Guest: Alastair Somerville Guest Title: Sensory Design Consultant
Date: October 25, 2017 Guest Company: Sensory UX
Debra: Hello, everyone. This is Debra Ruh. You’re watching or listening to Human Potential At Work. My guest today is somebody that I’ve known about his work for a long time and I first learned about his work when he appeared … He was one of our first guests ever on Access Chat. I was very impressed and continued to be very impressed with his work. I think y’all are going to be very impressed too. Alastair, welcome to the program.
Alastair: Good morning, Debra.
Debra: Alastair, tell everybody where you’re joining from and more about who you are and what you do. I do love that this program is global so you are joining us from the United Kingdom today. Welcome. Tell us more about who Alastair is.
Alastair: Sure, sure. Hi. I’m Alastair Somerville. I run Acuity Design. I’m currently in Stroud, in Gloucestershire, which is on the edge of the Cotswolds. It’s a beautiful area. I’m just back from holiday in Wales. That’s where I am now.
Where I come from, what I’ve done, in general I’ve fallen sideways into accessibility design because I come out of engineering and I come out of three dimensional printing. This is probably back in 2007 or so, I started doing three dimension printing for museums and particularly objects for people with disabilities. Objects for handling for blind people.
That led me into a lot of the work, which I do nowadays. It’s changed over time because the more I’ve worked, the more I’ve discovered that there are things we need to talk about and there’s things to discover. The more I’ve worked with people with disabilities the more I’ve realized that the way we talk about disability is wrong in so many ways.
Debra: I agree. I agree.
Alastair: In terms of the way that we need to talk about capacities and experience more than impairments and disability. Hopefully we can talk about that over the time.
Debra: Yes. I’m so aligned with you on that. I really have been impressed with the work that you’re doing at Acuity Design. Tell us why do you care about making sure that people with disabilities, and for that matter everybody, can have access to good design? Tell us why you care about these topics.
Alastair: I care about it in … It falls into two parts. In the sense that, A, I care about it because I care about people being able to experience and understand the things that they want and that they love to the maximum capacity that they can have. The need to be able to, say within our design process, is the way in which we design to meet different modalities. We adapt particularly visual to touch or to sound or whatever.
We find the sense through which the person can enjoy, understand, and use the information that whoever our client is, generally museums or government. That they can understand the product and use the product so that they can do what they want. To a certain extent it’s quite simple in that sense that it’s about finding the best sense that the person can find what they need.
The other side of it, and this is the flip side, which is coming out more often nowadays, is once you start looking at these designing for or creating these products or services, using these different services, you find that people who don’t specifically have impairments or have mild impairments due to aging actually love those products as well.
In designing for a group where it’s essential you actually design products, which are beneficial and loved by people who have mild or no impairments. It’s about expanding the world in which we actually all operate and all can have better things that we enjoy and love.
Debra: In other words, you are saying that we’re all human beings that have abilities and disabilities and also … I think of my two grown children for example. I have a son and I have a daughter, Sarah, that was born with Down Syndrome. Sarah actually … I’m going to say something silly. Sarah actually uses her brain differently than my son Kevin. “Well, yes, of course, Debra because they’re different people.”
It seems to me, Alastair, that often when we’re designing or we’re educating, we’re employing, that we treat people like they’re exactly the same. Just in that scenario. When my son was in school my son was really blessed in a way because he is one of the learners that he can sit and he can listen and he can actually be doodling and doing all kinds of things and it seems like he’s not paying attention but he is.
He was a really good student but a careless student because things came so easily to him because the way that they were teaching really adopted to the way his brain worked, right? Then my daughter, who has a delay and her brain works differently, she really fought and struggled and had to really apply herself more in school. I remember thinking this and thinking, “Well, it’s great that my son was lucky that he happened to have the ability to …” The way that the teaching was being brought to him was designed for his type of learning.
To me, you take it into a much broader. You’re dealing with museums and governments and so you take someone, two different individuals like my son versus my daughter, and now you take with my son and you make it all visual or you take and you start applying to other senses, he’s not going to excel as well because he does better listening. If he ever gets like my husband … My husband is wearing hearing aids now. Since that is such a good sense for him that’s going to impact his learning.
When you think about it like that, looking at the entire individual, do you find, Alastair, that we are building things in a certain way, for certain senses, and maybe for certain disabilities, but in the long run everyone benefits when you consider all the different senses?
Alastair: Yes. One of the things which came very early when I was working was discovering how much there is this problem of silos in disability. I was working a lot with charities for blind people. We were talking about design issues and we were talking about issues inherent of accessibility.
