Assistive devices for low-vision and hearing-impaired people

23 Jan 2014

I was visiting someone recently who has severe vision and hearing problems. The number and types of assistive devices that he has is amazing. Most of them came from the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Memory takes the place of vision with some of these devices: each has its own controls and layout to remember. It’s quite amazing to watch someone use them all. Click the images to see them larger.

Prescription-label readerThe ScripTalk Station reads prescription labels aloud. It gets information from an RFID chip in the label, so the medication has to come from a pharmacy that uses these labels (like the VA).

An occupational therapist provided some interesting tips: put a rubber band at the top of a bottle for morning doses, and at the bottom for evening. Turn the bottle over after taking the meds, then reset it the next day.

High-volume phoneAs it says on the handset, this is a LOUD telephone. I had to turn it way down to use it. The buttons are large enough for many low-vision people (and I blurred out the names on the top of the phone).

People with severe vision problems can contact the phone company to get an exemption from directory assistance charges. AT&T offers services through its Accessibility & Disability Services and The National Center for Customers with Disabilities.

TV listening deviceWilliams Sound makes SoundPlus TV listening devices like this. The base connects to the television, and sends the sound via infrared signals to the receiver, which the listener wears.

Sound on the television can be at a regular level for people without hearing problems, and the wearer can adjust the volume on the receiver.

Magnifier and text reader Two reading devices: On the left, is a magnifier. You can see the corner of a yellow page under the screen. This is good for simple documents.

On the right is the Extreme Reader by Second Vision. It does text-to-speech conversion and reads documents out loud. You can see a newspaper in the device, and the simple control panel with four big buttons. It’s obviously slower than reading on your own, but it’s an amazing thing to have when you can’t.

Talking blood pressure cuffThis HealthSmart blood pressure cuff speaks instructions, measures blood pressure and then speaks the results. It provides a general diagnosis (“According to World Health Organization recommendations…”)

I saw a similar device for measuring blood glucose levels.

Very large-type calendar Not everything is electronic. Large-print calendars like this are very helpful. One source for them is LS&S, “the catalog of products for the visually impaired and hard of hearing”. Other simple accommodations include small velcro strips on washing machines and dishwashers to help get oriented on the control panels.

Color and light meterThis one is my favorite: Press the red button to hear what color an item is, which can help vision-impaired people pick coordinating clothing (or carpets, for that matter).

Press the yellow button to get an audible signal that indicates the light level of the room. You don’t want to invite friends over for coffee if they can’t see the cake!


How do you know if your customers want that feature you’re planning?

23 Dec 2013

I took a client out to talk with customers about a big new feature they were planning. After just a couple of interviews, it became clear that customers didn’t want the feature. A couple of interviews saved a lot of time and expense.

It’s amazing what you learn by watching and listening. My favorite work these days is customer research. I love learning how people work, and how they think about what they do.

Here’s an overview of customer research along with some favorite methods and examples of important things we’ve learned by listening to customers over the years.

You might see it called different things, like customer research, design research, user experience research and user research. But it’s all about listening and learning.

Why we do customer research

There’s no point in just guessing how people work or think or use your product. As Jakob Nielsen said back in 2004:

“User research is a reality check. It tells you what really happens when people use computers. You can speculate on what customers want, or you can find out. The latter is the more fruitful approach.”


Here are some of the research methods that I’ve used over the years:

  • Customer interviews. Conversations with individual users about an aspect of their work. We might look at the product that we’re interested in, but the main goal is to talk about tasks and needs.
  • Usability studies. A more-structured observation of an individual user working with a product or a prototype. We learn about user behavior, and have a chance to observe actual work, and ask questions while the user is working.
  • Design Workshops. My Design Workshop starts as a brainstorming session, but I ask participants to sketch out their ideas, which makes them think a little harder. It’s a great way to explore concepts or start a new design project.
  • Surveys. This is a way to get data from a lot of people. Followups by phone or email allow some deeper discussion. A survey might be based on what we learn in customer interviews.
  • Card sorting. This is a great way to find out if an existing or proposed information architecture matches the way real users think about the data.

Team members observing

I always want client team members to participate or observe. They may be in the next room watching a video monitor, or observing via GoToMeeting, or going out to visit customers with me. I ask them to take notes and we have debriefing sessions to share our observations.

They learn a lot, too. Here are some examples of what team members have said:

“I never believed it would be so hard. I never thought people would have used it this way.”

