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InfoQ Homepage News Human Centered Design for Special Needs: Q&A with Mileha Soneji

Human Centered Design for Special Needs: Q&A with Mileha Soneji

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Observing users to understand their needs helps to define the problem you need to solve, argued Mileha Soneji. In her talk at ACE Conference 2019 she showed how human-centered design with minimum viable prototypes can help to gain better insight faster, and that breaking down problems into smaller problems can be used to ideate simpler solutions.

In her TED talk Simple Hacks for Life with Parkinson’s given at TEDxDelft in 2015, Mileha Soneji tells a story about her uncle who has Parkinson’s disease. The talk shows how she decided to observe his behavior during his daily tasks, as she wanted to work on designing something for her uncle for her project on designing for special needs.

It is important to understand your users and their context, and then from there define the problems you need to solve, said Soneji at ACE conference. Asking questions and interviewing your users gives you an understanding of them, but your understanding is only limited to your questions. She said, "I decided that I needed to get a more complete understanding of his context and his problems by just observing him, almost shadowing him." This gave her more questions to ask him about why he did things a certain way, and what his main issues were.

By observing her uncle she learned that he drinks tea, but little tea in a big cup to avoid spillage due to tremors. She also learned that he has problems while walking on flat land and that he uses a walker to walk. He faces freezing of gait, a common symptom of Parkinson’s, but when climbing a staircase this symptom vanishes. He can easily climb stairs, as Soneji explained:

I discovered this when I saw him walking to his dining table and he was facing freezing of gait a lot; that triggered me to think, he lives on the 1st floor of the building and needs to climb stairs. His building did not have an elevator, nor a stairlift so I wondered, how did he climb the staircase? I asked my uncle this question and he said, "That’s easy, let me show you."

In her talk, Soneji explained how she creates simple and minimum viable prototypes and immediately tests them to see their impact, gain better insight, and maybe fail faster to improve it further, using user insights.

The moment I saw my uncle walk down the staircase, I wondered, if real stairs work, would a printed illusion of a staircase on a flat floor work? So I immediately went home and printed A3 sheets and plastered them together to create a staircase. I created this easily to quickly test it with my uncle to see that it worked and to define the exact scale.

Soneji used the principles of human-centered design to come up with solutions that impact the lives of patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease. She said, "I decided to understand my users, step into their shoes, empathize, understand their context and then define their main problems." Based on that she breaks down the problems into smaller problems and then ideates simpler solutions for them.

When designing the NoSpill cup she defined the main problem statement as "To design a way to help people with tremors drink easily". The problem statement provided an open way to ideate without boundaries. In order to ideate on this, there were different ways to achieve this, said Soneji: by stabilizing the hands, by designing a cup that stabilizes itself, by designing a more closed cup, or by designing the form of the cup. By breaking down the ways to do these, she found an easier way to reach a solution.

Mileha Soneji, UX researcher at ASML, spoke about Human Centred Design for the Elderly with Parkinson’s at ACE conference 2019. InfoQ interviewed Soneji about human-centered design and researching the needs of users.

InfoQ: How do you apply the principles and practices of human-centered design?

Mileha Soneji: I make sure to always step into my user’s shoes, and in the project or team I always ask questions from the user’s perspective. We always make sure to make things simpler and more intuitive for the user. I am also always the one trying to test quicker, even with quickly-built prototypes, so that we can ask more questions and understand if the user appreciates it.

I have created designs for a peeler that has an adjustable blade, so that the user can peel an apple, and also the thick skin of a raw mango. As that is the main problem of a peeler, one either wastes fruit or needs to apply more pressure to peel thicker skin. I also designed bowls that are flat and which the users can bend the way they want, so they have an interaction with the product and can use both sides. Plus, shipping flat boxes is cheaper and more eco-friendly as they occupy less space, meaning one can ship more

A great example is that of the KittenScanner by Philips. With the Philips scanner, the more scans you make, the more valuable it is, so every scan needs to be done as quickly as possible. With children, it always takes longer as they are scared and move a lot. So by researching and understanding the context and their users, they designed a solution in the waiting room. They set up a mini scanner where the kids could scan their soft toys and see the outcome on a screen and understand what they will go through. This reduced the time needed in the scanner tremendously. Thus, the human-centered approach helped to define a solution that did not intrude on the scanning process and wasn’t directly scanner-related, but just about empathy and awareness.

InfoQ: What’s your advice on researching the needs of users?

Soneji: David Ogilvy once said, "People don’t think how they feel. They don’t say what they think and don’t do what they say." So my advice is to shadow your user and observe them, leave out interpretations and assumptions, and keep asking why like a kid, as that will bring you to the root cause of the problem.

For e.g., your user drinks water; an interpretation is he/she is thirsty. But the observation is he/she drinks a glass of water. By asking "why?" you will know that maybe he/she had a cough or some other reason for drinking. But never interpret observations; always ask "why".

In my uncle’s case, he avoided drinking tea or coffee in public. When I asked why, I realized it was because he was embarrassed and didn’t want to spill his drink. But by asking additional questions, I found out that the reason he didn’t want to use products like sippers, etc. that would help him drink was that they are perceived to be for kids, and he doesn’t wish to stand out amongst his friends. So the root cause is that he doesn’t see any product out there that is designed for all and fits his needs, too: a product that doesn’t look like a product for a special needs person.

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