Yet, when you drifted across into learning disability or deafness or any of these other areas you actually found that the same ideas and actually more interesting solutions were available in those areas but there was no [inaudible 00:07:58] That was quite a big problem for me in the sense that we weren’t actually applying good design coherently across all disabilities.
That’s one problem. That comes out a lot of the accessibility design. There is distinct … It’s still very fragmented. There really isn’t that good enough conversations between people who are designing and working with people with different disabilities. That’s still inclusive design terms. That’s still quite a big problem.
When we talk about design we sort of end up talking about this imaginary person who has very rational tastes about certain things. It’s a strange dislocation that people understand it about themselves, they understand it about the people they meet. Yet, when they design they design for this very, very odd, non-existent person who we then end up with products, which don’t quite work for all of us.
Debra: Yeah, which is very interesting. I remember working with a customer and the customer … We did this multiple times. The customer wanted to create profiles. “Give us some typical profiles, Debra, of people that are deaf, people that are blind, people that have intellectual or cognitive disabilities and we’re going to take these little snapshots of these individuals and design for them.”
I’m like, “Well, okay” and we did it. We did it and then we’re like, “Well, I think that’s sort of defeating the purpose of what we’re trying to do, which is design for human beings that can use whatever senses that they choose to use.” Maybe they don’t have one of the senses or … You’re multidimensional beings. I think what’s interesting about your work, Alastair, is that you really are looking at this in a different way than I’m really seeing anyone looking at it. I just think I’m fascinated by the work you’re doing.
I don’t know if we’re being too esoteric. Let’s dig in a little bit and why don’t you talk about some examples? If you don’t mind, why don’t you talk about some examples that you’ve done with your museum work? Or maybe some of your workshops to try and ground this conversation a little bit in case people if we’re not giving them enough good data about what we’re talking about.
Alastair: Yeah. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Out of museum works, a lot of the time we do do maps for museums. Creating maps, we’ve done them in the UK and the US, tactile maps in particular for museums so people know where they are and where the exhibits are, et cetera.
That’s a fine thing. However, I just want to take one example, which came out of some work over the last couple of years. The Imperial War Museum in London was redesigned and there’s now a World War One exhibition there, which is very, very good. However, one of the things, which actually came out of when we were doing the work and doing the touring and all the rest of it was we discovered that one of the issues was not … It wasn’t to do with what we were actually designing. We were supposed to be there for designing for blind people.
Actually, the issue that we were coming across was actually the way they’ve built the exhibit with only one entrance and one exit. Very tight rooms with quite harsh lighting and quite hard walls. The rooms actually sensorially speaking … I do sensory audits of places to be able to understand them. Sensorially speaking, the place was really quite overwhelming in terms of you could get halfway through that journey and the amount of noise, the amount of light, the amount of smell, the amount of tightness of people around you, would quite possibly be triggering for certain people with certain neurodiversity issues.
That sort of thing doesn’t really get talked about a lot. It’s really one of the areas, which a lot of the work which is going on now which is going on in the future, is about neurodiversity and actually building spaces for people with dementia or autistic people where these are areas where design does not work well at the moment. I’m doing some very large projects on that, which are moving ahead where we’re talking about how do we design better public spaces such that people can be comfortable in them?
Going back to the Imperial War Museum we actually designed the map to show where there were quiet seats where you could escape the content, where you could actually refind and settle yourself away from all of this noise, all of this light, all of this stuff.
What’s shown on the map shows seats but it doesn’t show all the seats. It’s showing the seats [inaudible 00:13:41] be able to … Because this problem of being only one entrance and one exit, we couldn’t find a way of getting people out of the space to be able to become comfortable. Therefore, what we could do was mitigate the issue by showing where people could sit away from content and away from all of this overwhelming sensory information.
That’s a very physical piece of design where we’re creating ways in which people can actually go through places, prepare themselves, they can use them to the best of their capacities.
Debra: Right. Before you go to another example let’s just explore that for a minute. I personally have ADHD. I was diagnosed just a few years ago. I find in a spot like that where everything is really tight, there’s a lot of sensory stuff going on, that that actually would overwhelm me a little bit. If the room is too crowded or there’s too much going on it’s almost like I start, as an individual, get overstimulated and I start getting stressed out.
For the longest time I didn’t even realize that because I didn’t know who I was. Then I think of, Alastair, someone that’s in a wheelchair. That must have been very difficult for them to navigate. I think one of the things that I just love about the work you’re doing is … I know you’re going to talk about this a little in the interview but you’re really designing it for human beings because we all … Yes, you’re looking at the different disability types and the neurodiversity but of course we all have neurodiversity so you’re really designing for human beings.
