Last month Tom and I were invited by Cognifide to lead what became a really interesting discussion on a great topic, Inclusion-led Innovation, at the Unconference. Our group discussed how a disability-first approach to innovation 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. Although this concept made sense to participants, it was still quite a novel idea for many.
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 rather than creating really useful, differentiated products or services.
The additional 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.
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
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. 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.
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 enquiry 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 but just as likely to incur age related impairments. This is a large and valuable group. It makes sense to explore their unmet needs even before wider innovation benefits are taken into consideration. Once these 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.