Voice assistants have already become a friend to people with disabilities or who are confined to hospital beds. But while the hands-free, far-field controls are helpful for a whole range of people, from families to elderly people living alone, there's still more to be done to expand who can use them day to day.
That's why it's nice to see the Owl 'accessibility jacket' for Amazon Alexa from London and NY based design consultancy Smart Design.
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It was custom made for a woman named Susan who suffers from a progressive form of MS which she has lived with for 20 years. She has limited dexterity in her hands, requires carers to wash and dress her and operate phones and TVs. And Susan's favourite animal is... an owl.
Designing for Susan
The Owl was developed and built within four weeks. Here's how it works - it consists of two Echo Dots, one of which has a personalised, guided pathway menu system (via an Alexa skill) that talks to the other Dot to get to what Susan wants. It sounds complicated but in reality, it's a smoother process than the alternative and Susan can now interact with Alexa to listen to music and control her TV.
Smart Design says that for some people with MS or other cognitive impairments, "using an Alexa is like going into a restaurant with no idea what‚Äôs on the menu ‚Äď with an impatient waiter standing there expecting you to say precisely what you want very quickly."
It's the kind of thing you might notice when you're even simply distracted while interacting with Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri. You might say the phrase wrong or take too much time to say the command for the interaction to be successful.
Using voice controls with a standard Echo set up, Susan isn't always able to say the precise command phrase in time for Alexa to work as it should. But even though this combination of hardware and software has been built with one specific person in mind, the design firm thinks it can benefit many people.
Senior design strategist Ruby Steel said: "Designing for one user with extreme needs has resulted in a product that pushes the boundaries of accessibility in existing voice tech while inspiring us to think through future applications for those who might experience similar temporary or permanent disabilities."
Personalised connected characters
Smart Design is also hopeful that personalisation will become more prevalent for these types of devices. As we said, owls are Susan's favourite animals and so that particular visual is personal to her hence this choice of design.
But the team thinks that devices with voice assistants built in could be personalised via their physical appearance, audio and lighting. For instance, the frankly adorable owl has different states to show its idle or active (as pictured) and is designed to be a warm, friendly physical presence - compared to a cold, metal smart speaker - regardless.
And while there doesn't seem to be any plans to release and sell the device, Smart Design says it is open to creating variations of this product for others. Regardless, it's a terrific example of how mass market tech can be tweaked, in a matter of weeks, to make it useful for the people who really need it. Smart Design's Steel says: "The designing for one process generates a profound sense of empathy, fosters creativity through constraints and is actually a foundation for inclusive design."
If you're in the UK, you can see Smart Design's Alexa Owl on TV on BBC2 tonight in the show 'Big Life Fix', a program where designers and engineers try to help people living with extreme problems. It airs at 8pm BST.
Amazon Echo smart speakers
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