Why People With Disabilities Are Powerful Drivers of Innovation

More companies should embrace lead user design

In 2005, Wayne Westerman, an engineering graduate student in Delaware, was working on his dissertation when he began developing carpal tunnel syndrome. To help deal with the painful condition, he began to experiment with a small, multitouch input device. The idea was to create something he could use to enter information without having to press hard. Along with his advisor, John Elliott, he formed a company FingerWorks to sell the resulting product.

The young company barely got off the ground before it was purchased by Apple. Westerman's little device? Well, it eventually became the technology underlying the touchscreen on the iPhone.

While a feel-good story on its own right, the FingerWorks touchscreen is an example of an innovation strategy known as lead user design—and an excellent example of why we need to stop looking at people with disabilities (PWD) as an HR problem and start pushing them toward the innovation lab. 

The reason is that lead user design turns product innovation on its head. In a typical design process, companies look at their existing customers, identify gaps in the products or experiences they provide, and create new solutions that address them. The end result is an incremental innovation that, while welcome, doesn't move the needle very far.

Lead user design instead identifies extreme users with serious unmet needs. Most of us do not navigate the world like PWD, but we do navigate the world, and their experiences can inform ours. Many people could all use mice and keyboards, but only when a person with a disability came up with a touchscreen did the rest of us understand how useful it could be for us.

Needless to say, PWD make great lead users. To understand why, we need to recognize a disability not as a medical condition but as a mismatch in capabilities. PWD experience the same things as other consumers, but in a different way. The friction and pain points that we talk about in customer journeys are almost always more challenging for them. They are also more aware of these issues and proactive about finding ways to address them.

Westerman is no outlier. PWD are natural innovators who are often well ahead of the curve on technologies that are then adopted for wider use. It might surprise you to know, for example, that email was also invented by a person with disabilities. The typewriter was invented by man who wanted to communicate directly with his deaf fiancée. And the inventor of the phonograph, a certain Thomas Alva Edison, was almost entirely deaf as well.

If you're looking for an example of where PWD are way ahead of the curve today, try voice interfaces. Thanks to Amazon Echo and Google Home, many ordinary consumers today are learning to navigate the world through voice assistants and speech-to-text. When companies are trying to get ahead of that trend, they often look to ordinary users for ideas and inspiration. But voice interfaces are far from new: PWD have been using them for a long time. As a result, they know much more about how to get around the world using their voices and would be much more useful in the design process than most.

The final thing to remember is that lead user design does not mean you are designing something for PWD. If you design a product for someone with different abilities, that resulting product will almost certainly work for everyone. And it will likely contain novel features that others are excited to adopt. For just one more example, the curb cut, which was largely added to urban infrastructure to accommodate wheelchairs, is today used by parents with strollers, people riding bicycles, and more.

That's why it's extremely important for businesses to stop thinking about PWD as an HR requirement. Instead, PWD can be a powerful advantage in coming up with new products and services. If you are trying to create game-changing new products and services, you don't merely need to think outside the box—you should probably look outside of it too. PWD can help you do just that.

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Christina Mallon
Christina Mallon is global head of inclusive design and accessibility at Wunderman Thompson.

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