Look out of your window. How do people walk? Some walk faster others slower, others with the help of a wheelchair, electric scooter, cane etc. I was once considered a slow walker.
During my PhD I was (un)lucky enough to experience how it is to walk with crutches while having a trans-Atlantic trip. Two days before the trip I went from my office to the toilet, my foot was so numb that I could not feel it, therefore I was unaware that I was moving irregularly when walking, resulting in the breaking one of my metatarsals. Thankfully, it broke but stayed in place so the doctors just bound it and gave me crutches. I was comfortable with traveling, as it was a monthly activity during my PhD, however, I could not really perceive how different the traveling experience would be due to my accident. I just informed the university’s travel agency about my situation and they in turn informed the connection flights that I was a “slow walker” and in need of gate to gate transfer.
I took a taxi, arrived at the airport an then I understood: To get the support I needed to go to the gate, I first had to check in, otherwise how would the ground personnel know I was there. I had to choose between using the crutches or carrying my luggage. During my connections, the ground support personnel transferred me to the next gate, and I was waiting there until the gate opened. Should I need to go to the toilet after they left, I would have to mount all my things to go. In the toilet I had to lean my crutches on walls or basins to be able to pee or wash my hands. The crutches stubbornly slipped and fell on the floor – thankfully, this was before covid-19, but I do not consider the toilet floor of any airport exceptionally clean. I realised that roaming in duty free and other shops was really tiring and painful. When my lay overs were long and I needed to eat or drink, if I did not want to sit in one of the expensive airport restaurants, I had to choose something that could get in a bag as my hands were occupied with crutches.
I experienced how it is to walk slower than “the average walker”, like designers who experience blindness and other conditions through role playing to empathise with the users and get into their shoes. However, one thing escapes notice in these experiences of a “temporary condition”: the novelty effect. When we live a temporary situation, we may over focus on the abilities we lost while we miss the skills we would have developed if that was a long-time situation. Many people lose their abilities slowly rather than abruptly or even are born with “deficiencies”. For example, seniors (legally in European Union people 65+) do not age in a day. We all age gradually. In the case of gradual defection does it feel the same? Does it have the same novelty effect? When designing for these types of groups we tend to compare them with an imaginary general acceptable “normal”, forgetting what is their normal. This results in us (the designers) focusing on the deterioration of the abilities or skills, while we may miss out on the users’ actual needs, which may be related to the deterioration of skills and abilities, but often are not.
In the digital seniors’ project, we met seniors who could not see well, and they had shaky hands, but these were not issues for them. It was just their daily life. Their issues were completely different and to be honest not that distant from issues that any social media user may have e.g. privacy considerations. Based on our experience with the project we published the article Searching for Empathy: A Swedish Study on Designing for Seniors. The article presents our reflection on our own preconceptions and the preconceptions passed to us through the related literature and tools we used to design technology for a population considered to be “different than the norm”.
In the end what is the norm? Do we really design in service of people, or, due to our inability to accept and understand other people’s reality, we solve problems that are unimportant or do not really exist? I will finish this blog by quoting a sentence from the New York Times article Disabled Do-It-Yourselves Lead Way to Technology Gains
[The] president of the National Federation of the Blind, says that blind people generally love their white canes, a simple and effective piece of technology. “A couple times a year someone comes to us and says, ‘We have this great new idea for how to replace the cane!’ ” he said. “We try to be objective, but no. You’re trying to solve a problem that’s not a problem.”