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Empathetic design is redefining accessibility for people with disabilities and special needs—and a growing number of major companies are adopting it

April 26, 2022, 3:55 PM UTC

When Raja Rajamannar was a kid, his grandmother, who lived with his family in India, became blind. “My sister and I had to help her navigate every day,” he says. “I really felt for her.”  Still, he acknowledges, he couldn’t truly know his grandmother’s experience moving around the world after losing sight. Now, Rajamannar works as chief marketing and communications officer and president, Healthcare business at Mastercard. In 2019, he was approached by a member of the company’s finance team to create a card specifically for people who are blind and visually impaired. “That was immediately a spark,” says Rajamannar.

The two years of work that followed were a deep dive into designing for accessibility. Individuals working at Mastercard in tech, procurement, finance, systems IT, marketing, product, and design were heavily involved in the project, as were outside teams at McCann Erickson, IDEMIA, the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the UK and Visions in the U.S. “I understand very little what a blind person goes through because I’ve been blessed with sight,” says Rajamannar, noting the intense level of co-design work and collaboration that went into the project.

The result? A system of notches on cards to help blind and visually impaired people distinguish between credit (half hexagon), debit (half circle) and prepaid (v-shaped) card options. The research process involved asking questions, educating everyone on pain points blind and visually impaired experience during transactions, learning the technology of card and ATM manufacturing and how adding notches influences that, mapping out unexpected costs, and so much more. “We had to make sure it was a scalable solution,” says Rajamannar. “If the cost of the card dramatically goes up, no one will adopt it. All of the card printing is done automatically and goes into envelopes and letters. All of this had to be considered. It was massive.”

The company also released two innovative ads demonstrating how the cards work while painting a vivid picture of one aspect of the blind experience. The overall project is an interesting take on designing for accessibility and demonstrates the myriad of ways businesses can get specific about broadening the user experience to apply to different needs and abilities.

Like Mastercard, so many companies are exploring just what it means to design for accessibility. From Amazon’s Alexa Show and Tell, to Xbox’s adaptive gaming controller, to Intercom’s notification sound design, there are an increasing number of examples of design and design-minded teams considering new ways of experiencing a product, app, website, process, service and much more.

Defining accessible

Josh Miele is a Principal Accessibility Researcher at Amazon (within Lab126) and focuses on helping the company make sure the hardware solutions it offers customers with disabilities are effective and useful. He is a 2021 MacArthur fellow, an inventor, and also happens to be blind. “I think of myself as a designer who isn’t so much designing products, as I am designing an accessible world,” says Miele. “That gives me an awfully large scope.”

Amazon’s effort to meet their users where they are has come in many forms. Show and Tell, for instance, provides people via multi modal devices access to otherwise difficult-to-get information. Individuals with impaired vision can hold a shoe or an apple and immediately know what they are holding. A can of black beans, or a box of cereal, though, is a tougher item to identify without the ability to read and differentiate branding or labels. Show and Tell will let you know if what you’re holding is a bag of chips or a bag of pretzels, a can of soup or a can of beans, or a box of cereal or cookies. Similarly, Miele’s own invention, YouDescribe, is essentially a form of closed caption for blind people, allowing anyone to add and record audio description to YouTube videos.

Miele says that before any offering can be considered accessible, designers, builders, engineers, and technologists need to be clear on what “accessible” really means: “For an experience to be accessible, a person with a disability can enjoy in as similar as possible a way as someone without a disability. It is not sufficient for an experience or a service or even a building to allow people with disabilities to use it. It needs to be enjoyed in the same way.” 

A great example Miele comes back to is visiting and entering a beautiful piece of architecture; say for example, City Hall in San Francisco. “You walk up the steps to the entrance and you’re in an atrium,” he says. “The architecture is intended to communicate the status and stature of the city. If you roll up in a wheelchair and you have to roll around back, go to a loading platform and take a service elevator, go through a back corridor, you get there, but it took a hell of a lot longer and it is a completely different experience.” The point, he says, is to give access and to delight the user. The access alone isn’t enough.

Being open to co-design

Getting there, says Matthew Jordan, partner at design firm Artefact, means that teams designing and building for a more accessible product or experience need to understand that empathetic design can only go so far. “There is a limit to how much empathy we can have for other people,” says Jordan. “It is not possible to actually experience another’s experience.” That’s why, he says, rapid iterative testing of ideas and prototypes is key—the standard truly needs to move toward participatory design and co-design.

Emmett Connolly, who works as senior director of product design at software company Intercom, agrees and points out that sometimes the traditional definition we assign to accessibility can extend to other scenarios. Intercom had gotten feedback from one of its customers that the sound used to alert users of a new message was particularly grating. The customer, says Connolly, struggled with ADHD and was on the autism spectrum. In this case, engineers and designers on the Intercom team added several different sounds to the company’s offerings, finding a sound that was far more acceptable for people with divergent sensory experiences. 

“One of our design principles is that our product is simple by default and flexible under the hood,” says Connolly, noting that sound design is often overlooked, in favor of the visual. “In the early days we put emphasis on having as few settings as possible. Intercom was one tool of many our customers used in their day. As Intercom has grown, with a more diverse population, you have a much broader range of needs. And, people are now using Intercom as part of their full-time job. The more people engage with a tool, the more they want to make it their own. The more diverse your audience becomes, the more individual the needs become. It’s okay for it to be configurable and customizable. Our users have started to co-design with us.”

Nicole Gull McElroy


Changes at IDEO

Sandy Speicher, CEO of design firm IDEO, stepped down last week and announced her departure from the company. Having assumed the role in 2019 after beloved CEO Tim Brown, Speicher spent a fair amount of her time as CEO working on the Innova Schools project, which brought more accessible education to emerging middle class families in Peru. She has taken some heat for the firm’s response to Black Lives Matter and bolstering what some have said is a toxic work culture. Brown, who is now executive chair at IDEO, along with Chief Creative Officer Paul Bennett, will assume the roles and responsibilities of interim co-CEOs during the transition.



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