Interview with Johannes Herseni,Cécile Zahorka and Patrick Oswald: Tracktile
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.
Interface design students Johannes Herseni, Cécile Zahorka and Patrick Oswald from the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam worked in conjunction with Microsoft Research on the idea for Tracktile, an electronic, foldable city map for the blind and visually impaired. We spoke to them about how this came about and the concept behind it.
You previously presented Tracktile at the FHP Werkschau in Potsdam and the Microsoft Research Design Expo 2015 in Redmond (US). What kind of feedback did you get?
The feedback was positive across the board: the specialist audience and our friends and acquaintances alike were enthused by the idea, not least because the idea behind Tracktile is very accessible and easy to understand. Potential users find it easy to picture what they might do with Tracktile. We were especially pleased that both visually impaired people and those with normal sight were interested in the concept. When you are talking about inclusive design, all too often you find that this only includes aids for people with disabilities – in other words, things that can be used only by a small group. Instead, we tried to create something that everyone can use – even if this means that they “just” enjoy it from an aesthetic point of view – and thus brings different people and groups together.
How did you come up with the idea of making a product for blind and visually impaired people?
The project came about as part of our course in interface design at the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam and was implemented in conjunction with Microsoft Research. Microsoft hosts the Design Expo every year, which sees design-focused universities across the world work on a specific task. In our case, we were given the theme of inclusive design. This was all about devising products or services that could enrich the lives of people with disabilities, while also having a certain appeal for others. Our team opted for the theme of visual impairment. We soon found ourselves asking certain questions, such as how blind people really get around, go on holiday, prepare for journeys and find their bearings in unfamiliar places, not to mention which souvenirs they buy to remind them of their holidays and share their recollections with others. We wanted to reconcile these disparate issues and objectives with our design for Tracktile.
How have blind and visually impaired people reacted to the product?
Most of them were very curious and eager to run their fingers over the map, tracing the streets, remarking on their layout and comparing them with their mental map of the same place. We were surprised at how quickly our test persons managed to find their way around and recognised squares and streets. Many of them expressed a desire for a higher level of detail and even noticed that we had left out some of the more minor pedestrian walkways.
How did you go about your research?
We were in close contact with our target group from the very outset and during the conception phase carried out various surveys in Facebook groups and by email in order to get an early overview of personal opinions and the requirements involved in preparing for holidays, getting around in urban areas, as well as collecting and saving mementos and souvenirs of trips taken. This was how we met our first test person, who met with us in person on a number of occasions, as did representatives of the mobility organisation Allgemeine Blinden- und Sehbehindertenverein Berlin (ABSV). Their highly valuable feedback allowed us to create the prototypes in a few short iteration cycles, before further developing the product and putting its functionality and content to the test.
How exactly was Tracktile produced? Which materials or electronics did you use?
The first of a total of three prototypes consisted of paper and a few copper wires. At this stage we experimented with different surface structures for buildings, green spaces and water, and later introduced ups and downs for streets and footpaths. In order to test its functionality, some places emitted an electronic signal when touched, indicating the street names via the attached computer. We developed the second prototype on the basis of the feedback on the first. This was cut from a varnished MDF panel and essentially comprises the design object in its aesthetic form. When developing the third prototype, we addressed the need for mobility and created a foldable city map with integrated electronics that work through the raised paper.
Did you encounter any problems along the way?
One tricky issue was the level of detail on the map: while some wanted more information, others thought that simply giving an overview of a city was quite enough. Finding a solution that covered both bases was far from easy. Furthermore there are no internationally standardised tactile symbols for maps. The integrated wires are also an ongoing issue, as they are not yet sufficiently robust to withstand the foldable version being kept closed, meaning that they do not last long enough.
How long did it take you to develop the product? And how long are you still planning to work on it?
The development phase was around four months, from the initial idea to the presentation in Redmond. Unfortunately, other commitments have meant that we have had to suspend work on Tracktile for a time. We plan to develop it into a marketable product, but the timeline is still uncertain.
Why did you call the product Tracktile?
Well, track also means trail, of course, but it also refers to audio tracks, which can be called up using the map. The word “tile” is used to refer to a section of a map. In addition, the name also echoes the word “tactile” – thus relating to the sense of touch. The name occurred to us out of the blue on a walk after work.