Robot – where’s my phone?

Two pictures showing a small wooden table on wheels. One has a notepad on it, the other has a craft basket on it.One good thing about the old landline phones that were fixed at the wall is that you always knew where it was. We’ve all had moments where we’ve forgotten where we put our mobile phone. What if your phone could find you by itself? Well, not quite, but what if you had a robot to bring it to you?

This was just one aspect of a research project in Norway. The research paper reports on a small robotic table in a domestic situation – an alternative to other types of domestic robots. The research took a universal design approach to the design of the table using the 7 Principles of Universal Design.

The researchers were keen to find out what kind of robot would support an older person and, importantly, be accepted by them. Familiarity with the concept of robots was a key factor in acceptance as well as understanding what a robot could do. As most participants lived in small apartments, something small was also important. 

“They explained that they needed a robot that could help them with moving things around in the home, a robot that could bring them objects, or
a robot that could help them with household activities.” It was a participant who came up with the idea of a table to bring the telephone and a cup of tea. And what if the table kept the phone charged and always within reach?

An interesting project taking a universal design approach from conception to prototype. The title of the article is, Situated Abilities within Universal Design – A Theoretical Exploration: The Case of the T-ABLE – A Robotic Wooden Table

A drawing of the table prototype.

Abstract—This paper investigates Universal Design (UD) through the idea of designing for situated abilities, rather than focusing on designing for disabled users. This shift in perspective from disabilities to abilities is explored through the design of a domestic robot that integrates into our homes, in a familiar way. We explore the concept of designing for situated abilities through a proof-of-concept robotic wooden table, the T-ABLE, as an alternative design for domestic robots. Finally, the paper identifies four dimensions of situated abilities.

Colour combinations for everyone

tfnsw_portfoliophoto_03 This article from Japan came about from observations during a disaster situation – in this case the 2011 Tsunami. This short paper outlines research into colours and colour combinations that are easily seen and interpreted quickly by people who have one of the colour blindness conditions. 

A bright pink sign saying Wynyard and directions to the station.The results of this study and other colour studies are now reflected in the Japanese standards for the paint, printing and design industries. The colour scheme-set contains 20 colours and is divided into groups depending on whether things are small scale or large scale. Bright pink turned out to be a colour for large signage.  For more on the colours go to the Open Journal of Social Science and download the five page article, “Color Barrier Free Displays in Disaster Situations”.


Furniture for later life

An older woman sits at a table in a room with a tv behind her.There is much written about older people and their attachment to their home, but what about furniture? I’m sure most of us are familiar with grandfather’s “favourite chair”. So, what makes it a favourite? Comfort, ease of use, or does it go further than that to self image? A study on furniture in later life has some interesting findings for furniture in all types of housing.

First, some interesting questions. What kind of relationship do older people have with their furniture? How does moving to a new home affect their relationship with their furniture? What can that relationship tell us about the affect of furniture design on older people? The study found that older people had emotional bonds with their existing furniture. It is part of their identity. This leads to the conclusion that it is important for people to take their furniture with them when they move. It gives a better sense of home even if it is a new environment. 

Issues arise in places such as nursing homes where staff have their preferences for furniture design. Also, family members can make choices that aren’t the preferences of the older person. As with many studies, the conclusion includes the need to involve older people in the design process, particularly in residential care settings. Furniture can support and enrich older people and should be part of understanding the living conditions and their emotional bonds, culture and history. 

Furniture for Later Life: Design Based on Older People’s Experiences of Furniture in Three Housing Forms is by Oskar Jonsson. It is a doctoral thesis so there is a lot of information. Unfortunately, Oskar tells me he did not publish any shorter papers from his thesis. However, the Table of Contents provides links to the key information. 

Extract from the abstract:

The background is the lack of furniture that responds to the demands of older consumers and the lack of knowledge about relationships between people and furniture in their home environments and in various forms of elderly care environments. Generalizations made regarding old people’s needs have proved to be too limited in scope to meet their needs and wishes. The purpose is to improve knowledge and awareness concerning the ways in which old people act on, are influenced by, reflect on and appreciate furniture in their homes.

The results show that there is great variety in what old people express regarding furniture and reveal a diversity of interests, needs and wishes. In the light of  these results, it is unreasonable to reduce old people to a homogeneous group or attempt to specify their needs in advance. Despite this, the results reveal needs and wishes for furniture that provide comfort, pleasure and independence and that contribute to desired experiences of dignity, meaningfulness and freedom.

