Takeaways from a universal design exercise

Last year we spent several months testing our collaborative process through the design of a universally accessible home (the floorplan is below). I want to give you a small glimpse into our process, what we learned, and how you can be involved in the future.

The Process

Our design process is an adaptation of another process known as “design thinking.” We intentionally weave collaboration into each of the steps. To truly understand the needs and accommodate all people as best as possible, the design process must include contributors with different professional skillsets and personal experiences.

Our universal design process: define, research, brainstorm, develop, review [and pivot/revise], finalize, support.

In this process, we involve individuals with a background in design and healthcare in the early stages (steps 1-4) and in step 5 we have an opportunity for people who have personal experience with disability to share their opinion if the design works for their situation or not. The feedback allows our team to make changes where necessary (revise or do a complete “pivot”).

To “test” the process, we involved student interns from a variety of backgrounds.

The Team

  • Sandy Welfare – Doctoral-level occupational therapy student (who has since passed her exam to be an official OTD!) 
  • Brittany Drews – Masters-level occupational therapy student, with some formal education in interior design
  • Brooke Thabit – Masters-level interior design student
  • David S. Watson – Bachelors-level industrial design student
  • Me (a licensed OT) – Project manager, health professional
  • 60+ design advisors – individuals with a wide range of personal/professional experience with disability

Location & Communication

We don’t work from the same physical location. Our design team (me, Sandy, Brittany, Brooke, and David) were in different states in the USA, while the Design Advisors were spread across the USA, Canada, and parts of Europe and Asia.

Thankfully, technology makes remote collaboration possible. For this project, we used Basecamp for managing to-dos, schedules, and all written communication, Google Hangouts Meet for group video meetings, and Google Forms for collecting some of the feedback from our Design Advisors.

Not only were we testing how we collaborate, but we wanted to find out the best way our team could efficiently communicate remotely. This project served as a way for us to dial in our process and tweak communication with all team members for a clear and efficient workflow. 

What We Learned

1 First, remote communication can be really challenging if people aren’t comfortable with the technology that we use. We found that some people were stuck trying to figure out how to communicate over Basecamp and consequently missed out on providing meaningful feedback.

This led us to regroup and lean more heavily on something that most everyone is familiar with and comfortable with: email. The challenge with using email first is that it minimizes group interaction. We’re still figuring that out, but will be experimenting with using a Facebook Group. Participation is more important than the platform.

2 Second, getting designers and health professionals together – particularly over video – works really well when each participant respects the others’ unique skill sets and ability to contribute. This did not happen naturally. It took a few meetings to understand how each of us does things differently, but once we became comfortable with each other’s approaches, it worked well.

That said, we saw the importance of not working together all the time. Sure, we all regularly met together to stay in sync, but there were a lot of times where those from different disciplines met on their own. This provided space for the designers to be creative and for the OTs to review feedback from the Design Advisors and discuss usability issues before reconvening as a group.

3 Third, because different professions have different “languages” and jargon, we quickly figured out that we had to define commonly-used terms for each other and feel comfortable asking about things that we didn’t know.

This is one of the bigger challenges with interprofessional collaboration, particularly between industries that require advanced degrees and training. It’s important to understand each other and be okay with not knowing everything.

Communication & Feedback

It was exciting as the project went on to see the OTs lean on the designers to focus on design aspects, while the designers allowed OTs to bring up areas that needed to be addressed functionally. This exchange of information created an internal flow that worked well to ensure that we weren’t missing any important features or stepping on each other’s toes.

Over the course of the project, we tried different methods of sharing our progress for feedback from our group of Design Advisors. We started by sharing visuals in Basecamp messages and asking for feedback without much structure. This created some confusion, particularly with unpolished visuals, so we had to alter our approach.

We eventually started creating videos and explaining things verbally. We then created a short survey with yes or no questions and room for comments. This seemed to be the best way to clearly share information to receive feedback that was helpful for our design students to develop the design plans, though it was time-intensive and somewhat inefficient.

This project actually stopped before reaching a finalized home design due to our interns’ academic schedules. There are still things we’d like to change, but we were able to gain a plethora of information about the process, which was our main goal.

What’s next?

This project was part of the beginning. We needed to iron out the process for future projects with architects to collaboratively create universally accessible design plans for homes. If you’re intrigued about what we’re doing and would like to be part of it, click the button below.

If you’re wondering, wait – this process is neat and everything, but what did you actually produce? If you are interested in seeing 3D images from this project, check out this blog post: Results from student-led design exercises.

A Big Thank You!

We are so grateful for all our design advisors and student interns who worked hard to help us test this process.


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