Towards accessibility through human-centered design

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

An example of an innovation process for visually-impaired people.

As an Ideation Design student at Inscape Education Group, one of the fundamental principles we learn as a means to solve problems is to take a Human Centered Design approach within our process. This means we need to identify, understand and define a problem not only from the perspective of the people experiencing a particular challenge but do so with them by involving them from the start of a project and throughout. We apply this within a process called Design-Thinking, which is, in its most broad sense, an approach to problem solving and innovation that takes into consideration, the needs of people, the feasibility of technology as well as the economic viability of the solution.

To learn and practice how we can apply the principle of Human Centered Design, we were given a project spanning across 5 briefs over a semester of our academic year, where we were required to identify a real-world problem focused around human-centered issues in our local community to solve.


In many cases, you may find that inventions come from the personal experiences of an inventor. Being partially sighted myself - I am short-sighted/myopic and am not allowed to drive due to this- I would find difficulty in the grocery store seeing the aisle category signs because they were placed in the middle of the aisles as opposed to the ends of the aisles. I therefore could not benefit from them and had to instead look at the items I can see close-by and I spend a lot of time walking needlessly through aisles looking for the things I need. This was a problem I wanted to explore, but I had to put this into a research process at a community level, where you have to validate that the problem really does exist; that it is worth solving, and that more people than just one person is experiencing it.

I started this by doing some online research, finding relevant statistics related to visual impairment in South Africa, any relevant policies that address this issue and finding other solutions that already exist to address this problem because that in itself would indicate that the problem is valid. I then undertook qualitative primary research, which is first-hand research done in the form of face-to-face personal interviews, which I decided was the best way to do it. Two interviews were conducted with personnel working at the National Helpdesk as well as the Assistive Technology Centre at the South African National Council for the Blind (SANCB). These interviews were in-depth, open and only guided by the prepared questions. The people I interviewed were both very helpful and friendly to me and their input gave me much insight into the daily lives of the visually impaired and blind. This was not only because of their roles at SANCB but also because one was partially sighted with 30% vision between both eyes from birth and the other was totally blind from birth, and so I was able to draw from their rich knowledge and experiences.


Since conducting the interviews my understanding of the problem expanded drastically, realising that the issue of aisle signage was indeed narrow though not insignificant for the visually impaired. I came to understand that, coupled with accessibility within a store is the matter of mobility, which is the means and experience of travelling and arriving at the store which includes the outside environment, modes of transport, and the people encountered along the journey.

With this new knowledge, how I defined the problem expanded to understanding that apart from the challenges faced whilst doing their grocery shopping instore, people who are visually impaired also experience the challenge of navigating around unfamiliar outdoor public spaces as do sighted people but with the added difficulty of poor or no sight as they move around.


As the weeks working on this project have progressed, a few existing solutions have been encountered that are worth considering either by implementing the solution in the local community or developing a solution using those in existence as a guideline.

I have learned through this project that sometimes you do not need to reinvent the wheel when solving a problem. The solution may lie in what already exists or may be a matter of creatively taking something normally used for a different purpose and repurposing it to solve your problem.

Finally, I am discovering that the journey towards accessibility and inclusiveness of the disabled is long and almost daunting as one uncovers various gaps in our system and society where acknowledgement or consideration of the disabled is either lacking or non-existent. This ranges from research and data, public space accessibility, employment opportunities or simple awareness. Although this project was an academic learning exercise, it is something that I look forward to pursuing further in my career, and I hope that it may inspire others to do the same in whatever sphere they may work in. It may take time, determination, effort and resources for us to learn design-thinking, but to one day see a real dent in improvement of public space accessibility for the visually impaired and disabled, will surely make it worth it.

*Hlonipha Ngcobo is an Ideation Design student at Inscape Education Group, with an interest in disability inclusivity and city innovation. She may be contacted on

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