How can 3D printing technology help us take a human-centered design approach? Young people with Asperger syndrome have been working on this challenge.

Last week I attended the closing session of the YAMakers project, where about thirty young people with Asperger syndrome showed the objects they had designed and manufactured for people with disabilities using 3D printing technology.

YAMakers was born from the collaboration between different actors. The Catalan Sport Federation of Brain Palsy visited BJ Adaptaciones, manufacturers of products for people with disabilities, and raised the possibility of designing elements for Boccia, a Paralympic sport related to bowls and pétanque, with 3D printing.

BJ Adaptaciones, in turn, contacted Fab Ateneu Les Corts (Barcelona), a public Fab Lab with technological and human resources at the service of anyone who has a project, and Fundació Friends, an organization promoting the inclusion of young people with autism spectrum disorders. With the support of Fundación Orange, the project was launched.

Design Thinking

Before start designing, the first step in the training of these young people was to develop their creativity. For this, Fab Ateneu offered a workshop on Design Thinking where they learned to identify needs, select them and design possible solutions.

The manager of this creativity workshop, Jorgina Martinez, explained me that, adapting the concepts to explain the most complex abstractions, anyone could understand and use this method of creative problem solving.

Boccia & 3D Printing

The Boccia Club CEAB visited the YAMakers participants to explain them the characteristics of Boccia, sport played by people with physical disabilities. Players with severe disabilities who cannot move the balls with their own hands use a helmet with a metal antenna to push the ball, which slides through a ramp.

These assistive devices have several disadvantages. First, they are very expensive (a ramp can cost up to $2,000). Secondly, it’s important for each player to have equipment that meets their particular needs. In both cases, 3D printing offers a wide range of possibilities. Not only broken parts can be replaced at low cost, but it also makes possible to create devices adapted to the characteristics of each player.

YAMakers participants collected all this information and began working on their designs. To do this, they learned to use the 3D design software Tinkercad, SketchUp and Rhinoceros.

Table tennis rackets

In addition to 3D printing, they also learned to use a wood laser cutting machine. With this technology they designed several prototypes of tennis rackets for players with limited mobility in hands and fingers.

As in Boccia, each table tennis player has very specific characteristics. The hands of each player are different and the racket that is useful for one person may be totally inappropriate for another. It’s particularly impressive how these young people have understood the different needs of users, designing equipment adapted to them.

Adapting the product to the user

From the point of view of design, the YAMakers project helps us be aware of the variety of users and their different needs. This raises the question of who is the “normal” user for whom products and services are designed (or if it really exists).

Obviously, between product and user there’s always a dialectical relationship. That is, we use a product to meet our needs, but at the same time the product forces us to change our behavior to use it. Thus, the action which the user exerts on the product has an impact on the own user.

However, we cannot forget that the main goal of design is to create products useful to the user. To some extent, then, no matter how is the product while it fulfills its function. Products should adapt to the user, rather than forcing the user to adapt to the product (which is usual).

The example of the table tennis rackets of YAMakers is excellent. Basically, it doesn’t matter the shape of the handle of the racket while it carries out successfully its function: hitting the ball.

Although user-centered design takes into account the user needs, it often makes the mistake of designing for an “average” user, setting limits on what supposedly are exceptions or extremes. The designer defines the conditions where a product is functional.

However, these limits are fictitious. Where is the boundary that separates the “normal” users from the rest? The mistake lies in objectifying the users, making them measurable and immutable objects.

For example, Ada, one of the project participants, designed a piece to hold the pages of a book with one hand. In fact, I found this object very useful when I want to read on the train and I only have one free hand.

One of the main challenges facing design is the application of flexibility without losing consistency. In this sense, 3D printing offers a great opportunity to create a truly human-centered design.


For further information about the YAMakers project, please visit their blog (in Catalan):