I’m fascinated by that because I’ve been in museums and different public areas that is very overwhelming to me. I find that I want to study … I remember going to a museum in Brussels and I really wanted to study the work but there were laughing big conversations going on right beside me. I just felt almost stressed out by so much activity. I wasn’t able to enjoy it.
What I would do in this particular museum I would hold back and let that group go ahead so that I could … I wanted to have more of a contemplative experience with the paintings and stuff. I’m not always in that mood. Sometimes I’m always … I like that the work that you’re doing takes into account all of our senses, all of our humanness so that we can have the best experiences.
As you know, Alastair, sometimes maybe I don’t have a disability but I have four little kids with me, right? You’re multitasking. I just like that the work that you’re doing is considering every aspect of who we are as human beings and how all of our brains and the neurodiversity works. I’m fascinated with that.
Alastair: Yeah. This is to some extent why, I’m going to the second example, I’m going to workshop stuff, why I work that way is because working with designers who mostly speak and don’t have impairments and mostly speaking are young and [inaudible 00:17:22] aware and all the rest of it. They have good intent but yet bridging the gap between where they are and where they need to be in terms of understanding how to design for others. Certainly older people or people with disabilities, et cetera.
You have to start somewhere. The way in which I start is generally by getting people to be more open about their own sensory capacities. If you want to design for other people you need to actually understand yourself first and a lot of design doesn’t do that.
When workshopping a lot of the time I spend my time causing confusion amongst designers deliberately in order to be able to make them understand what seems very obvious to them can, with not too much adjustment, be very, very confusing if you start shifting, say for example, information to different senses. The way in which they think that people naturally perceive reality or stuff isn’t completely the same.
This is why I work in experiential workshops. We need to actually create experiences so people can actually understand not merely the differences in the way in which they perceive and their senses work for themselves but therefore that means it’s much easier to have a conversation with them about how other people perceive and use their senses.
It’s a way of actually creating an unfooting of people’s own experience so that we can actually then introduce in discussions of advanced assistive technologies and be able to talk about how ways in which current assistive technologies is creating different ways of experiencing the world. The ways in which we’re using new technology to create audio from vision. These ways in which we can actually create technologies, which allow us to experience the world differently, which are currently in assistive technology.
I think the seeing [inaudible 00:19:59] stuff, the project out of Microsoft, for example, is very interesting in that sense in that what you see in a lot of tech, certainly over the last 10 years, is what is assistive technology? Ways in which technology has been used to create ways of experiencing stuff for people with impairments go on to become general technology for everyone. Optical character recognition, text to speech, Siri, all of these …
Alastair: Captioning. All of these things, they’re all assistive technologies and yet now they’re just technologies and everyone uses them.
Debra: Right. Even curb cuts. We started curb cuts for people in wheelchairs. Who uses curb cuts now? Everybody.
Alastair: Everyone. There is a disconnection from … When we talk about all of these technologies the disconnect from actually saying, “These were technologies developed for, with, and by people with disabilities.” That’s part of a history, which gets deleted out.
Debra: I know you know this example but text to speech was created by IBM for people that were quadriplegic. They never really got much traction with it until the IBM engineers that were building cars saw it and they’re like, “Whoa, what we could do we could use this to improve the experience with cars. We could have keyless entries, we could have cars that talk to you. We could have all of these …” That was created for people with disabilities. Now all of society is benefiting from it.
Alastair, give me an example or give us an example of … I’m in one of your workshops, which by the way I totally want to attend because one of your workshops I don’t think the workshops are just for designers. I think it’s any of us that want to understand how to navigate our world better are going to benefit from taking some of the workshops you’re doing. Tell me how you disrupt your students. I’m in there and I know how to design, I’m a master designer. How are you going to disrupt me?
Alastair: The easiest one, and I use it very, very often … Actually, it’s one that maintains its utility over two years is by giving people messages, which they can only communicate objects or by touch. I give them a written message. Then I give them a pile of stuff like the Play-Doh, fur, leather, bits of Lego, anything really. It’s a pile of stuff. I split people up into groups. One person becomes the person who is blindfolded and can only … They can talk and then all the rest of the team have to create an object or a selection of objects to communicate the message.
The point is generally speaking people who come in think this will be easy because they’re used to designing symbols, they’re used to designing meanings and websites and all these other things. Yet, even if it’s a simple thing like … I change the questions depending on subjects but I’ve used stuff like where is the photocopier? Or show me your airplane ticket.
Debra: That’s a good one.
Alastair: These are supposedly very easy things. Yet, if you actually put people in a situation it becomes very difficulty very quickly. One of the key things about this whole exercise is the people who are offering these objects and building these objects they can’t speak but they can offer these objects. The person who is getting the objects can speak and they can monologue away about what they think it is.
