App&Town Going with You is an app for urban mobility designed following the principles of Universal Design to maximize its usability.

A few weeks ago I visited the headquarters of Mass Factory, a high-tech company, spin-off of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), where I spoke with Jordi Roig i Marc Vallribera, co-founders. What at first was an interview to learn more about a mobile app eventually became a master class on universal design.

App&Town Going with You is an app for urban accessible mobility with geolocation that allows users to plan routes, optimizing the time of their urban journeys. Unlike Google Maps, App&Town goes with us along the way, indicating the stops of the means of transport in which we travel. This app is also distinguished from Google Maps by its accuracy, with up to 5 meters of precision.

An app created with universal design principles

However, the most relevant aspect and the reason why this app caught my attention is its accessibility. App & Town can be used by people with visual impairment.

Originally, App&Town was developed in the framework of a project for elderly people. The project wasn’t taken forward and they decided to expand its use for everyone, following the principles of Universal Design to maximize its usability. The new app included the option to select whether the user was blind. The press echoed the app, being dubbed the “app for the blind”.

This was, however, counterproductive to the success of the app. Users who weren’t blind came to the conclusion that they didn’t need it. This was rather ironic, since many of the apps and products we use every day have a similar origin. The app was renamed, the “user type” option disappeared and App&Town became an app for everyone.

I recorded with my smartphne one example of how to create a route with App&Town:

Accessible design doesn’t mean simplification but adaptation

During the interview I could see how Jordi Roig used the version of App&Town for people with visual impairment with amazing agility and speed. For some reason, I thought that a product adapted for the blind had to be much easier to use, but I discovered that I was totally wrong. From my perspective, the version for the blind was extremely complex.

People with different sensory abilities have different ways of perceiving reality and interact with their environment. The creators of App&Town had to adapt the order in which the information was displayed depending on the sense used by the user.

Users who use the sense of sight browse through the direct access. Since they have an overall picture of the interface, they can directly select the relevant information at each moment. This explains the importance of icons, their correct placement and the visibility of priority options. Blind people, on the contrary, use the sense of hearing to navigate. Therefore, the information must be ordered sequentially (first step, second step …).

How to design for everyone

At this point, my question was how can I design for users who perceive the world in a totally different way from mine. Jordi and Marc explained their design process:

The first step was conducting a requirements analysis through interviews with the different types of users. For the design of App&Town, they prioritized groups, such as associations for the blind or disabled people, as well as specialized psychologists in these areas, thus obtaining a global idea. Individual access to end users would have been too complex.

In a second stage, they developed the mockup from all the information gathered, which, in a third stage, was tested by people with visual, hearing and physical disabilities.

Despite carrying out this complex research process, the designer never will be able to understand the needs of all users. For example, Jordi and Marc told me that, designing a version of App&Town for people with intellectual disabilities, they were surprised when they received the request to adapt the app for people who cannot read. In some countries, people with Down syndrome don’t receive education and they weren’t able to read the simple instructions of the app.

The limits of universal design

Although it is necessary to push the boundaries of design to include as many people as possible, we cannot always design a single solution for everyone without compromising the usability of the product. Design has a yield point.

Before the interview, I did several tests with the app and I realized that, despite being extremely simple for me, some groups might have difficulties using it. This was confirmed by Jordi and Marc. App&Town and many other mobile apps may be too complex and odd for people with intellectual disabilities or a low technological culture.

For these groups, Mass Factory has designed App&Town Compagnon, where a supervisor and a tutor create detailed routes customized for each user. In this way, the user simply needs to follow the instructions. The app monitors the user and is able to detect errors, distractions and delays.

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App&Town is not an isolated case. The future of design is inclusive. We can see this in the cases of Skype and Twitter who are adapting their access to expand to all types of users.