Design for Humanity: People and Planet

A silhouette of a person with arms outstretched around a globe of a mosaic of faces representing people of the world.Is the quest for inclusive design so difficult that we need so many different terms? Are new-fangled methodologies improving the situation if the aims are the same? Many different ways of promoting the process of designing inclusively is surely confusing everyone. Enter “Humanity-Centred Design”. This one is a bit different because it’s about the planet as well as people.

Many of our current and future designs will be inhabited by upcoming generations whose consumption patterns will have different values. According to an article from the UK designers need to embody the values of inclusion, ethics, empathy and cooperation. Designs will need to be meaningful to appeal to upcoming generations. Hence the proposition of a new paradigm or model – Humanity-Centred Design. 

The title of the article is, Humanity-Centred Design – Defining the Emerging Paradigm in Design Education and Practice

The Sustainable Development Goals also embody similar values and these are gaining traction in many fields of work.

The chart below is from the paper and shows the evolution from functional approach to a people focused approach to design.

A circular chart showing progression from function focused in the 1940s to humanity focused in the 2030s.

ABSTRACT: Product Design has been defined by several different paradigms as it has evolved to meet the needs and desires of people and in as new ways for companies to market products to consumers. As the needs and desires of people are now increasingly met by products at all price points in consumer societies companies need to embrace a new paradigm which will enable them to differentiate their products from the competition. In addition to the need for a new differentiation strategy for marketing purposes, people are also increasingly aware of both the limited and depleting natural resources of the planet and the prevalence of inequality and poverty present in the world.

A paradigm is emerging which enables companies to address all the above simultaneously. This paradigm and approach to designing products is referred to here as ‘Humanity-Centred Design’ in intentional reference to the ‘User-Centred Design’ and ‘Human-Centred Design’ methodologies which have been used by designers for the last 25 years. In this emerging paradigm there is a greater focus on designing products which are not only sustainable, but also actively contribute to the alleviation of poverty in all forms and promote human development and wellbeing worldwide, treating humanity as one global society. This paradigm is being taught to students of Product Design at Buckinghamshire New University to ensure that they are prepared to design products for the newest and future generations and the greatest proportion of consumers.

Intuitive to use: Does it work as a design guide?

Four buttons are lined up one above the other. They are used to open and close the door. There are lots of written instructions.The seven classic principles of universal design were developed in the 1990s and are still applied in many contexts. The concept of universal design continues to evolve. Today, the concept is better understood as a way of thinking about inclusion throughout the design process. Newcomers to the concept of universal design often try to apply the principles literally rather than as a guide for design thinking. Maybe it is time for a product recall?

The classic principles are not themselves intuitive to use. And herein lies the problem. Consequently, Steinfeld and Maisel devised the 8 Goals of Universal Design in 2012. The 8th Goal is about cultural inclusion. These goals are easier to apply and more suited to adaptation to different design disciplines. However, they have yet to receive the same attention as the classic principles.

Not surprisingly, there have been many academic papers critiquing the seven principles. Academics are now arguing nuances between universal design and intuitive design, or applying principles in a tick-box fashion. One such paper is focused on the third principle, simple and intuitive to use.

The author concludes that as a design principle it doesn’t work because it doesn’t say how it is done, but is useful as a reminder to think about a broad range of users. It is worth noting that the researcher did not consult with users during the design. Rather, an example from an existing design was used to critique the principle of intuitive to use. 

The author reports on the application of an automatic locking system on a toilet door on a new train in Norway. The trains were designed with the principles of universal design. This includes an electronic door locking system for the toilet. However, this system has many passengers confused in spite of written instructions and icons. Consequently passengers have found themselves in embarrassing situations due to the door not being locked. Clearly there is something wrong with the design for everyone. It fails the test of intuitive to use. But is this a problem with the principle, or the designers who failed to properly test the design? Did following the principles give unfounded comfort to the designer such that no product testing was used?

The title of the article is, Intuitive use in design guidelines: Can intuitive use be applied to a product?   An article in Medium has picked up the story and concludes it is bad design. It adds the critical point that if you need lots of instructions on how to use something then it is definitely not intuitive.

Abstract: Several design guidelines recommend to design for intuitive use and marketing often advertises products as intuitive in use – but what does it mean for a design to be intuitive? One design guideline that embraces intuitive use is described by the principles of universal design. The third principle says that the design should strive for ‘Simple and intuitive use’ regardless of experience and cognitive abilities. This article will examine the concept of intuitive use and address the case of an automatic toilet door system that, even though universally designed, seems to be confusing to many users. From the literature, the focus will lie on the concepts of affordance and familiarity, due to its relation to intuition. The case is further used to evaluate these concepts and to see if principle three of universal design is possible to fulfill. The article concludes that the principle is a good reminder of an important concept; however, the design process needs supplements from other design literature to fulfill the principle. 

