17 November 2016

Interview with
Olivia Hildebrandt: Tact

Text: Marie-Kathrin Zettl

In 2006, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, based on the principle of full inclusion of all people in society. In reality, however, performing everyday tasks without assistance still poses a challenge, for example, for blind and visually impaired people, in a world geared to the needs of the sighted. To help overcome these everyday barriers, designers develop products and services aimed at making the lives of those concerned easier and helping them to achieve more independence. 



As part of her studies at the Royal College of Art and the Imperial College in London, Olivia Hildebrand developed the modular guidance system Tact to make bus journeys in the British capital easier for the blind and visually impaired, as well as those with other disabilities. Installed at bus stops, Tact aims to make travel simpler and more independent for those concerned. We talked to Olivia about her project. 


How did you come up with the idea to develop a guidance system for the blind and visually impaired people?


The idea came up naturally. I first considered doing this project when an old lady asked for my help to find the bus she needed at a very crowded bus stop where about eight buses were stopping. She told me that she has been waiting half an hour and nobody had enough time to stop and help her, as it was the morning rush hour to go to work. She told me that every day is a struggle for her, but she still wants to keep her independence. The second reason, which is a bit silly, is about me. I have to wear glasses since I am three, without glasses or contact lenses I cannot read and cannot recognise people. So after talking with this old lady I decided to remove my contact lenses and try to use the London buses. What I have done next was getting in touch with organisations for the blind, which was very complicated and nobody wanted to help me until I went to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in London and a very kind man, Bill, heard how much I was struggling. He has been the most helpful person for my whole project. He introduced me to his friends that are also partially sighted and they all agreed to help me in this adventure. To learn about their everyday issues I shadowed them as a group but also individually. When I came up with the first ideas, that then became Tact, they told me, that they were relieved that someone understood their needs. They do not care about new technologies. It is always very complicated and does not always work; so this is why I decided to focus on simplicity.



What is the difference between the development of products for the blind and visually impaired people and people who are not limited in their sight? What has to be taken into account by the designer?


A product for the blind has to take into account many different things:

1. The shape must be easy to grab and it should be easy to find the different buttons. You have to think about textures if you have different buttons or functions on an object.

2. It has to be usable for all kinds of visual impairment, from partially sighted with tunnel vision to peripheral vision and so on, which requires research but also a lot of prototypes for them to test and touch.

3. The colour: I used black and yellow for Tact as it is a stronger colour contrast for visually impaired.

4. Simplicity is the key. Overcomplicating a product with many options and gadgets does not help.



What major challenges and problems did you face?


The biggest challenge I faced was to take all the issues visually impaired encounter everyday and to target just one. I chose London buses because it is a massive network that claims to be fully accessible. And I wanted to prove that it is not. Getting in touch with Transport for London was easy but convincing them to invest in Tact was much harder. I have been part of Innovation RCA Summer Incubator to investigate if my project has a potential and if the market was ready for it, which was a great experience. Unfortunately my project is too risky because I focused on London and only Transport of London has a say in what project can be placed on their network.



Are you working on more products of this kind?


At the moment I am not working on a new product for the blind. But I am willing to improve Tact to convince other countries, as Transport for London kindly told me it will be a difficult project to implement due to cuts. I am not giving up because I know that it is a project that can work for tomorrows public transports. But what I need is people to believe in me and that would be happy to help and invest to make this real.




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