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Swinburnes CDI: Human-Centred Design in Assistive Technology

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Swinburne’s Centre for Design Innovation (CDI) has embarked on a project in collaboration with a disability support provider to aid individuals with disabilities through the development of meaningful assistive technology. This initiative seeks to bridge the gap between users and the prototyping process, prioritising human needs over the allure of emerging technologies such as augmented reality or artificial intelligence.

At the helm of this project is Mat Lewis, Senior Industrial Designer at the Centre for Design Innovation. The research incorporated diverse methodologies such as workshops, in-context observation, and rigorous user testing. Despite the initial project prompt focusing on futuristic tech solutions, the team quickly realised that the desires and needs of people with disabilities were not aligned with these emerging trends.

“It was important that we understood what the end users of these potential designs actually wanted,” emphasised Mat Lewis. “Talking to the end users, we realised we didn’t need some futuristic tech solution. That’s not what they were asking for.”

Australia, like many other regions, grapples with significant statistics related to disability. An estimated one in three people with disabilities in Australia have avoided certain situations due to their disabilities. Notably, 34,000 individuals are living with cerebral palsy, and over 400,000 have acquired brain injuries that can impact fine motor skills. The CDI team recognised the pressing need to address these real-world challenges and not get swayed by the allure of buzzwords and emerging technologies.

The project’s initial brainstorming sessions yielded a plethora of ideas, ranging from high-tech solutions to simple, no-tech alternatives. The challenge lay in distilling these ideas into products that could tangibly improve the daily lives of individuals with disabilities, both at home and in the workplace. The refined selection included innovative concepts like an accessible clothes drying rack, a modular meal prep station, and a smart garden – designs grounded in meeting practical, everyday needs that current products often overlooked.

The turning point in the project came from a comment by the Customer Partnership Lead at the disability support provider, who shared the frustrations faced by individuals with certain disabilities when dealing with inaccessible USB ports. This revelation spurred the CDI team to develop an accessible USB conversion hub, a simple yet transformative tech solution that would open new possibilities for using existing and emerging USB-connected tech devices.

The design of the hub incorporated magnetic attachments and easy grip handles, addressing the varied levels of fine motor control and grip strength of its potential users. Careful consideration was given to the aesthetics of the hub, recognising that the visual appeal of assistive technologies was often neglected. Mat Lewis noted, “When we looked at current assistive technologies, we identified that aesthetics didn’t seem to be a high priority, and that just adds to the harmful stigma around these vital products.”

The prototype underwent rigorous user testing to ensure its practicality and commercial viability. The final product was presented to the disability support provider as a tangible and commercially feasible solution that could significantly improve the everyday lives of those living with disabilities. The Manager of Innovation and Competitive Practice at the provider expressed his satisfaction with the project, highlighting the positive response from people with and without disabilities.

The CDI’s collaborative project with the disability support provider is a testament to the power of human-centric design in the realm of assistive technology. By prioritising the practical, everyday needs of individuals with disabilities and steering away from futuristic tech fantasies, the team has crafted innovative solutions that not only address real-world challenges but also challenge societal stigmas associated with assistive technologies. This project serves as a beacon, illustrating how technology, when rooted in empathy and genuine understanding, can enhance and empower lives.


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