combination of behavioural and attitudinal feedback, usability testing of a specific element or the full experience may be more appropriate.

If you are not sure how many customers with access needs you have, you can always do some research such as customer profile mapping against national statistics, asking your customers, or watching the uptake in new inclusive offerings such as turning on captions, using FaceID rather than alphanumeric passwords or selecting “easy read” document options. Although some options are specific to narrower user groups (such as braille format materials), many are options that all of us prefer at least some of the time. It really doesn’t matter why people choose to use an option. The fact that they do shows you that it is of value to them.

Across the UK, 1 in 5 adults have a disability. The associated “purple pound” or spending power of households that include at least one person with a disability is £265b, a whopping 15% of the total discretionary spend in the UK. This value has increased 25% since 2012.

Part of this is due to more Baby Boomers reaching retirement age with greater wealth than earlier generations. Despite increased wealth and different attitudes to the previous generation of retirees, this generation is just as likely to incur age related impairments. Attitudinally, they are less likely to accept poor product design or service delivery that doesn’t effectively support their access needs.

This is a large and valuable group. It makes sense to explore their needs even before wider innovation benefits of additional non-disabled uptake is taken into consideration. Once all of our temporary and situational access needs or simple preferences to use new, innovative alternatives are added, these insights can become supercharged.

The superpower of different ability

Like many powerful forces, insights from disabled people are not always easy to attract, engage, manage and harness. It can take time for an organisation to build inclusion-led innovation into its culture and approach. It may not always be easy, just as it is not easy to employ people of remarkable intellect or attract customers of remarkable connection and influence, but it is almost always worth doing. It creates significant value when done well.

Harnessing the superpower of inclusive insight from a wide range of people of different abilities, disabilities and access needs can be the path to your next innovation breakthrough. Inclusion-led innovation can allow your organisation to move well beyond incremental improvements or tech first (and last) projects. It can help you create products or experiences that are fundamentally better for more people.

Would you like to know more?

If you are interested in finding out more and learning how your organisation can gather inclusive insight or create new innovative products or services, please contact us. We are an inclusive human-centred research and design organisation that works specifically across a wide range of current and emerging technologies. Current work includes smart cities/spaces, immersive tech (VR/AR/MR), haptics, autonomous vehicles and AI-infused products.