That’s the only way in which … Stuff only means stuff when the user finds a meaning in it. This thing that the designers have to [inaudible 00:24:21] is fundamental. Yet, very often you find design processes where they don’t talk to users or they don’t test with users.
Alastair: Yes. Ever.
Debra: Ever. Not during any part of the process.
Alastair: They understand it therefore everyone will understand it.
Debra: Right. The master designers.
Alastair: What [inaudible 00:24:40] is very quickly demonstrate that their ability to understand stuff breaks very, very [inaudible 00:24:49] such that then we can have bigger conversations about designing with people, listening to people, designing Agile and all these other ways of designing stuff and testing it so that what you think the person understands is actually what they understand or designing for personalization.
It’s making people … Fundamentally, I spend a lot of time … This is I think one of the things. I spend a lot of time designing stuff, which we then take to users and we take to people and then I’m very open to the fact that it may not work, which because … I am not blind. Therefore I cannot test the stuff.
Debra: Yeah. Doug Foresta, my producer, is also following it. He made a comment. I have a bunch of electronic devices that would fall into that category. I’m going to ask you a hard question I think, Alastair. The good news is this is the way we should design because I am a former programmer. I programmed for years. When I programmed something I wanted all users to be able to use my program. I was never designing something to leave out groups of people.
I will be honest with you. At the time I knew nothing about designing for people with disabilities. It never occurred to me to do certain things. Now that’s a long time ago. We fast forward to today. How do you really put it as part of the process? I know often designers are in a situation where this was supposed to be designed and done weeks ago and they’re behind, they’re being pushed, they don’t have time to get those pesky users involved.
How do we change the way we design things so that we actually are designing for users and human beings? How do you do that? Also, I think I know this answer but I’m going to have you answer this, Alastair. Is that worth my time by putting those extra steps into my design and really listening to my users? Aren’t you just adding more work? Or is that really truly going to improve the end product, which of course I think I know that answer.
I have a team of 300 designers and so you convince me, Alastair, why you would disrupt the way that we currently design? Especially because we’re actually getting lots of complaints from our users saying that the designs that we’re building is not usable to them.
Alastair: Well, this is the thing. It’s who you get in the room when you’re talking about the design process early on. I’ve done this with some companies where if you get the customer services people in to the room at the same time to be able to say, “We keep getting these phone calls about this” so even if you’re a company, which doesn’t want to get users in, and so many don’t [inaudible 00:28:11] nowadays.
There are still huge numbers of people within any corporation or any company who actually know what users think because they encounter them. Normally they encounter them in a very negative sense. Yet, these data tracks or the data, which actually says there is dissatisfaction or there is satisfaction, this sort of stuff doesn’t get fed back into design process.
One of the things when we’re doing, say for example if you’re talking some of the more processes like design thinking, et cetera, where you’re trying to actually create a better way of designing product, bringing a broader number of people from within your own company is a better way of actually getting better product. In that there will be different experiences.
Though an issue may not be an issue in development, customer services or customer complaints will very clearly have ideas about what the heck is going to happen or has already happened. Impact and cost terms, it’s very easy to point at the costs of bad accessibility because it’s apparent in the customer service departments. It’s apparent in the returns department. It’s apparent in the sales figures, which aren’t meeting target. It’s all over the place.
The fact that people try to ignore the fact that it’s very, very apparent by just not putting all those things together but you can if you get all the people in from all these different departments. You will get the case for why your product needs to be accessible. It’s just it’s in all of these different departments.
Debra: And accessible to everyone.
Alastair: Yes. This is one of the things. One of the things, which is difficult about accessibility is when you talk accessibility and I’ve come across this many times, when you talk about accessibility people think that you’re talking about a group of people who are not them. They begin to talk about these people as though they’re not us.
Alastair: “I don’t care about people who aren’t me.” That’s really one of the reasons why I do sensory work is the sense that I know that everybody has … Everyone has sensors and everyone wants things, which meets their sensory needs. It’s a way of getting to accessibility without necessarily creating that barrier, which using the word accessibility sometimes creates, which is …
It’s always a tricky one because it’s a necessary word but the way in which it sometimes plays in corporate terms is it’s a cost without any benefit. That’s a dreadful situation. To some [inaudible 00:31:34] I go round the issue by talking about it in different ways and creating accessibility by stealth.
Debra: Right. Right. I could talk to you a long time because you’re such a brilliant engineer and I love the way that what you’re doing I think is some very powerful work in the world. I have two more questions for you. One of the questions is can you give us an example of a design? You talked about the museum but could you give us an example for the viewers and the listeners of a product that was designed or a service that was designed really taking into effect all of this that you’re bringing to the table? All of our senses.
