In:visible Wallet Promoting social inclusion with empathy
“Why can’t we design a refrigerator that people with arthritis can easily open?” Industrial designer Patricia Moore once raised this question during a brainstorming meeting on refrigerator design while working for the renowned design company Raymond Loewy in 1979. However, her supervisor said, “We don’t design for those people.” This experience later inspired Moore to disguise as an 85-year-old lady and visited over a hundred cities in the U.S. over three years to experience the challenges faced by the elderly in everyday life. She then designed universal products for everyone based on the insights she got.
Decades later, Comma, a post-80s generation designer and visual communication design graduate of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, also asks a question similar to that raised by Moore: “Why don’t the merchants design products that can meet the needs of people with different disabilities?” There could be many commercial and cost considerations behind this question, yet she still wanted to find out the answer. That’s why she founded Mosi Mosi Lab in 2015. From the human-centred perspective of design thinking, she developed the “in:visible wallet” for the visually impaired to “touch” and distinguish banknotes. Comma hopes that, by factoring in social inclusiveness in a product design, she can encourage the public to be empathic and make a change.
Exploring needs through observing
Comma’s design thinking journey started from her graduation project. “In the beginning, I wanted to help people with some simple handmade products, so I did some research. But then I saw a visually impaired man walking with a walking stick and singing happily. Out of curiosity, I followed him for ten minutes.”
Design inspiration can come from curiosity as well as observation. The 10-minute walk made her realise the many problems faced by the visually impaired. “For example, the man missed a step, and stepped out of the pavement accidentally. So I boldly went forward to introduce myself, explained to him that I wanted to design a product for the visually impaired and asked him for opinions,” she added.
With his help, Comma met a group of visually impaired friends, and one of them is Kit-ying. “We spent more than two months together. We had meals and went shopping together. I found that she often needed to ask someone else to tell her the value of a banknote during shopping. This troublesome process also created psychological pressure as she was afraid of being cheated or bringing troubles to others.” This discovery helped Comma understand the pain points and psychological needs of the visually impaired during shopping, and inspired her to invent a wallet for them that can solve the problem.
After doing some research, Comma noticed that the existing note-measuring templates for the visually impaired in the market was not particularly useful. “They told me that it’s inconvenient to carry an extra note-measuring template with them. Besides, many of those who lost their sight later in life have not learnt Braille (a form of written language for blind people) so they cannot understand what’s printed on those templates.” Therefore, she decided to combine a wallet with a note-measuring template and made a dozen prototypes to be tried by the visually impaired before fine-tuning the design. “Due to cost consideration, the original version used a stitched scale, which was difficult to recognise. Then I used iron sheet and metal bar, but such designs still required them to fold the notes and put them into the wallet to measure the length,” she recalled.
Promoting inclusive design to change the society
Product design, like applying design thinking, is a process that comes with its own set of challenges and bottlenecks. When an obstacle is detected, design thinking will lead us back to the basic and to seek inspiration or even solution from the users. And Comma’s project is no exception. “A visually impaired person suggested that it would be better to measure the width of the notes and use a step-shaped ruler instead.” This advice gave her the epiphany she needed, and prompted her to come up with the final in:visible wallet. With the HK$300,000 raised through online crowdfunding in 2016, Comma made and donated 1,500 in:visible wallets to the visually impaired. “During the process, I kept asking for the users’ opinions. If I met a visually impaired person in the street, I would invite them to try the wallet.”
The process of constantly exploring users’ needs also brought her many new discoveries. “I didn’t realise that the visually impaired would care about the style of their wallets until a woman asked if I could design a red one for her. Then I learnt that she cared about her appearance because she worked in a bank previously and had to meet customers before she lost her sight. As we explore the needs of users during design thinking, we will find unexpected discoveries or even shocks that will drive us to come up with a product that truly meets their needs.”
Since the launch of the in:visible wallet a few years ago, Comma has been exploring ways to improve the design. “The original design resembles an ordinary wallet because the visually impaired want to look like other people. For the next stage, I want to expand the concept of the in:visible wallet for ordinary people as well. I may turn the note-measuring template, the coin purse and the cardholder into different components so that the users can design their own wallet according to their needs and purposes.”
However, in addition to improving the wallet, what Comma really wants to achieve is to promote the spirit of inclusive design. “For example, when a cashier learns the story of the in:visible wallet, he or she may behave differently when serving the visually impaired customers, showing them more care and empathy.” As such, she has been working closely with different organisations to turn the designs developed for people with autism and dyslexia into products so as to highlight the importance of empathy in the community. “This may be a small step, but I think design thinking represents a loving and caring attitude towards others that should be part of our nature. It will create a better society.”