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Arnold: The Helper Object


How do you design a solution to an everyday problem faced by a user with limited sensorial perception?

project overview

Design an assistive device for a blind user

role: interaction designer
duration: 4 weeks
team: Jillian Luo


We began the project by researching the disability we chose: blindness. We read first person accounts from people with similar disabilities, researched the physical basis of the disability, and previously created assistive technologies. 

Critical Questions

  • What form does the disability take?

  • What are the physical roots of the disability?

  • What common challenges people with this disability encounter

  • What are some guidelines relating to this disability?

Blindness Research and Interview-Script Slideshow

user interview

After performing the preliminary research on blindness and developing an interview script, we schedule a meeting with our client, Will. Understanding Will's first person account was critical in crafting his persona, obtaining a holistic understanding of the disability, and listening to issues he faces in his daily life. 

Will Interacting with a Starbucks cashier.

Will Interacting with a Starbucks cashier.


Will's persona covers his basic information along with some detailed information on his relationship to blindness, both personally and professionally. Crafting a comprehensive look at his relationship with blindness allowed us to better empathize with him and develop a personalized ideation methodology. 

“People just have such stereotypes about blindness, that, if you’re not wearing sunglasses and shaking your head and singing a Ray Charles’ song, they don’t assume you need help. You really need to look blind, in order to be treated blind.”
— Will

Interview Findings Slideshow


Using the insight we gained from interviewing Will we started cataloguing our discoveries and generating ideas. Using IDEO's Design Kit for reference, we methodically analyzed the findings and brainstormed ideas for problems to solve and devices to solve them.  After writing all of the ideas, we posted and sorted them into related groups and narrowed them to three possible concepts for three distinct issues. 


Downloading Learnings

Using the notes and quotes from our interview we began downloading our learnings as a team. We captured our ideas on Post-its notes using Will's persona as the guiding principle in our research. We decided to divide the downloads into four specific categories related to Will's story: background, personal stories, about disability, and assistive technology. 

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Once we had posted all of the stories and downloaded our findings, we began searching for themes among the anecdotes. We began asking questions such as: Are there any compelling insights that keep resurfacing? What are the consistent problems that Will keeps mentioning? What feels significant? What is surprising? 

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Creating Frameworks 

In order to better organize the information and make it less overwhelming, we created frameworks to help synthesize our learnings and find clarity. We crested a venn digram considering the main points we found in our themes. 


Design Principles

The design principles became the guidelines for our design. In essence, they were considerations that we needed to always keep in mind to ensure our design aligned with

Will's needs and wishes. 



After compiling the foundations of our research and studying our findings, we began sketching ideas for the problems we came across. Meanwhile, we kept this question in the back of our minds: how might we help Will tackle personal challenges in a way that both builds his confidence and augments his capabilities?

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Bundling Ideas

After having fun and coming up with as many real and far-fetched ideas as possible, we began bundling into groupings around the most most common problems being tackled. We noticed that four problems kept resurfacing: the desk, discovering new places and navigation, identification and location, and the cane. Meanwhile, we also put aside solutions that were not working and combining those that did. 

Screening + Constraints

We began the screening process within the bundled ideas looking for workable ideas and combining the ones that shared essential characteristics. Simultaneously, we put together a set of constraints that could have implications on our chosen ideas. 

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Gut Checking

After considering all of the possible ideas, we began focusing on the ones that were possible under our constraints and grouped them under three categories:

  • Storing/securing high-profile objects on Will's desk

  • Allowing Will to put aide his cane and use both hands occassionally

  • Providing information of sorroundings and people and help identify them


Complexity Timeline

We located the three scenarios we wanted to design for along a timeline of complexity. We located the cane, the desk, and the location/navigation on the timeline and listed the constraints and considerations associated with each one. 

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Ideating: Medium Complexity | Desk

Problem: how to prevent Will from knocking over high profile objects on his desk.

When sketching solutions for this problems we realized that we were coming up with countless solutions and it didn't seem like a very challenging problem. Therefore, we decided to take a stab at the high complexity problem.


Ideating: High Complexity | Navigation

Problem: help Will navigate lines by augmenting his ability to tell wether the person in front of him is moving or not.

We began sketching three approaches to this problem.

Low Fidelity Prototyping

After narrowing down our ideas to three approaches, we moved on to creating low fidelity prototypes and body storming scenarios for each one. 

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After finishing the ideation phase we moved on start prototyping the ideas we settled on. We began the process by creating physical sketches of all three ideas along with journey maps and body storming storyboards. After analyzing our findings from these exercises we created a working prototype of the clip-on model which Will sweetly nicknamed "Arnold". 


Physical Sketches

The physical sketches allowed us to make quick prototypes of our ideas and mock up a scenario to test them out. Along with the body storming exercise we created user flows and journey maps to understand the architecture behind each idea.  


Choosing an Approach

Using the findings from the body storm and our physical sketches we

chose the clip-on distance sensor as the approach to further prototype. In order to achieve the distance sensor we employed some programming and Arduino electronics. We designed the device to look like a tiny robot and used the electronics as integral parts of the design.

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user testing

After the ideation and prototyping phases were over we were ready to proceed to our first user testing session with Will. After receiving feedback from Will we moved on to a short 2 day phase of reiteration were we updated our prototype to account for some of Will's feedback before a second user testing session. 

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User Testing: Session 1 Takeaways

  • The form is cute, shouldn’t be something that looks like a medical device.

  • It’s easier to feel the vibration when holding it

  • The clip should be flexible so that it can be worn in different ways

  • Sensor has issue reading fabric

  • “The only thing you can’t locate with the cane is people”

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Updating Arnold

We had two days to make any updates to Arnold before we met with Will again so we had to b e strategic about what we tackled. We decided to improve the programming so that the delay between the vibrations isn't so severe. In addition, we added more vibrator motors so that the haptic feedback was stronger.  

User Testing: Session 2 Takeaways

  • Needs to be worn close against the body to feel the vibration

  • The haptic feedback feels best against palm, which makes him keep wanting to hold it

  • The device could be smaller to be worn on the wrist like a watch

  • Wearing on the wrist allows him to explore the surrounding by moving his arm - easier than turning the whole body

  • The pause between vibrations is confusing

Session 2: Storyboard


Learnings & accomplishments

  • Collaborated with a real user and expanded my knowledge on designing for disabilities and accessibility.

  • Learned how collaboration can enrich the design process and challenge personal design assumptions through dialogue and iteration.

  • Familiarized myself with Arduino prototyping and working with digital electronics.

  • Strengthened my user interviewing skills, conducting usability test, and validating designs through user testing.

Further improvements

  • Make the wearable more compact using a smaller Arduino, breadboard, and batteries.

  • Make the wearable easier to wear (probably around the wrist) and make haptic vibration stronger.

  • Program the device to recognize the direction it’s facing and make it easily adjustable by the user. Phone integration is a must.

Inspired by a cow finger glove Will was playing with during the interview, we decided to wrap Arnold in a cow spots pattern.

Inspired by a cow finger glove Will was playing with during the interview, we decided to wrap Arnold in a cow spots pattern.