Then the last question I’m going to ask you is how can people find out more about who you’re doing. If I want to go to your workshop, I want to be one of your customers. I want to make sure that people know how to find you because I just think that your work is really very, very powerful and the way that the world must go. We have to design for human beings. We have to. We have to make sure banks are designed for human beings, cars, devices, grocery stores, everything.
Can you give the listeners and viewers maybe an example of a design of something that you did that really would ground all this that we’re talking about? I know we’re talking about very technical stuff but what’s more important than doing a good design that all human beings can use?
Alastair: Yeah. Stuff I’ve been involved in the sense that I’ve helped out there’s products like Wayfinder, which was the [inaudible 00:33:25] of the way finding system for the blind, which I helped with the cognition work on that project. For people who don’t know, that’s using …
It’s Google-funded now. It’s using mobile phones to be able to get through particularly underground metro systems, which were inaccessible to GPS and all these other systems. It’s being able to provide guidance to people. It was specifically designed for people with visual impairments but the design and the way it’s been set up.
It’s an open standard so anyone can use it. It’s designed so it could be utilized by people with dementia and it’s a really interesting product. That one, that’s one I provided the way in which people … A lot of my work is now about how people perceive [inaudible 00:34:23] how they use, and how they use their brains, and how they use their imaginations.
That stuff is quite big. I can’t specifically name the place yet but there’s a very large project for designing a public space, which has got two million people visiting a week, we’re involved in. That’s interesting in a sense that the flow of two million people and the mix of two million people into one area about …
It’s not a particularly large space but it’s a massive piece of public realm design and the ways in which we need to talk about not merely the physicality of moving people around, the transport, the people with wheelchairs, people with walking sticks. The ways in which we need to talk about designing a space so that because so many people, the crowds, so the issues of how do we create calmness or rest within a space with so many people. [inaudible 00:35:32] that’s the very large thing going on now. Those are the two big ones, which have very big impacts upon a lot of people globally.
Debra: Yes. I know that my daughter with Down Syndrome or a lot of her friends with autism they need the quiet places. Once again, when I’ve been traveling and I’m tired and exhausted and overwhelmed and I’m in a place like that I need that. Once again, designing for human beings.
Alastair, I think that your work is changing the world. Tell our viewers and listeners how do they learn more about your work? Do you have a website? I hope you have a book because you need to. Tell us more about how people can find out about you and your work and get more involved in what you’re doing.
Alastair: Okay. The easiest places to find me are I do have a website, which is Acuity Design dot EU, which really that splits between the accessible design, so museum stuff, and things like physical build and also the workshops stuff so you can sort of see both sides there.
In terms of stuff … I don’t write books because I don’t actually like books as a way of doing thing. This is why I do workshops. Also, just to put it onside, some of the stuff and some of the ways in which I work the things that I do do [inaudible 00:37:06] but I do create things you can buy. On Etsy there is actually an Etsy shop for Acuity Design, all one word. You’ll find there that’s actually got … There’s sensory design stickers. There’s dice. There’s different forms of things I’ve created, which I’ve used in work and I’ve used in workshops.
The sensory design stickers and sensory design dice are actually there to make people think about their senses and the senses of their visitors or the product users in different ways. Actually, I’d prefer people to have a chat and have fun rather than have to read a really long book.
Debra: You’re right. You’re right. I think that when we’re having fun we’re learning anyway. Anyway, well, also, I know that you’re on social media. Give us an example of some of your handles.
Alastair: I am very heavily on Twitter because I prototype in public. You will see mostly everything I’m thinking of on Twitter so it does mean I have quite a lot of Twitters. At Acuity underscore Design is the best place. I don’t really use Facebook. No, Twitter is truly the best place to find the majority of what I think and do.
Debra: What we’ll also do is when we publish this we always take our Facebook Live and we caption it so it’s accessible for everybody. When we take the audio and we put it on the podcast and the radio we’ll make sure we have his website address out there and the other ways, his Etsy store and his Twitter handle, in case you forget. Alastair, thank you so much for the work you’re doing. I think you’re improving humanity and what better thing can we do than that? Thank you for being a guest on the program today.
Alastair: Thank you.
Speaker 3: You’ve been listening to Human Potential At Work with Debra Ruh. To learn more about Debra and how she can help your organization visit Ruh Global dot com. If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode and you want to make sure that you don’t miss any future episodes go to iTunes and subscribe to the podcast Human Potential At Work. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll be back next week with a new episode.