A reflection about improving.

A year ago, I was taking a senior product class in which teams of about 20 students were tasked to create meaningful products. The first few weeks were dedicated towards brainstorming and preliminary research, and my team ultimately decided to build a handheld device for helping visually impaired users interpret 2D images. Our target users were mainly visually impaired or blind students who needed to interpret images, such as graphs and simple illustrations, in educational contexts.

Research

We determined target users and product goals by doing market research and interviewing subject matter experts. Current solutions for aiding visually impaired students in schools involved expensive technology usually in the form of large machines. My team took this as a positive sign, believing our product’s competitive edge could be affordability and mobility. We also conducted in-person interviews with a blind elderly man as well as phone interviews with staff members of blind centers. The feedback we gained were generally positive and open to our product idea. We saw a green light in the direction we were headed and were excited for an opportunity to contribute to the field of assistive technology.

Prototyping

Within the next few weeks, we took our idea from paper to initial prototype. It had a basic form with a camera sensor and small vibrating motor attached to a Raspberry Pi. Whenever the camera sensed a black area, the motor would vibrate to inform the user.

(Left) illustration of concept; (Right) first prototype

We demonstrated the prototype with both sighted people and a blind elderly man, but the feedback wasn’t conclusive — we needed to test with accurate users of our target audience. Consequentially, our next step was contacting nearby blind centers and scheduling appointments for several of our team members to engage with visually impaired students.

User Testing & Interviews

We made several preparations going into user testing and interviews:

  • Create several more prototypes testing different forms and interfaces (although the underlying mechanism of camera sensor to vibrating motor was still the same)
  • Prepare tasks for participants to complete, mainly using the prototype to identify different 2D images
  • Prepare interview questions, not just with using the prototype but also their general experiences and current methods identifying images
User testing at a blind center

I wasn’t one of the members who visited the centers, but my understanding from my teammates’ reports was that the went according to plan and we were able to gain valuable feedback from accurate users.

Feedback

The feedback was either observational data through user testing or qualitative feedback from conversational interviews. We found that the latter was the most useful for guiding our next actionable and could be summarized with several key points:

  • Visually impaired individuals have existing solutions for the problem space that are well integrated into their lives.
  • Schools and centers are obligated to aid visually impaired students, which includes providing them with the necessary tools for interpreting images, so affordability isn’t an issue.
  • Given current solutions and existing technology, it’d probably make more sense for another solution to be a software product, which wasn’t an option for this given class.

Result

It was evident from the feedback that our user need likely didn’t exist. Of course, we inevitably decided to change directions and achieve a user-centered final product, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about here today.



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