Sustainable packaging with UD

Three pieces of fried chicken are placed in a white cardboard box.The resulting waste from product packaging is causing global concern. When it enters our oceans and food chains it becomes more personal. It’s also a personal concern when you can’t open the packaging without considerable effort or help. Packaging should suit both the consumers and the environment. So how to make packing easier to use and more sustainable?

A research paper from Thailand brings together universal design and sustainable design. It looked at three main elements of packaging: what appeals to the buyer, level of environmental impact, and the functionality. Disposal after use was also considered. Using a case study of a fried chicken container the researchers developed a prototype for testing whether the correlation of universal and sustainable design principles could work together. 

This is obviously early work and more to be done, but it is a good start. The article will be of interest for designers of packaging, including the graphic design.  

The title of the article is, Correlated Key Attributes for Sustainable and Universal Design: A Case Study through Meal Packaging in Thailand

Abstract: The study reports results of a series of research efforts to examine congruence between two design principles: universal and sustainable design concepts. The methods mainly adopted the focus group interview and the survey. A paper tray for fried chicken was used as an illustrative case to test the design attributes. The findings of the first stage indicated that the packaging executive agreed that both universal and sustainable designs played important roles in the current packaging trends and could be considered as integrative design. … The final finding indicated that the key structural factors of the proposed package with the correlated design attributes were easy handling and opening and facilitation of disposal. The extent of consumer satisfaction was subject to the right package structure and strength as well as clear information provide through graphics, pictures and symbols in order to provide guidance for disposal after use.

Design for participation – inclusion will follow

A whiteboard with design concepts in word bubbles around a drawing of a electric light globe. It indicates brainstorming ideas.Designers can relate to the term “inclusive design” more than other terms. This was one of the findings of a Swedish study. Designers had a general sense of “accessibility”, but they felt intimidated by the term. They thought it was for extreme cases for a few people and something they could ignore.

Designers also thought accessibility was a higher requirement than inclusive design. They felt inclusive design sounded more inviting and positive than accessible or universal design. The workshop method used in this study drew out many fears and anxieties designers had about people with disability. The workshop process was therefore a way of educating and allaying these fears and other perceived difficulties. 

This is an important study for design educators, advocates for people with disability and older people, and creators of guidelines. Perception is everything – it underpins attitudes and in turn, designs. The caveat of language is that the study was not conducted in English. So the direct translations might not apply elsewhere. But the study has much more to offer than terminology.

Terminology for inclusion has always been a problem in design disciplines. It’s also an issue for people working in the world of universal design, inclusive design and design-for-all. Each of these terms, and others, such as human centred design and user centred design, have evolved from different spaces. But their aims are all the same. Regardless of the term, getting users to participate in designs, not just comment on prototypes, will result in inclusive outcomes.  

The title of the article is, “Inclusive Design Thinking: Exploring the obstacles and opportunities for individuals and companies to incorporate inclusive design”. It’s by Esra Kahraman from KTH Royal Institute of Technology EECS, Sweden. 

Design for Participation and Inclusion will Follow, the title of this post, is from a separate paper on digital inclusion by Stephan Johansson who is quoted in the article. 

Abstract:  Exclusion by design can be seen in every corner of our society, from inaccessible websites to buildings and it has a significant impact on people with disabilities. As designers and people who have a hand in shaping our environment, having a more holistic view of the target groups when designing for available and new technologies is essential, something that is currently missing. Not only to combat design exclusion but also to challenge and improve current and future products. Related research shows that there are ways to challenge design exclusion but the question of why more inclusive design practices are still not in place remains. This study aims to answer the question: What are the obstacles keeping designers from making more inclusive design choices and what opportunities are there? What are the internal and external factors and how can they be tackled?
The methods chosen to answer these questions were primarily qualitative in forms of interviews, field study, and a workshop. The results from the interviews and empathy building activities done in the workshop highlighted common obstacles the designers felt in their workplace, both on a personal and corporate level.

User perspectives on design: Does it work?

The hands and arms of two people sit at a table covered in papers and post it notes. It indicates a brainstorming session.Standard terms allow us to communicate effectively with each other. For researchers it makes it easier to follow a strand of research. With so many ways of talking about universal design it’s little wonder researchers are trying to find a way around this. However, it will always be a blurry field of investigation because the genie is already out of the bottle. It’s too late to change things now.

User perspectives and user involvement is part of the process of designing universally.  A research paper on user perspectives bemoans the terminology problems and attempts to seek some clarity. The authors argue user participation is not a method because there is no rule-based procedure to follow. Research logic is not consistent across studies. So they claim there is no way to validate the design decisions. They conclude that as there is no concise definition, and it’s unlikely to happen, it will be down to an agreed understanding. 

