Domain: Research

Themes: Assistive & Accessible Technology

Furthering user centred design for assistive technology around the world

Innovation is happening across the world in all fields, and developing solutions for people with disabilities is a compelling area to innovate in. Yet in many cases, the intended users of new innovations are not meaningfully involved in the design process. Postdoctoral researcher Tigmanshu Bhatnagar is working on a programme of activity to make user centred design a central part of assistive technology innovation.

Understanding the needs of the market is central to any product design context, and the user centred design methodology is increasingly being used in many fields. But meaningfully involving the intended users through a design process does not always happen, and understanding of the methodology varies globally.

When applied to assistive technology (AT), this can mean that the products designed to improve the quality of life for disabled users does not have an adequate effect. With AT requirements set to rise due to the globally ageing population, it is becoming increasingly important for innovators to use user centred design methods.

Launching Live Labs

In response to this, Tigmanshu Bhatnagar is working with partners across the world to spread training programmes and knowledge in the area of user centred design.

“The idea of Live Labs is for innovators and start-ups in the AT field to understand the needs of the market a little better,” Bhatnagar explained. “It’s about them understanding the needs of people better, and enabling them to test ideas and solutions with the people who are going to use them.”

Importantly, the training and information exchange about this varies between different countries and contexts. The very nature of user centred design in AT is that there are many things that influence what users need, and their local context is one element of this. As such, the type of training innovators will get in one part of the world will be different to another region.

One of the Live Lab programmes is happening in Kenya, which is being delivered by one of the GDI Hub’s partners, Innovate Now. Another is currently being planned for the business accelerator at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi. This one will focus on vision, hearing, speech and mobility impairments, and start-ups or early stage start-ups in these fields will be invited to participate. The programme will involve three virtual live lab experiences. The first will be on user development, how to understand the needs of people and all about user centred design methodology. The second workshop will be about technical feasibility, where participants will be mentored by technical experts to design something that is feasible and realisable. And finally, there will be a viability workshop, when mentors from the business community will help participants understand how to penetrate the market, and what kind of solutions to actually focus on.

Bhatnagar is also exploring the idea of disability innovation coaching, which is about enabling people with disabilities to become more engaged within the start-up innovation ecosystem. “I want to see what kinds of interactions emerge once people are a little more engaged as part of the team, rather than just being a person who gives feedback,” said Bhatnagar. “We believe facilitating co-design is an important part of this process. It will give people with disabilities a chance to be more entrepreneurial, and to be part of innovation exercises rather than having a tokenistic involvement.”

Next steps

Now that the Live Labs work is off the ground, Bhatnagar wants to work on building programmes and capacity to deliver programmes in different countries. A number of other partners are interested in the idea of running programmes, and want to understand more about how to do it, and in particular, how to ensure start-ups get everything they can out of it so they can gain further funding for their innovations and products.

“Everyone has an optimism around these projects that I'm developing,” said Bhatnagar. “A lot of innovators have ideas and work on them without fully involving people with disabilities in the process. This can really limit the effectiveness of the solution. Live Labs is about having a platform where innovators can get the exposure and training they need to truly understand people and to give people with disabilities a better chance to be heard in the process of design and innovation.”

Funded by: AT2030