Wayfindr, London’s best shot at transport accessibility for the blind, was developed out of a couple’s new year’s resolution. Digital designer Umesh Pandya and his optometrist wife were looking at ways they could collaborate in 2014, while satisfying a deep-rooted desire to help blind people. “We wanted to help people living with sight loss,” says Pandya, “My wife obviously deals with the diagnosis and prevention part of it, but I can’t do the prevention because I’m not a scientist. I had an interest in accessibility work anyway, and I’m fascinated with the internet of things, connectivities, and exploring what happens when our interface disappears.”
While choosing their resolution Pandya was a senior designer at London-based digital product studio ustwo, overseeing an internal program known as Invent Time, which saw teams coming together to pitch and develop their own projects in working hours. “We do a lot of work that’s under NDA that we can’t talk about,” says Pandya. “So how do we talk about our skills and processes extensively? With a passion project.”
The goal of Invent Time was to pair the studio’s technical abilities with experts in their field. Alone, ustwo don’t have the skills to develop products for blind users, so they set about finding a group to work with who did. “I was introduced to the Royal London Society for the Blind’s Youth Manifesto which is an awesome document that outlines the challenges that young blind people face in London. It’s everything around transportation, education, finance, and employment—all of these really important things that we take for granted. We decided at that point that transportation was something that we were interested in where we could help.”
The question then was how to un-learn years of design training and start imagining a service for people who can’t engage with graphics. “At ustwo, we were very well known for pixel perfect precision,” says Pandya, “which is about getting everything nice aesthetically. My background is graphic design. I studied at London College of Printing, and then I went to Saint Martins to do heavy duty graphic design, typography, and all of that. But with all this stuff around watches, phones, and the internet, what is the role of the the designer when you’re no longer visually designing anything?”
The answer for Wayfindr is audio interactions, or sonic design, where the interface transcends on-screen graphics, guiding the user intuitively through scenes and scenarios with prompts and commands that become second nature. “With Wayfindr you use your phone to navigate an indoor environment through beacons on the ceiling,” says Pandya. “As you come into proximity with them an instruction is triggered.”
Wayfindr leverages accessibility features already available on smartphones, along with hardware that’s ubiquitous on the market. Low energy Bluetooth technology is employed to communicate between strategically placed beacons and the user’s device. Using existing technology limits barriers to entry, ensuring the widest possible audience. “Assisted technology used to be very expensive,” says Pandya, “because the audience is so small, and the manufacturer still needs to make a minimum. Either the end user would need to have a grant or be pretty loaded to be able to receive that device or digital service.” Wayfindr subverts that model.
It also employs radical thinking where branding is concerned. There’s no logic in applying traditional visual logo marks to a product for partially sighted users, so Pandya and his team employed Moving Brands and audio experts Oblique Sound to create a moving logo mark for partners and investors, paired with a five-note accent sound to signify the product’s presence to partially sighted and blind end users.
“This is where it starts to extend the role of design out,” says Pandya, “and I think as a designer, it’s really interesting to be able to think across disciplines. It’s emotional, it’s empathy, it’s building that attachment without having to visually see it. Then you can look out there and think, of course, that’s what Intel are trying to do; that’s what McDonald’s are trying to do with ‘I’m lovin’ it.’ It’s sonic branding.”
To date Wayfindr has been trialled across a handful of London’s underground stations, in Sydney, and discussions are taking place to see future trials in the US. While it may only be baby steps at this stage, Pandya is optimistic that the project is gaining momentum. It has already received funding from Google to pay for the pilot stages, and partnering with Transport for London, the UK capital’s travel authority, has served to add legitimacy to the endeavour. The real test of Wayfindr will be whether it’s taken on as an open standard across different devices, apps, transport bodies and, eventually, nations; its visually-impaired vernacular becoming the standard for blind accessibility.
“We need organizations like TfL, blind charities, and technology companies” says Pandya. “We need the skills from all of these organizations to come together to deliver Wayfindr. There’s no chance we’re going to be able to employ everyone to do that. But these groups working together will solve the problems which they feel are barriers. They’re part of this movement. They’re helping to make a difference to people’s lives.”