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A Design for Dad

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Jennifer Bove, Kicker Studio.
Jennifer Bove, Kicker Studio.
I like the idea of bespoke design concepts, because they are an opportunity to design for a single persona, or ideally, a real person, and design decisions can be based on the nuanced and particular behaviors of one. Those design ideas can become inspiration for a wider context and adapted to create new and interesting concepts that might not otherwise come up.

While we were working on the Kicker Touchscreen Conference Phone project, I started thinking about what a phone designed especially for my father might be like. I've often thought it would be fun to design something specifically for my dad. He's differently-abled then most men his age, because he has progressive MS. Multiple sclerosis, as you may know, can affect any part of the brain, and therefore any activity that the brain controls. For my dad, that's his strength, cognition and motor control. His challenges with movement, memory, and coordination make interaction with devices that we all take for granted a bit trickier for him. When I think about how to make his life easier, one of the first things that comes to mind is a new way for him to reach the outside world. And I'd start simply–by giving him a new phone.

Credit: All images by Tom Maiorana.
His current phone is a normal digital cordless phone, the simplest one we could find with large buttons. He doesn't know anyone's phone number, so we've got his phone plugged into a voice dialer that converts numbers to spoken names, and he uses voice commands instead of the keypad to dial. While we've been able to adapt what's available on the market to meet his needs, the challenges of this set up are still plenty. If I were to design a new phone for him it would be even simpler and easier to use than his current phone, and include functionality that caters specifically to his needs.

My dad's new phone would be a VoIP phone designed to sit on a side table next to a chair or a bed. This phone would have a base station with a large touch screen in it, and a wireless handset that's designed to be held in front of the body, instead of up to the ear. It would be simple, with very few controls, and easy to pick up and put down without too much coordination.

Receiving Calls
It takes my dad a while to pick up the phone when it rings, because he has to fumble for a while before he gets the phone to his ear and into the right position to talk. That usually involves putting it up to his left ear, but holding it in place with his right arm, which is not at all comfortable for him.
A natural, rounded shape, oriented vertically, would be ergonomic and easy to hold with one or two hands, positioned like a microphone instead of like a traditional handset. As a former attorney, he's used to talk into a Dictaphone all day long, and this position is quite natural for him. The speaker and microphone on the handset would work like a speaker phone while docked, or at closer range when held in the hands. He could answer the phone with a single voice command - "answer phone" - before removing the handset from the base. This would be the only voice command he'd need to remember.

Making A Call

Voice command dialing often fails my dad because he doesn't remember exactly how he labeled each number when it was stored. For example, my number is stored as "Jenn, New York," even though I now live in San Francisco, while my brother's number is "Andrew cell." Too many variations on the commands make them difficult for anyone to recall.

Another problem is that my dad's words tend to slur a bit towards the end of the day, so the phone occasionally doesn't recognize who he's calling, or mis-recognizes the name and dials the wrong number.

I'd solve this using images instead of words. The home screen on the base of the phone would have individual photos of each the people my dad usually calls. (Although there would be a way to access the number pad for programming, etc.) The photos, in a grid of six, would be used to auto dial pre-stored phone numbers. He'd just have to pick the person he wanted to talk to and press on their picture.

The phone would confirm his selection with audio feedback, "Call Jennifer," and he'd press a single large button to initiate the call. That same button, available on the touch screen and as an isolated physical button on the handset, would be used to end the call as well. This would solve the problem of having to look at the phone to figure out which button disconnects before pressing it, occasionally dropping the phone in the process.

Telling Time
It's hard for my dad to tell time. He's got a few really big digital display clocks, but life would be easier for him if I cut out that extra step of having to read the numbers and mentally translate them into hours. A simple audio clock that's accessed by tapping the top of the phone handset would be an easy and direct way to access the time. Tap: "It's 4:15 in the afternoon" - easy!

My dad doesn't sleep very much, and when he wakes up at odd hours of the night he doesn't think to look at the clock, or register the time before picking up the phone. The smart clock on the phone would give the time more meaning, so that when he tapped the top of it he'd hear something like, "It's 4 o'clock in the middle of the night. Shouldn't you be sleeping?" During prime sleeping hours the photos of people he normally calls could be dimmed to indicate that they're inactive/sleeping and probably shouldn't be disturbed. Each person's bedtime would be programmed individually; so since I'm on the west coast, I would be available at later hours than the other people he calls. In addition, the phone could be programmed so that if he tried to call someone who is "sleeping," the phone would automatically send a voice message to the recipient's voice mail instead of waking them up.

Of course, there would also be an emergency button that automatically called a designated number available to him at all times. This would be clearly differentiated from the other buttons, so as not to be confused with the other people he might want to talk to.

These are just a few of the interactions and features that we thought of in our brainstorming sessions, and clearly just the beginning. We could incorporate video calls, photo updates, audio text messaging--there are a ton of possibilities, really. It's just a start on a design problem that inspires me to think about new product behaviors to support differently-abled individuals, and perhaps improve the experiences of a wider set of people. So what would you design for someone you love? And who else could benefit from your design ideas?

This piece first ran on Kicker Studio's blog.

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Jennifer Bove is a founder and principal at Kicker Studio in San Francisco and on the faculty of the School of Visual Art's Interaction Design MFA department in New York. She travels, a lot.
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