Don't let bad design hide your great technology
A few weeks ago, Ontario’s Ministry of Research and Innovation kindly invited me to be a guest blogger on their fantastic blog. Here’s what I wrote:
There is a reason why no language on earth has ever coined the phrase, “As beautiful as a wheelchair.” Technologies for people with disabilities are, quite often, pretty ugly. In my particular area – assistive software – all this bad design can worsen the challenges faced by people with profound disabilities. In fact, the tools they’re provided are often even harder to use than mainstream products. My dream as the CEO and Lead Designer of MyVoice is to change all that.
Two months ago, we launched the MyVoice Communication Aid, an innovative new app and web service for people with speech and language challenges like aphasia and autism. Just a few days ago, we reached a new milestone – 5000 users in a dozen countries. For a specialized market like ours, this is huge growth.
What attracted so many people to MyVoice? It wasn’t advertising – we haven’t spent a single dollar on that yet. Our secret is just simple, thoughtful design. It’s true that MyVoice pioneers powerful technologies like wireless, web-based customization and vocabularies that change automatically to suit a user’s current location. Yet for all this power, MyVoice is actually easier to use than other communication aids because of how we chose to design it.
Here are a few examples:
• It’s possible to use nearly everything in MyVoice (and even our advanced customization tool) without being able to read because we chose to convey the meaning of buttons through symbols and colours instead of text.
• Location aware vocabularies – our most advanced feature – actually make it easier for people with cognitive challenges to find the words they need. By giving them relevant vocabulary based on their location, MyVoice doesn’t require them to recall it themselves.
• By showing a “breadcrumb trail” of how the user has navigated their vocabulary, MyVoice helps memory-impaired users remember what they were doing. Other aids just provide a “back” button, which relies on users recalling what’s on the previous screen.
These examples are about MyVoice, but their lessons apply to all sorts of products. Believe me, you can easily build great design into whatever you do. The key is to make critical self-reflection part of the way you work: Budget time for a detailed analysis of your product. Obsess over each small piece as if it meant everything (we can spend days on individual buttons). Always ask what you can take away from a product, before asking what you should add. Most of all, ask everyone you encounter to give their two cents about what you could do better. Make it a ritual – meet, chat, test. You’ll be surprised at the results.
Making beautiful products is even more important in the tech world where it’s often poor design, not poor technology that holds brilliant teams back. Remember that this bucks the trend – your colleagues might try to convince you that it’s better to spend your time on technical rather than artistic challenges. Remind them that history is littered with the long-forgotten companies that had amazing technology, but terrible design. Better yet, try asking them if they’ve ever used a product that was too well designed. Then ask them if they’ve ever used a product that was too complex.
Good design is what lets innovative technologies thrive. We hope that MyVoice inspires other innovators to make design an essential part of what they do, especially in the assistive technology space. With luck, we may just change how the world sees products for people with disabilities.
Big thanks go out to Wendy Bryan, Brigitte Marleau and all the great staff at the Ministry of Research and Innovation for their interest, encouragement, and support.