A voice labeller specificially designed for people with visual impairment to empower them to live more independently and joyfully.

Motivation & Background

According to WHO, at least 2.2 billion people in the globe have a near or distance vision impairment. In China, there are millions of people with severe visual impairment, and they are faced with many difficulties ranging from tasks relying on visual senses, to stereotypes caused by low public awareness of their needs.

My personal experience with the blind people informs me that many perceived challenges, such as interacting with electronic gadgets or safely travelling around the city, could be overcame by technological innovations. For example, with accessibility features on web browsers and mobile UI systems, blind people can access the lastest news, chat with their friends, shop online, and even use a map application with audio guide to travel independently.

However, there aren't many consumer products in Chinese market targets these people's need for autonomy, competence and relatedness. Many designs either assume every blind people know how to read Braille and treat it as the only form of non-visual communication method. Part of the underlying reasons for such situations can be attributed to the misunderstanding of many product designers with regard to how these individuals live and work every day, as well as the the ignorance by the market research team to discover the value (such as the spending power) and needs of this group of users. As a college student studying product design and interested in accessibility, I wish to make some positive changes by doing extensive user research and exploring solutions not only to help individuals troubled by visual impairment to live more confidently, but also bridge the gap in mutual understanding by connecting 'them' to 'us'.

This product design research project starts in Spring 2021 under the impact of COVID lockdowns and remote learning. I formed a group with three other Chinese students studying in the Imperial College London in UK, and together we established strong links with local charity groups, students and chiropractors with severe visual impairment, in order to design something meaningful and useful with them.

Design Opportunities

After desk research and some information exchange from social media groups organised by volunteers, our team gained a better understanding of the notion of 'being blind', and studied motivations and needs of people with visual impairment. We decided to narrow down our project scope to address the needs of people with severe visual impariment or legally blind in particular (therefore, discounting conditions of deteoriating eyelights such as myopia or hyperopia due to aging). We also identified major causes of severe visual impairments, so that we could adapt our engagement strategies accordingly.

Based on these information, we approached several target users and involved them in casual interviews to understand what they are looking forward to improve their confidence to live more independently. We observed that although they could rely on their sense of smell to determine odors from food and remember the physical touch of certain objects with trial-and-error, for objects like food containers without distinguishable tactile features, books without Braille labels, or clothes of different colours, it is frustrating for them to have to keep everything in place and remember which item is which.

How about using audio to label item? We thought. And we researched.

The conclusion: there is no product in the Chinese market offering features using audio as the primary form of communication for effective information retrival to help blind people distinguish their personal belongings.

Thankfully, we had the opportunity to draw inspirations from the British market and see what they could offer. RNIB has provided their blind or partial sighted customers with various types of labels and label-making devices on everyday objects. In particular, PenFriend 3 Audio Labeller seems to satisfy our design needs, but the high cost of the product and the hussles for users to purchase separate label markers and keep track of them al reveal gaps in overall user experience. Our team therefore decided to improve the product design based on identified needs of our target user group based on this successful model, and seek solutions to integrate labelling processing and marker management in a seamless process.

A picture labels Design Opportunities: Physical touch, Error Proof, Multi-functional, Responsive, Lightweigh, Easy to Learn.t

Design Output: A voice labeller that prints out NFC-embeded marker for you

VOICE, our audio label maker, leveraging on real-time NFC transmission, affords the visually impaired users and their families to record, retrieve, and relay messages using reusable label tags. With an ergonomic form, simple operational procedures, replaceable label cartridges, and modularized electronics, VOICE incorporates usability, practicality and sustainability all-in-one. Reflecting on our journey, we have learnt how user-centred design can empower an underserved group to live more independently, and drawn the inspiration for future product designs: beyond a better look and touch, a good design should have its voice.

(The picture render was produced by Chuankai)
A render image on the final audio labeller-printer on a desk, with a few drug bottles labelled with the NFC-embedded markers.
Design Output presenting packaging design and commercial rendering. Please use OCR to scan for text contents.

Industrial Design Process

Design Engineering modules often require us to conduct extensive human-centred user research before we set up to generate product solutions. During this process, we learnt a lot about our users and our approach proved to be effective in accessibility product research.

The following pictures demonstrate some of our research output and support our design rationales.

This picture outlines our user research method from desk research to outreach and finally, engagement.
This page shows three fictional user profiles, known as 'user persona', to help us conceptualise and refer to group of users sharing common needs or representative.
This picture is a user journey map that visually presents the emotional state of our user in a case of making bakery at home.
This page presents key finds and insights generated from user research, including future design requirements of the following: (1) quicker adaptation; (2) object identification; (3) less cognitive load; (4) easy labelling process; (5) designing tactile interface for the label printer

The following board shows my early conceptual prototype of a tactile pattern printer which uses mechanical method for sight-loss users to print out labels with tactile cues - the rationale behind this design is to reduce information overload because usually people just need a small hint to recall the object.

My reflections

Disablity can be understood from the perspective of a social construct, where the socio-technical environment determines people's situation of being 'disabled'. While doing this project, I learnt so much about how to conduct user research with marginalised groups and how to connect with them and their communities. I learnt that empathy and common interests are important in participant sourcing and recruitment because I need to offer valuable experience for them in exchange of their inputs.

I developed many technical skills beside human-centred research skills, as we learnt to produce high quality CAD and rendering, along with packaging design and fulfilling regulation requirements of consumer electronics. The experience would enable me to work with other designers and engineers to produce meaningful and creative products that consider needs of diverse groups of people.

This project also marked the start of my journey in Design for Accessibility, leading to collaborations with Xiaomi Technical Committee specialists and W3C Web Accessibility team in China.