Our research focussed on members of the blind, deaf and deafblind community. With assistance from VicDeaf and Able Australia, we recruited nine deaf people, six blind people and two people with deafblindness to participate in the research. These service providers also assisted in the development of a set of bespoke co-design research methods to address the unique needs of those with vision and hearing impairment, ensuring that all participants could actively participate. This included things like printing research materials in Braille and collaborating with expert translators for our deaf and deafblind participants.
We ran a series of co-design workshops to explore the problem space and generate ideas for improvement. We held one workshop for each of our participant groups; deaf, blind, and deafblind. During these workshops we collected the pain and delight points, processes, strategies and barriers that were common among our participants when travelling in the city.
Knowing that the best insights are built by immersing yourself in a user experience, we completed five in-depth city “walkthroughs”. We spent time walking around the city with Selwyn (a member of the Deaf community), Heather (a member of the Deafblind community), Maurice (a totally blind man who walks with a cane), Nadia (a totally blind lady who walks with a guide dog) and Robyn (a legally blind lady who walks with a cane). We designed each route with our participants based on their daily journey. We included challenges (interventions) intended to simulate the sorts of problems they regularly encounter. While we walked, we were able to observe the challenges each person faced, and we learnt from the way they made decisions and dealt with the challenges.
Every session was recorded through photography, audio recording and video recording (using a GoPro worn by one of our researchers) for playback and analysis of broader stakeholder groups. The route of each walkthrough was automatically plotted on a digital map using an app, with the geographic map becoming another shared artefact.
Throughout the project, we adopted a collaborative approach, which saw the Thick, CityLab, and Access and Inclusion Unit teams act as one. Each team brought a unique expertise to the project, and each knowledge set was equally as integral to the success of the project. The City of Melbourne teams were experts in the city space, and brought pre-existing knowledge of accessibility. They also helped navigate the complex machinations of council and connected us with the advocacy groups that helped us to shape the research and recruit participants. Thick brought a design thinking approach and designed and synthesised the participatory research activities. By immersing the City of Melbourne teams in the experiences of those living with sensory disability, they gained a personal, lived and layered appreciation for the user context. Our client was involved at every stage of the research process and for the majority of them, it was their first exposure to human centered design methods.
The final report outlines the rationale, process, insights and recommendations of the project. The report was designed to be shared within the council and across the industry, ensuring that our findings could help shape a best practice approach to accessibility in the City of Melbourne; including the future design of accessible and inclusive city services. Our report identified five key barriers for the sensory disability community which have informed twenty-one new programs within the City of Melbourne. Initiatives ranges from improving wayfinding and transport schedules, to training staff and having dog yards for guide dogs.
We designed an evaluation criteria based on the needs and goals of people with sensorydisabilities. This criteria guides City of Melbourne staff through a design process with a set of parameters that help to identify the value proposition in the design and implementation planning phases.
The evaluation criteria provides planners a simple user-centred framework with which to assess accessibility in the context of any project. It also offers clear guidance on how to engage and involve the relevant accessibility service providers. A clearer design criteria underpinned by meaningful design principles means better, more accessible city design.
Ideally, every city planner would gain first hand experience of the challenges people with sensory disabilities face when navigating their surroundings, but due to time and budget constraints it isn’t always possible. As such, we created scenario cards to help build empathy and understand the experiences of individuals with sensory disabilities as they move around the city.
The scenarios force those tasked with designing new services to consider how their own experiences contrast with those of people living with disability. By doing this, we help the City of Melbourne staff empathise with the severity of some situations. For example, one scenario reads:
“Imagine getting on your afternoon train, wrecked from work, and sitting in a special carriage with no windows or announcements. You count the stops until your station to be sure to get out at the right stop.” These scenarios help to make our findings easily absorbable and relatable.
We hosted a city-wide forum with 40 participants from across government and industry to share our research insights and work out how the city could best action key recommendations. As part of the forum, we conducted idea generation exercises to brainstorm ideas for change. Not only did the event broker new formal partnerships but it also initiated new city projects to embed accessibility into infrastructure and service development. For example, Telstra (Australia’s leading telecommunications organisation) is now investigating how public telephone boxes can be redesigned to consider accessibility requirements.
This project has impacted the City of Melbourne’s approach to accessibility, both within our team
and in the broader community. The project challenged our assumptions that technology (an app) would be the best way to address to the difficulties that people with sensory disabilities experience when navigating Melbourne’s central business district. With the commencement of the project, our focus quickly shifted to the importance of establishing empathy with the deaf, blind and deafblind community – we wanted (and needed) to better understand the challenges they face and the ways they overcome them. This understanding established a solid foundation for our team and the rest of the council to initiate and drive accessibility solutions for the future. Soon after the completion of the project, twenty-one new programs were set up to improve accessibility within the city.
These initiatives include improving the consistency, accuracy and clarity of wayfinding cues andsignals, as well as making information about changes to the environment or public transport schedules easier to access. The council is currently rolling out braille street signage across priority areas in the city, advocating for VicRoads (Roads Corporation of Victoria) to increase the number of audible crossing signals in the city, and working closely with local engineering services to roll out tactile ground surface indicators throughout the entire municipality.
Insights from the research are also informing projects to improve the general public’s awareness of accessibility and inclusion services in central Melbourne, and to make accessibility training more readily available. For example, Public Transport Victoria’s authorised officers and public facing staff at train stations are currently undergoing training to understand the navigation needs of residents with sensory disabilities.
It is not only the outcomes of the project that have created an impact but also the journey and process of the work itself. Thick’s inclusive research approach encouraged members from our team join research walk alongs in the city. Although there are a number of organisations who work with us to improve the accessibility of the city, very few ever had the chance to spend one on-one time with someone who is deaf, blind or deafblind.