We are living in a moment of change.

I recently spoke to a friend who is blind. He said that he’s currently struggling to travel independently due to travel staff refusing to aid him in order to comply with social distancing measures.

We are all in the process of reshaping our own lives, values and beliefs, and how we reshape our own lives impacts our collective future. Our designed world has the power to include or exclude all of us. How can we rebuild our world to be more inclusive and representative of all the people who make up that world?

What is an inclusive future? Inclusive design is not about “translating” a product, service or system after its been created to suit a different user with different needs or abilities. It is about bringing the same sense of diversity that appears in society into the design and decision-making process.

For example, in 2007, Tesco (the UK’s largest supermarket) entered the US market with their “Fresh and Easy” stores, in the hopes of expanding its already extensive empire. Unfortunately, they failed spectacularly. After five years of losses it was sold in 2013 with Tesco spending around £1bn on attempting to break the US market1.

There were a multitude of reasons contributing to this failure. The timing of launching in 2007 contributed but ultimately, it was down to the assumptions that were made: just because the UK and US share the same language, they share the same cultural needs and wants. Although Tesco did their homework, spending nearly 10 years preparing for its US launch, there were still subtle flaws in the products and experiences they provided which were biased by this assumption. For example, Fresh and Easy prioritised pre-packaged sandwiches (a UK supermarket staple) over deli counter dishes prepared in store – a preferred option in US supermarkets as customers tend to prefer customisation of ingredients. All these assumed details accumulated to creating something that didn’t listen to what the US market really needed or wanted.

This example might seem somewhat arbitrary when discussing inclusive design, but it demonstrates how great the financial cost can be when you make assumptions about different markets or users. If this is the financial cost of such arbitrary decisions such as sandwich experiences, imagine the cost that is experienced when you apply this thinking to such a basic human right issue as the ability to move and travel independently. The conversation shifts from one about profit and loss to one of quality of life, including our mental and physical health and ability to communicate and access to information. Those with the power to make life changing decisions must not assume they understand or know the diversity of their consumers. They must actively listen, engage and empathise with a diverse range of users throughout the design process allowing these perspectives to become an integral part of decisions which are made. By offering a seat at the table to a greater range of voices, our world will consequentially become more inclusive by reflecting the diversity of our society.

Conventionally we might think this power is only in the hands of large corporations. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that each of our individual actions affects the bigger picture. We each have a role to play in changing our collective future and we must educate ourselves and take ownership of that power in order to make that future more inclusive.

Most recently I have been working on a project called Sensaura. It is an inclusive design solution to how we can navigate the world beyond vision. The project was born from a conversation I had whilst conducting global research with blind and partially sighted users whilst in London, Tokyo and New York. One user stated that they were “only disabled by the design of their environment”. How we design our environment (which I would say includes the products, services and systems that make up that environment) therefore has incredible jurisdiction over how accessible it is, which in turn impacts independence and quality of life.

Research identified the need for a solution to how blind and partially sighted people can independently travel in both indoor and outdoor spaces, with a hands-free, non-visual solution.

Although the long-term goal would obviously be to make all our environments more inclusive through redesigning or adapting them, Sensaura recognises the limitations of this as a feasible and viable nearer term solution. If instead we can use technology to create small interventions that change our perception of the information in the environment, we can enable greater information accessibility. Sensaura proposes a new way to navigate spaces using a spatial-audio language that communicates this information through wearable technology.

The project worked with blind and partially sighted users throughout the design process – from initial interviews with individuals, to a focus group run in partnership with the Thomas Pocklington Trust in London, to design consultations done remotely during the Covid-19 lockdown. This ensured minimal assumptions were made while making key design decisions.

Research was also carried out with a variety of stakeholders across fields of urban planning, future mobility, neuropsychology and human-computer interaction researchers. Interestingly these conversations identified that Sensaura has the potential to transform non-visual, hands-free navigation for contexts far outside just blind and partially sighted users. For example; for firefighters navigating burning buildings, people carrying out sports events or activities, or even future autonomous vehicles. This demonstrates the power of integrating diverse perspectives into design decisions.

As we look to reshaping our lives in the coming months, we must not forget the injustice and inequality that has been highlighted by Covid-19. Our assumptions made of others in the past should stay in the past. We must use this opportunity to consider how we can leverage our innate ability to empathise as humans and actively listen and engage with a more diverse range of people to design a better, more inclusive future for us all.

Watch a video on Sensaura