Developing indoor navigation aids for visually impaired audiences
UCAN Productions is a membership arts organisation working with young, visually impaired people to develop skills and confidence through drama and performance. Despite being passionately engaged in the arts, UCAN members were frustrated by the difficulties and constant barriers they face when visiting arts venues.
Taking matters into their own hands, they formed a ground-breaking collaboration with technology partner Calvium (a Bristol based app development company) and two pilot arts venues, Wales Millennium Centre and The Torch, Milford Haven. Working together as the UCAN GO project team, they set out to explore whether a piece of specific mobile technology could change things for visually impaired arts audiences.
UCAN members wanted to use their experiences as visually impaired audiences to develop a user-led mobile software app that would provide a verbal (and therefore mental) map of an arts venue. Existing on an individual’s smartphone, could the creation of this mental map help visually impaired people to navigate the complex public area of an arts venue confidently, and independently?
In doing this, could they create a simple and sustainable solution for venues to embrace, that would positively influence accessibility in the arts, while breaking down barriers for the visually impaired to engage and participate?
By involving visually impaired people at the heart of the technological design process, UCAN members envisaged a social innovation that empowered users to find solutions that work for them, while creating a genuinely tailor-made, user-focused product.
Together UCAN and Calvium formed a supportive collaboration as the UCAN GO project team, grounded in a mutual commitment to user-led co-design. The collaboration brought together the unique skills and experience of each partner to co-create a robust, simple, user-led technological solution for visually impaired audiences.
Over the course of a ten month period the UCAN GO project team worked in partnership with Wales Millennium Centre and the Torch Theatre to develop, test and pilot their proposition in two very different venues of size and scale, allowing the team to design and create a scalable and flexible solution.
The UCAN GO app is a fully functioning sophisticated application for the iPhone, ready for public release. Its development and completion has positioned the UCAN GO team as world leaders in indoor navigation technology using verbal mapping, and seen them break new ground in disability research and mobile technology.
The app features two main functions; an overview option to orient users, and a route finder to independently navigate a space. Responses from formal user testing were overwhelmingly positive, fully confirming the app’s value in enabling users to find their way around arts venues confidently.
User testing also revealed the app’s potential for non-visually impaired users, for example those suffering from anxiety or low or no mobility.
The user-led co-design process had a powerful impact. UCAN members Mared Jarman and Megan John felt validated as professionals while researching and delivering their part of the project, proving that their expertise can drive a design process with accessibility at the forefront.
The project also clearly identified a potential employment stream for visually impaired people when developing verbal maps for future projects.
With pioneering contributions to both software and content development, the UCAN GO team have made verbal mapping efficient and scalable across a range of different public spaces and organisations and placed visually impaired people at the heart of its process.
Key insights taken from the project are:
- User-led design helped the project to succeed: User-led co-design empowers visually impaired people to be experts in their own condition, enabling them to help create technological solutions that work for them.
- Symptom-based design provided an innovative approach: Designing tools for the visually impaired is best understood through symptoms, not conditions. A symptom-based approach reduces the number of variables required for personalisation and provides a better understanding of the overall user experience.
- Collaboration is vital: A clear shared vision was established at the offset, grounded in a mutual commitment to prioritise user-led co-design throughout the project.
- Questioning everything leads to learning: This partnership worked due to a dynamic and passionate approach and an open culture of questioning that made up for any lack of field experience.
- Reliability and scalability are key to success: Keeping the technology as simple as possible and focusing on the value of the content was critical to the successful functionality across different spaces.
- Innovative best practice guidelines: UCAN have created guidelines highlighting the importance and complexities around attention to detail when approaching a verbal mapping process; including guidance on crafting copy, finalising visual content and agreeing verbal content.