During the spring 2022 semester at Olin, I participated in Social Technology Enterprise with Purpose (STEP), where students and faculty collaborated in a startup-like environment to design and produce a piece of wearable technology with a focus on accessibility. Our team researched potential user groups and spoke with people with dexterity challenges and people who are blind or visually impaired, ultimately deciding to focus on the B/VI community. By the end of the semester, we had prototypes and production designs of three different ways of offering screen-free smartphone use: a smart ring that allows users to assign gestures to tasks on a phone, a quiet speech earpiece that can pick up whispers and assign specific words to actions with the potential to expand to dictation and/or voice assistant use in the future, and a small 4 button remote that can be used discretely.

  • Screenshot of our database of potential users and their barriers to using technology
  • Screenshot of general pain points and guidelines for what we make in STEP to address them
  • Screenshot of database of prototyping tests to try with users

The majority of my contributions to the team were in user research and design.

Our initial work was divided into sprints, and I began on a subteam researching potential user groups to build a database accessible to the larger team to help with our understanding of the barriers to using technology people may have. During the second sprint, I was part of a subteam continuing previous research on dexterity challenges. We interviewed individuals with varying hand/finger dexterity as well people who work closely with them. In the end, we realized that working on high tech products for people with dexterity challenges, many of whom are older adults, may not be that helpful since they generally want to improve their real-world interactions, not virtual ones. We also began to recognize technology as being centered around multitasking since we want to interact with technology while doing something that prevents us from using typical mobile devices.

When we started working on the final product ideas, I helped to plan for and conduct interviews to better understand the people who will use our products and how to design for their wants and needs. I synthesized our past takeaways to use as a starting point and generated potential user values for wearable technology. Within our subteam, I focused on the smart ring and how we would test style and interactions with the device. I worked on an interview plan to learn about interviewees’ current ideas about rings and give them a chance to try on varying ring styles for which they would create hand gestures. We conducted our interviews within the Olin community at first, but also began planning to talk to people in the B/VI community as we developed the products and would need input on how to make specific elements work for individuals.

I switched to the product design and mechanical prototyping subteam to practice and improve my rapid prototyping skills and learn more about designing products for production.

In addition to user research and engagements, I worked a little bit on mechanical and electrical prototyping. During the third sprint, I was part of a team testing haptic feedback and sensors for a smart insole. I built circuits for testing each component as well as for two larger arrays of haptics that we used to test where people felt comfortable receiving haptic feedback and could distinguish between different actuator locations on their feet. A few weeks into beginning work on the final product ideas, I switched to the product design and mechanical prototyping subteam to practice and improve my rapid prototyping skills and learn more about designing products for production. Within the mechanical team, I focused on the quiet speech earpiece. I started off creating sketch models and rapid prototypes of different form factors for an earpiece before switching to designing a mount for a contact microphone behind the ear to allow us to test our audio processing.

  • Blocks of text connected by blue lines explaining our design thinking for the headset

Based on research, interviews, and user testing throughout the semester, we determined that the best headset design was an earpiece that attached around the ear. Every individual has their own personal style, so a statement piece (like a choker) would restrict our user group to only those who want to wear such a piece. We also found that a contact microphone placed on the neck does not work as consistently between different people as placement near the ear. While talking to people in the BV/I community, we learned that leaving ears open to hearing environmental sounds is incredibly important for navigating with low or no vision, so putting anything into the ear canal could cause issues. An earpiece that fits around the ear also helps with fitting the device to the many ear shapes and sizes.

I started off by making a sketch model of an earbud with a contact microphone in order to figure out a comfortable angle at which to mount the mic, after which I explored ear hook forms with a combination of 3d printed parts and Sugru, used to create flexible sections. The team then transitioned to a goal of creating a mount for the contact microphone with data collection in mind rather than making an earpiece that users would want to wear. We began with an ear hook design before realizing that making a hook to fit many ear shapes and sizes would be difficult and unnecessary for data collection, so we switched to making a headband with hooks just to hold in in place.

Between, and sometimes during, sprints, I helped to plan the next phase of the project and figure out how STEP would move forward.

Throughout the semester, I took part in planning aspects of the STEP. Between, and sometimes during, sprints, I helped to plan the next phase of the project and figure out how STEP would move forward. I enjoyed discussing the future of the program and how it works as part of an Olin education, so during the final phase of the semester, I joined the team working on how to evaluate STEP as a learning experience. Most of our work involved creating a custom course evaluation that could better capture the student experience and provide useful information for how to improve the program in the future. We built the new form off of Olin’s standard course evaluation used for other classes, but replaced many questions based on student and faculty feedback on what information they wanted to document about STEP.

STEP didn’t feel like a class, which it wasn’t. While the lack of specific assignments can be a difficult adjustment for some students, working on a real-world project and receiving feedback from actual users instead of grades provides opportunities within higher education for people with different learning styles and sources of motivation to excel. Navigating unknowns and figuring out how to get started on each section of the project was difficult, but beginning with open exploration lead to different insights and as our work progressed, our abilities to quickly sort out what to do as a team improved.

Having been a part of STEP, I now see myself as more of a designer and trust in my ability to bring skills to a team.

I learned that I can retain and integrate a lot of product details and user feedback, which can be helpful while working on a team as well just for informing designs in general. I also got a chance to improve my interview skills in a ‘safe’ environment. It was great to focus on a single, larger project and get a more realistic work experience. I also enjoyed having the opportunity to take part in course planning and discussions, as well as having a more informal co-learner relationship with the teaching team.