In a nutshell, there is no one method or process for user involvement in design. Attempts to devise one and give it a name will be unproductive. Rather, let the status quo remain and agree to an understanding between designers and design academics. Universal design does not offer the comfort of a step by step approach – it requires skill and creativity. That leaves it open for more than one way to achieve design outcomes.

The paper is somewhat technical and discusses the issues of multidisciplinary terms and multi-level inter-dependencies, and of course, terminology. The title of the paper is, Methodological foundations of user involvement research: A contribution to user-centred design theory. It was published in the Proceedings of the Design Society 2020 Conference

Abstract:  The concept of involving user perspectives into product development processes has its roots in the early 1960s. Although this seems to be following a quite long tradition, as a design research field, it did not improve substantially and, so far, no consistent perception or even definition of the concept can be found. The paper points out where design research on user involvement still lacks methodological and theoretical foundation and makes the attempt of providing impulses for systemizing the existing body of knowledge within the Design Society as a research community.


Design details and everyday experiences

Title of the article in white text over an image of the top of an escalatorWhat is it about designs that either include or exclude users? Many designs are everyday – the things we hardly notice. That is, until we have difficulty using them. Design students need to see how exclusion happens.

Deborah Beardslee takes the perspective of physical ability to analyse how inclusion and exclusion happen in the design process. She notes that most designs work reasonably well for most people even if they aren’t designed that well. But we are all familiar with some degree of compromised experience. For example, hard to read instructions, doors that are difficult to open, places difficult to navigate and generally unappealing places.

Beardlee’s article will be of interest to design educators as well as practitioners. It focuses on examining everyday interactions with commonplace items with analysis of several examples. The aim of the paper is to encourage strategies for educating designers to be more inclusive. 

The title of the article is, Inclusive, High Quality Decisions? Macro/Micro Design Impacts within our Everyday Experiences, and was accessed from Universal Design webpage.

Abstract:  Age and physical ability are natural filters for assessing the successes of designed objects, messages, and experiences. Design problem solving contributes (or not) to the resolution of challenges faced by aging and/or physically challenged individuals as they interact with products and contexts in the built environment. This paper examines some design details, solutions, and situations that impact everyday inclusivity and quality of experience, and suggests approaches toward understanding and increasing interaction success for all of us.

The comparisons presented in this work are intended to initiate an evolving platform for the discussion and development of design education strategies and content that prioritize aging and physical ability issues. Some familiar macro and micro examples have been chosen to illuminate everyday user interactions, challenges, and considerations. Ideally, increased exposure to these aspects, through audience-, age-, and ability-related projects, courses, and curriculum, will strengthen awareness and empathy in young design students, and encourage thoughtful, and more inclusive, design in the future.

Bath Tubs: Fashion vs Function

A bath tub sits in int he middle of the room. It is taller than the standard bathtub and sculpted into a shape with high ends with thin sides.The current bathroom trend is freestanding bathtubs. But the glamour of this kind of tub is washed away when you can’t use it or have an accident doing so. The transcript of a podcast by the Universal Design Project discusses the pros and cons of these bathtubs. Here are a couple of pertinent snippets from the discussion:

“A lot of times when someone is curious about universal design or accessibility, they’ll do a quick Google search to see what they can learn about it. Usually, they’ll search for pictures too so that they can get a better idea of how someone might have implemented universal design features in the past. But we’ve found that many times these pictures aren’t really depicting universal design and it’s very possible that architects and builders will see these pictures assume the design works for everyone, and run with it, and that might not be the best thing to do, especially in bathrooms.

“Most of our design advisors agreed … that they are dangerous and not functional. … [One of]the biggest flaws of this tub is that the sides are way too tall, the edges are way too narrow and it’s way too deep. These three flaws have a huge impact on how someone is able to get in and out of the tub. 

The podcast goes on to recommend some design improvements, but that “we really needed to go with a regular tub set up”.

Freestanding tubs are meant to stand away from walls. There are two problems with this. The tub is usually near a wall but not near enough to put a steadying hand on the wall or access a grab rail if needed, but not far enough away to make cleaning easy. In situations where the shower is over the bath as well, a grab bar is probably essential.

The best part about this fashion is that free standing bath tubs are usually set in larger bathrooms. This has to be a plus for accessibility, bathing children and for helping someone in the bathroom. 

Freestanding tubs, are they safe? is part of The Universal Design Project Good Fit Bad Fit series, and you can access the podcast as well as the transcript.