Design an X for Y
Let’s cover an example – “Design a refrigerator for the blind”
We want to design a refrigerator for the blind. In this case, normal refrigerators may be challenging for blind users to use, because a typical fridge relies on users’ vision; there’s generally low guidance from the product about what’s inside of it and where things are, so users have to take a look to navigate the contents.
Let’s think about our target user group. Blind users are generally characterized by not being able to see, but I think there are a few different subgroups here. Some users may have been blind at birth, in which case they might have fewer preconceived notions about what the inside of a fridge looks like or how they’re typically organized. Another sub-group may have lost vision sometime later in life, in which case they’ll have probably built a mental model of what the “typical” fridge looks like inside and where things generally go. And perhaps another sub-group we can consider for this product is those who are severely vision impaired or legally blind – I don’t know the technical definition here, but I’ll hypothesize that these users can perhaps see general outlines but not very high definition.
Ok, so what are the needs of these different subgroups, relative to the problems that a fridge typically solves? A fridge is for storing food at certain temperatures. In order to use a fridge, a user needs to know what is in it and where – usually it helps that the user may have put an item into the fridge themselves, so they may remember its location later, but in general a user opening a fridge needs to be able to figure out where items are, either by sight or through some other way. So effectively, for all our subgroups of blind users, they will need some way to learn about what is in the fridge and where. As they’re using the fridge, they may also want to put items into the fridge – in this case, the fridge needs some way of learning or knowing what is being put in and where, so that this information can be surfaced later. This is all assuming, of course, that we want the fridge to help out with this problem at all – blind users can probably use their sense of touch with a “normal” fridge to identify items in it, but this is not a very empowering experience; let’s assume that we want to design something more useful and interesting for these users.
How do the needs of our different subgroups differ? Those who were blind from birth or later as an adult may need some kind of introduction the first time they use a given fridge, so that they learn what the layout of the fridge is. For example, they may need to know that the fridge has three shelves and two drawers at the bottom, with three shelves on the inside of the door as well. For users who are legally blind, they may be able to see the layout of the fridge’s insides, so they may not need such an introduction feature.
So how can we address these needs? The main thing about these users is that they can’t rely on vision, the fridge has to rely on some other means of communicating with the user – voice and touch are appealing choices.
A very basic way to address this need, although not a smart one, is to rely on braille. This can roughly help users put items into a designated spot in the fridge, and retrieve them later if the organizational scheme is followed. Perhaps different sections of the fridge can be labeled in braille with different categories of foods, based on studies we can do of the typical proportions of what people store in their fridge. For example, we can label one area of a shelf on the inside of the door for “milk”, a drawer at the bottom for “vegetables”, etc. The problem with this, of course, is that the user may not have items in the fridge of the same proportion as what the labels are made for. To address that, perhaps we could also test the idea of just braille-labeling the different sections of the fridge based almost on coordinates, such as “top shelf left”, “top shelf center”, “top shelf right”, etc. This has the advantage of offering the user some flexibility, but at the cost of having less descriptive labels – another blind user coming to this fridge for the first time wouldn’t be able to guess what’s in each section by just reading the labels.
A smarter fridge might allow the user to record what’s in each section of the fridge. While this user is loading the fridge, the user finds an empty section, pushes a small button there, and then verbally describes what she is putting there. The fridge records this, and can apply some speech-to-text technology to clean up the statement for memory. Later, the fridge can repeat back to the user an inventory of the fridge with where each item is. There may even be an interface whereby the user can ask the fridge where something is, and the fridge will look that item up in its inventory and report its location.
An even smarter fridge might help the user out by sensing how full a section is, either by detecting the size of the objects in that section, or perhaps by weight. This could be helpful for our blind users because then the fridge can create a report on the overall status of the fridge, such as “The egg section is light” or “The fruit drawer is empty”. This could help blind users get a quick sense of what’s there, and it may even be the basis of recommendations, such as “The egg section is light – time to buy eggs?”. This feature is much like how sighted users can see with a glance how full or empty a fridge is.
Do our different subgroups from before need different features? So far, it seems like the features we’re developing are mostly with completely blind users in mind, but these features could all benefit legally blind users as well. One difference in needs is that legally blind users probably need a light in the fridge still, while completely blind users do not need this. It may also be easier for legally blind users to spot any major interface points, like buttons, on the fridge that are needed to trigger any of these features.
Other user groups outside of our target audience could also benefit from some of these features. For example, we talked about how the fridge might be able to give you alerts when you might be low on an item – this would be generally useful for all users I imagine. It may also be that this fridge can keep track of a shopping list for you in an app, or allow you to see, on the go, a general sense of how full your fridge is in different sections.
There are some other features I can think of here that might be beneficial to the experience for blind users. A bar code scanner built into the fridge may help with inputting items in – as the user is putting stuff in, the fridge scans the item, looks up the bar code, and instantly has an official entry for the item for its records. The fridge may also integrate with online shopping services, like Instacart – if the fridge detects that it’s low on eggs, perhaps it can have an integration with Instacart where items get automatically recommended for your cart when the fridge senses that you’re low on it. Perhaps Instacart could even offer a special service for blind users where not only are your groceries delivered, but they’re also stocked in your fridge, and the “what” and “where” of your groceries are updated correctly for you in your fridge.
Another advantage that sighted users have over blind users with a fridge is that a sighted user can sometimes see, with a glance, when something in the fridge has gone bad. Again, our smarter fridge may be able to help with this. The fridge can keep track of when the user put something into the fridge, and so it can send a warning when a certain time limit is reached – “Warning: you last recorded putting milk in the fridge 4 weeks ago. Check to see if it’s spoiled.”
How would we go about testing some of these ideas? Even the smarter fridge idea might be relatively easy to create as a rough prototype, by retrofitting a fridge with some additional buttons hooked up to a prototype app. Ideally, we’d invite in a bunch of users in our target group, and have them go through the major flows we’re expecting, such as taking a bag of groceries and putting them in the fridge, then coming to a full fridge and retrieving certain items. We’d definitely want to develop some score for how easily they can accomplish these tasks with and without our new features, so that we can see how helpful they are.
This was a fairly long answer for the sake of illustration. But, in this answer, we identified some subgroups of users, noted their user needs (which actually are pretty similar, which is fine), and then dove into some ideas of a fridge that can help with those user needs. We brought up a bunch of different ideas for features, which hopefully shows off creativity. And, we capped it off by talking about how we might go about testing our product. Tech companies generally love the idea of scrappily testing out prototypes, and luckily, we were able to propose a way of doing just this with our idea.
It all comes back to the target users and their needs – with this question, we brought them up constantly and tried to create a product to satisfy their needs.