“What we saw him do wasn’t what we expected.”

Observation leads to product improvement because the more observers there are, the harder it is to ignore problems that turn up.

Things we’ve learned

In all cases, the goal in customer research is to find out what people think and how they work. Research results lead to design changes in the short term, and to better UX strategy in the longer term.

We use data from customer research to build and refine our personas, too.

These are some of the things I’ve learned by listening to customers:

  • Web tools for the construction industry. We stopped development on a new feature because the target audience didn’t want it. This saved a lot of development time.
  • Dictation tool for physicians. “Physicians don’t do that.” A doctor made it clear that office staffers are the ones to enter demographic information, so we changed the workflow.
  • Business reporting site. Customer visits turned up a need for business owners to delegate certain tasks to employees. They wouldn’t have been able to use the tool if we hadn’t learned about this.
  • Consumer software. Even though customer surveys showed great satisfaction, when I ran this client’s first usability study, it turned out that no one could actually use an important part of it.
  • Online magazines, online courses & business sites. People have told us over the years that they’re a bit shy about commenting on what someone else has written online.
  • Sales productivity tool. Observers saw problems they had not seen in the lab. They started a fix right away.

Is it time for you to start doing customer research?

Have you talked with your customers recently? Let’s talk about ways to improve your products through customer research.

Where does the credit card go?

30 Sep 2013

I bought stamps at the Post office today and saw that they have new terminals for swiping credit cards. It was this one, or one just like it.

The new card swipe terminal at the US Post Office

The Ingenico iSC 350
Quick: where would you swipe your credit card?

Perhaps because I was looking at the pen, but I tried to swipe the card in the slot just under the pen. But that’s not where the card goes, that’s just a space between two parts of the device. The card goes in the space just above the keypad (which wasn’t lit up when I used it).

The funny thing is that the clerk said that I wasn’t the first person who did that! Maybe a little usability testing would have helped.

Update (7 Aug 2014)
When I bought stamps today, I noticed that the slot at the top of the machine was covered with tape. The clerk said they had to do it because so many people tried swiping their cards there.

Tape covers the slot that many people (including me) tried to use for swiping credit cards

Well, that’s one way to fix the problem.

A chair you can’t fall off of

26 Sep 2013

A chair you can't fall off of

Instead of having four legs, this desk chair has a sled base that’s not flat. We took our son to college recently, and found these in the dorm rooms.

The angled base allows the sitter to lean back, but it stops the chair from going too far back. It’s like a two-position rocking chair.Legs are subject to damage when a chair is tipped, but this avoids that problem.

I’ll have to ask how comfortable it is.

Climbing up the bus

14 Aug 2013

As I approached the bike store, I saw some people working on a trolley bus, the kind that draws power from overhead wires. Then, while I was locking it to a pole, the mechanic walked over and climbed up to the top of the bus. I’d never noticed that trolley buses have built-in ladders.

This is probably easier than designing a place to stow a ladder inside the bus, and it doesn’t require any extra clearance the way a ladder would. That probably makes it safer. I don’t recall seeing any warning signs for the climber, though.

MBTA bus ladder with steps shown opened and closed

Steps closed (left) and open for mechanics to climb to the roof (right).

It took me by surprise to see the mechanic climb up the side of the bus, or I’d have take a photo of him climbing!

Low-tech safety: text on a hospital chair

21 Jun 2013

This is a chair in the pre-op ward of a local hospital. There’s a tray on the side, and it’s stowed away now. It has a nice low-tech safety feature: text.

Hospital chair with low-tech safety feature

The label on the tray says, “NOT FULLY ENGAGED”.

Closeup of hospital chair's tray

To use the tray, you’d lift it up and slide it in. When the label is hidden, the tray is safely installed. If it’s not “engaged” fully (not inserted all the way), the label shows.

I don’t know how well it works in practice, and I can only assume that there was a problem with trays collapsing. It seems like a good simple solution, though.

Electric drill with a magnetic tray for screws

13 Jun 2013

We had some contractors in the house recently. I noticed that one of them had a cordless drill with a tray holding the screws he was going to use. I asked him about it and he said that it was magnetic and held the screws until he needed them. The tip is also magnetic, so the screw he was putting in wouldn’t fall out. He also liked that there’s a bubble level on the top, so he knows if he’s putting the screw in right.

Drill with magnetic parts

Features like levels, magnetic trays and magnetic tips are important to users like contractors who use a drill constantly. These features come from good customer research.