Design thinking for accessibility: getting into a user’s… wheelchair

There is this moment during a workshop, when as a facilitator you need to push your participants out of their comfort zones, watch them struggle and push them again.  In design thinking, this is taken to the extreme.  It is the component dedicated to empathy.

The first two days of our design thinking workshop in Bratislava were devoted to user engagement. The goal is to design solutions that would make public transportation in Bratislava more accessible for people with physical restrictions, i.e. wheelchair users, the elderly, the blind.

One way to get a better understanding of how it feels to use buses and trams in Bratislava when you are not fully mobile is to observe and talk with people for whom this is simply the every-day reality. This is where we started.

For several hours, workshop participants were criss-crossing Bratislava with people with disabilities, who kindly agreed to let us into their world. That gave our folks the chance not only to see what do people with disabilities struggle with when using public transportation, but also to ask them about their strategies, emotions, hopes and wishes.

Here is a photo of Adam and his dad, who have been amazing guides, sharing many important stories!

boy in a wheelchair, three other people standing on a sidewalk

Without a doubt, this was an illuminating experience. “I would have never thought about this [aspect]” was one of the sentences George and I heard most often this afternoon.

But let’s be honest, there is no better way to understand an experience than simply living it, in this case: sitting on a wheelchair or getting blindfolded and then trying to get to the bus stop and board the vehicle. That is what we asked our workshop participants to do on the second day, in the morning.

Properly equipped, the team went to the city and tried to get from one place to another. Pushing through the emotional discomfort and fear, they sat on the wheelchairs and got their hands dirty. Literally.

two men trying to ride wheelchairs

In the afternoon, we gathered to share stories and insights that the team collected over the past 24 hours. We sat with our sticky notes ready and while one person was telling a story from the user perspective, the others were taking notes of quotes, thoughts, actions and emotions that the story contained. All of these eventually populated two big “empathy maps” and enabled us to start defining the users we want to design for and the needs they have that we want to meet.

sic photos of people sicking postits on a flipchart

At the time when I am writing this blog post, the first prototypes are being built. In the afternoon, we will have the chance to test them with actual users, improve them and in the end present to a wider audience.

Curious to see what we’ve designed? Stay tuned!

Check more photos from the Udržateľná doprava v Bratislave project fanpage.


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