I came to ADA for a six-week internship to put everything I’ve learned about user-centered design at school into practice. I just finished my freshman year studying mechanical engineering at Northwestern University. A large part of the reason that I decided to go to Northwestern was because they are one of the only schools that enables freshmen engineering students to have real world design experiences. All freshmen engineers take the course “Design, Thinking, and Communication” (DTC), where a team of four freshmen are paired up with a client with a very specific need. Often, the client has a disability and the DTC team creates an adaptation to help that person carry out daily tasks or activities they love to participate in more easily.

One of my projects was for an elementary school student who used an eye gaze communication device. Upon meeting the student and her teacher, my team discovered that most people who use eye gaze devices are in a wheelchair. But as I learned at school, and I’ve come to see at ADA every day, things that are designed for “most people” still leave a lot of people unable to comfortably use the device. Although the student I met used an eye gaze device, she was able to walk around. Therefore, since the eye gaze device is designed for people in wheelchairs, it was difficult for her to use the device while walking around the school, while sitting on the floor, and in certain classrooms that didn’t have tables at the exact height needed for the communication device to register her eyes.

We went back to the elementary school several times, bringing new mock-ups with us each time we went in order to create the best possible adaptation for this student. Ultimately, we built a prototype that raises the eye gaze device from 2 feet, the student’s current sitting height, to 5 feet, her anticipated standing height as an adult. The prototype is also on wheels so that it is easy to transport throughout the school, and so that the student can use it anywhere.

Our final prototype

At school, I discovered that I love user-centered design and I wanted to come to ADA to gain more experience with it. During my internship at ADA, I was able to see the practice of user-centered design at a much larger scale every single day. I took everything that I learned through DTC at school, and built upon that knowledge with each project I worked on here. I got to see everyday how so many things that are designed for “most people” still leave out a lot of people.

I met a little boy who was beginning kindergarten, but the chairs at his school new school are not made to accommodate his specific needs. I worked on building an adaptation for his chair at school, so that he could sit at his desk, just like every other student. Similar to the processes I learned at school, I went on fittings in order to continue adjusting  the chair we made until it was perfect for him. With a seat insert on top of the chair and a footrest, he will be able to comfortably sit at his desk all day long, just like every other student in his classroom.

My internship at ADA has enabled me to really see the need for user-centered design. I’ve learned that no matter how well something is designed, if it is mass-produced, there will always be a population who is unable to use it.

David’s seat insert before the first fitting
David’s seat insert on top of his school chair, ready to be painted, polyed, and then delivered