Industrial Design Studio Projects: A Promising Practice in Teaching Students the Value of Engaging Users with Disabilities

Date Updated

As part of a design project in a sophomore Industrial Design studio class at the Georgia Institute of Technology, students completed a project on assistive design. The objective of the project was to apply user-centered design strategies to design a product to meet a specific need for a user with a disability. Each student was required to identify potential barriers in a given scenario and then to design and fabricate a working product prototype to address the barrier. A boundary condition was that the new product had to work within the existing environment, without re-design the environment itself.

The two project scenarios are described below.

  • For a user with limited vision to travel to the bookstore via a shuttle, make a purchase, and then return via the shuttle with the item.
  • For a user with limited vision to go to the student center, purchase a meal at the cafeteria, pay, eat, and return the tray.

During the first week of the project, students used low vision simulation kits to identify barriers present in their scenario, devised potential solutions, and began mocking up and testing solutions. In the second week of the project students engaged with potential users recruited from the visually impaired community in Atlanta. During this visit, students interacted with the users to discuss their solutions and to solicit feedback on ideas. Each student walked through their scenario with three different users, giving them the chance to observe and ask questions. Students addressed the following questions:

  • How does your simulation approach compare to the experience of users who actually have limited vision? Are the users able to suggest different approaches that allow you to more accurately recreate their experience?
  • After going through the task scenario with the end users:
    • What new insights into problems are you able to discover by going through the scenario with the users?
    • What new ideas for solutions did you come up with after going through the task with the users?
    • What insights about the user's experience did you discover after going through the task with them that you could not discover through simulation?

After this class session, students had a week to update their designs.

Users visited for a second time to test student concepts and provide additional input. As the concepts were more finished at this point, students were able to engage users more fully in a participatory-design fashion. Students got feedback and improved their designs with user-devised approaches and ideas.

During the final week of the project students generated final, functional versions of their designs. Students presented and demonstrated their designs. The final prototypes were evaluated by a panel of external reviewers, which included visually impaired academics and assistive technology design professionals.

Most students began the project with mixed expectations on the effectiveness of simulation; most had moderate expectations, that simulation would be somewhat to very useful. At the end of the project, their experiences closely matched initial expectations. They found simulation provided some insight, but that it was not perfect. Students reported that they were somewhat able to improve their simulations after comparing their experiences with those of users with disabilities.

These design projects are a promising practice in teaching students how to use simulations and to engage users with disabilities in design projects focused on developing assistive devices and processes. They found advantages and disadvantages in using simulations. Through engagement with potential users, they developed empathy and learned to tackle unexpected issues. The engagement of actual users, while logistically difficult to coordinate in a class setting, is critical to for maximizing the value of the assignment.

This promising practice was funded in part by an AccessEngineering minigrant. For additional resources and information on increasing the participation of people with disabilities in engineering academic programs and careers visit AccessEngineering.