Multiple Tools, one safety mechanism.
A few years ago, I developed a passion for fabrication design as I loved the process of working with my hands. However, as I navigated this learning experience in the classroom, through internet searches and experimentation, I kept running into barriers because of my hearing loss. How-to videos were not transcribed, teachers often taught techniques that rely on audible rather than visual cues, class environments were often noisy and inaccessible, and tools often signaled safety risks audibly. The aim of my project was to improve the fabrication experience for individuals with hearing loss.
Role: Experience researcher, prototype designer
Outcome: Safety glasses prototype which visually alerts users to pitch changes to ensure safe tool usage.
Research: To immerse myself in autoethnographical research, I took fabrication and product design classes. I did an apprenticeship at an architectural salvage company to restore and design repurposed home furnishings. I also interviewed other deaf fabricators, hearing fabricators and experts such as the Director of Design at DeWalt. I researched the history of tool design and visited DeWalt’s testing facility. Finally, I worked with the Director of Fabrication Design at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) to test tools in both wood and metal working fabrication.
Our goal in testing the tools was to determine what kind of feedback (visually, audibly, and tactilely) the tools gave to signal improper usage and/or safety risks. This would allow me to better understand both gaps that existed and opportunities for bridging those gaps. To test the tools, we cut or drilled into pieces of wood and metal multiple times, using different tool speeds and pressures. We noted the different audio and visual feedback that the tools emitted such as pitch change and sawdust emissions and noted how (or whether) this was helpful to the fabricator. Through this, I recognized the importance of audio feedback in a variety of tools and how that feedback changed across tools and with different types of pressure. Following this testing my question became, "how might we use this audible feedback to signal to the user that the tool was about to kickback at them?"
The process of acting as my own test subject for some of the research helped me realize that my status as a later deafened individual (I lost my hearing at 10 years old) who still had some residual hearing was especially valuable as a tester. This is because I knew what it was like both to hear and not hear. The fact that I was not completely deaf allowed me to have enough hearing loss so that I was forced to adapt to my circumstances but also still benefit from some sound to understand a bit of what I was missing. I use this insight today for advising designers on how to choose test subjects and develop personas.
Prototyping and Testing: After an ideation session, I began prototyping solutions. My inspiration came from a Craftsman router from the ‘80s with lights that indicated how forcefully the tool was being used. The lights, although a great idea, were not well executed. They were above the motor rather than on the base where the worker looks while using the tool. Additionally, it was hard to distinguish from the other labels and lights on the router.
I recognized that if I gave some sort of alert to the deaf user that it would have to be either tactile or visual. I began testing haptic feedback based on a recommendation from DeWalt's Design Director. However, if this was placed on the tool, I recognized that it was not always easy for the user to recognize this feedback. In addition, the increased vibration could lead to a piece being ruined.
Next, I tested remote vibration alerts. However, I learned that the brain has difficulty distinguishing between the vibration that a tool inevitably produces and that of vibration at a different place on your body.
Finally, I tested visual feedback. The old Black and Decker router taught me that this feedback needed to be strategically placed as the user must focus on the piece that they are working with. This meant that it could be placed on the tool, on the body of the user, or perhaps be some sort of environmental alert that was projected onto the piece. An environmental alert would be difficult as a craftsman works in different environments, including the outdoors. Further, if I placed them on the tool, I would likely have to develop multiple solutions due to the various tool designs. Was there something else that could be used across a variety of tools? A wood worker and metal worker often wore safety glasses and it was this insight that led to my solution: a pair of safety glasses that was engineered to visually alert the user to pitch changes.
The alert can be set to different pitches so that it will work with multiple tools. It can also be set to pick up pitch changes before the human ear can pick them up, making it valuable to both deaf and hearing users. My prototype was so successful that DeWalt was interested in developing it.
In my talks that I give on inclusive design today, I use this experience as an example of why it is valuable to analyze problems from a disability perspective. Most people would not recognize the problem (and hidden opportunity) of not being able to hear the pitch change. Even woodworkers who often work in a noisy environment do not even really notice it. But when things change from “it’s annoying” to “I can’t,” we are forced to recognize needs.