Designer and university professor for 30 years, Dr. Roig lost his sight 15 years ago. These are the lessons on inclusive design he has learned and shares with his students.

When I met Dr. Jordi Roig for the first time, nearly a year ago now, I was taking a course of innovation of IDEO U and my research project was on inclusive design. I needed some examples of products designed for disabled people that could be useful for everyone, and App&Town, a mobile app for urban accessible mobility with geolocation, was perfect.

To my surprise, Dr. Roig, co-founder of Mass Factory the spin-off that designed App&Town and professor of the Department of Microelectronics and Electronic Systems at UAB, was blind. After nearly two hours of talk my interview became a lecture on design. Now I talk to him once more, this time to learn more about his career as a designer and his work as a teacher. Again, I leave with the impression of having attended a master class.

Dr. Roig tells proudly that he has been teaching computer science since the 1980s. His specialization was microelectronics and circuit design, fields where he worked for several corporations, including Fujitsu. All this experienced a great turn when in 2000 he began to lose his sight. Perhaps someone else would have thought that not being able to see meant the end of his activity, but he took advantage of this situation.

He proposed ONCE, a Spanish foundation that raises funds to provide services for people with serious visual impairment, to design a Braille keyboard. At that time there were other keyboards, but they were too simple, so he created a keyboard with which blind people could write chemical formulas, code, music…

Braille keyboard designed by Jordi Roig.

Image: Braille keyboard designed by Jordi Roig.

However, he soon realized that this had no future prospects. It wasn’t profitable because the market to which it was headed was too small. A business model must be sustainable and shouldn’t rely on subsidies. It was necessary to focus on products for everyone that could be also useful for people with disabilities. The aim was to make the standard design converge with design for specific groups, always from the perspective of innovation, improving what already existed.

Hardware design, such as the keyboard, was also too expensive and difficult to develop. With the focus always on profitability, Dr. Roig turned his efforts towards software design, especially for mobile and digital devices. This is how App&Town emerged.

Although touch interfaces are seen as a technological breakthrough, they may pose a barrier for blind people.

Digitization and the Internet of Things provide a fertile ground for inclusive design. This is clearly the case of household appliances, emphasizes Dr. Roig. Although the use of touch interfaces is seen as a technological breakthrough, they may pose an insurmountable barrier for blind people. They should be able to also work with voice recognition.

In fact, household appliances are a barrier to other people, such as the elderly, because of their complexity. While I hear this, it comes to mind a funny anecdote of Don Norman in The Design of Everyday Things, where he explains how a couple consisting of an engineering psychologist and a physician was unable to understand the operation of their new Italian washer-dryer combination.

“Designing for these collectives forces you to simplify.” I’m back to reality with this statement. “It is also important to concentrate all the processes in a single environment to unify the vast variety of features that we handle.” Thus, there is no need to learn the operation of the different environments. This would be the key to successful applications such as hotel searchers.


Image: Mass Factory receives the Business Excellence Award for Social Integration.

Applying these principles is not always obvious. His personal experience has changed his perspective on design and now he tries to hand this on to his students. He helps them to be aware that there are other people, often invisible, who can also use their products. Why then limit their target audience? He shows them that designing inclusive products is neither more expensive nor more difficult and can get a wider niche of people.

Designing inclusive products is neither more expensive nor more difficult.

Students are receptive and are quickly aware of the benefits of inclusive design. Dr. Roig puts them close examples, family situations, such as their grandparents: “We need to raise awareness among students that society is diverse, that there are different capabilities.”

Whatsoever, he is aware that “if it doesn’t affect you, you don’t think about it.” But this is normal and we shouldn’t dramatize. It is not possible to create products 100% inclusive. “There will always be a mistake. Someone will be left out always. We must design from the perspective that if we get to 80%, it is good enough, though always trying to improve.”

It is not possible to create products 100% inclusive. Someone will be left out always.

As a result of my research, I often have the impression that there is a growing interest in inclusive design, not only by designers but also by businesses and people in general. Raised this issue, the answer of Dr. Roig is totally realistic: it is a way to differentiate themselves. This makes me think of a friend, a sociology professor, for whom inclusive design is nothing more than marketing.

However, there has been also a process of visibility of disabled people. Traditionally, people with certain disabilities were closed at home or in institutions. Disability was taboo. The movements for the civil rights of these groups, as well as access to education, have favored the awareness of society. I recently spoke with Rama Gheerawo, Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design. He summed up this change asserting that “inclusive design is about an inclusive society.”

Inclusive design is about an inclusive society.

One of the key problems of inclusive design is that it is often applied on the basis of an earlier design. This not only increases the cost of adaptation but ends up being merely a patch. Ideally, the principles of inclusive design should be applied from the outset. In this way, the cost is the same and people appreciate it, especially when corporate responsibility is a factor highly valued by clients who want to feel identified with the products they buy.

In addition to simplicity, inclusive products should limit the number of steps required to perform an action and avoid being too loaded with features and interactions. In fact, remarks Dr. Roig, “these principles should not only guide inclusive design, but design in general to create functional products and services.” To avoid creating too complex products, mockups are essential to be tested by people unfamiliar with the product. This is one of the exercises their students have to do. It is then that they realize that things that are obvious for them may be incomprehensible to others.

Thinking of others is possibly the most important lesson that Dr. Roig has learned over the years: “When we design, we tend to think about how we would do it, rather than taking into account the people who will use our product.”

When we design, we tend to think about how we would do it.

When putting our target audience first, we should make the effort to include the maximum number of people, though always taking into account the context in which the product will be used. The context of an industrial washing machine is totally different from that of a domestic washing machine. It would make no sense, therefore, to design them for the same type of user or with the same functionalities.

The context, in turn, is also important because it can make us temporary disabled, as when we carry a luggage or a stroller, for example. Ultimately, inclusive design is not only a matter of certain groups. Inclusive design is necessary for everyone.