The road to well-being: Designing inclusive and thoughtful mobility experiences
About the salon
We all spend a lot of time in motion — be it by car, train, bike, or on foot. Getting from point A to B is an essential part of our daily lives and therefore impacts our minds and bodies. Designers play an essential role in shaping how these experiences can be healthier and more inclusive. How can designers work with policymakers, and business leaders to balance people’s needs?
Virtual Smart Salon
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Virtual Smart Salon
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Keith Kirkland is the co-founder of WearWorks, a haptics design company creating products and experiences that deliver information through touch, such as its signature wearable navigation device for the blind and visually impaired called Wayband.
Faezeh Tafazzoli is a machine learning manager at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America, is a machine learning manager at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America, specializing in applied machine learning, connected cars and autonomous driving, and the personalization of future infotainment systems.
Our discussion was led by Smart Design Associate Design Director Jasper Dekker and Vasily Romanov, Senior Design Engineer, and was informed by Smart’s work in the mobility sector, including Ford Mobility Last Mile Delivery and the redesign of New York City’s taxi fleet. We asked the panelists, all experts in different aspects of mobility, about the latest innovations in the sector, how mobility can affect people’s health, and why it’s important to sometimes take the road less traveled.
Here are the evening’s key takeaways
Seize the mobility moment
Our panelists concurred that it’s a promising time to be involved with mobility, considering the massive influx of federal government funding for infrastructure, new technologies and products including electric vehicles (EV) and AI-supported autonomous vehicles (AV)—not to mention the growth of micro-mobility start-ups and services. That’s why It’s the right moment to “re-imagine what the existing infrastructure and transportation landscape looks like,” noted Henry L. Greenidge of Tusk Strategies. And with local governments in line to receive much of that money, he believes that they should focus on how that infrastructure will impact “everyday people,” for example, by deploying the latest tools and technology— such as EVs and new parking solutions—in communities that are underserved by transportation infrastructure, and hardest hit by climate change and health issues, as they have the most to benefit.
For his part, Keith Kirkland is concerned about how blind and visually impaired people experience mobility and how haptic technology can help them access information through touch. His company’s first product, the WayBand, for instance, pairs with a wristband worn by the user to gently guide them to their destination using only touch and vibration, without the need for any visual or audio feedback. “Our core belief is that we took sight and sound into the digital revolution and left every other sense behind,” Kirkland explained. “Now it’s time to bring touch to the forefront [of new ways of thinking about mobility].”
Mercedes-Benz’s Faezeh Tafazzoli, who focuses on delivering an AI-driven user experiences to customers to make driving both easier and safer, noted, “We try to create a user interface based on customer behavior and offer them all relevant functions and direct access to them, in any situation and at the most convenient time … [with the goal of creating a] more holistic, personalized, and intelligent driving experience.” She added that these aren’t scenarios for the future, but rather are features that already exist on Mercedes models.
Aim for inclusivity
Greenidge pointed out that transportation was developed around housing and moving people from home to work. But as housing was riddled with pervasive inequities—such as redlining and restrictive covenants—so too were transportation policies. Today, however, the way policies concerning mobility and infrastructure are being formulated are changing. He explained, “We proactively engage with and reach out to communities, incorporate feedback, and intentionally use the word equity”—and that is having considerable impact. A good example: When Revel mopeds were first launched in New York City in 2018, many of them were stolen, until the company went to communities and talked to people about the importance of scooters as a safe transportation solution and how they offered a meaningful way to get to and from work, especially during the pandemic. In this way, the term “inclusive,” meant “they didn’t just deploy their technology.”
For car companies, inclusivity means finding ways to make transportation easier—especially for those who find driving difficult, such as people with disabilities and the elderly—and to improve safety. While the end goal for automakers might be fully autonomous driving—where you are not driving at all—Tafazzoli acknowledged that we’re also making vehicles safer and easier to drive (e.g., cars with the ability to locate and then maneuver themselves into a wheelchair-accessible parking space). “We can learn more about the passengers and their health situation by monitoring what’s happening inside the vehicle, and for example, call an ambulance, if needed,” she offered.
Kirkland, discussing how his company came to focus on blind navigation, recalled how WearWorks originally considered offering a device to help sighted people better understand the street signs and address systems while, say traveling in a foreign country. But after seeing the app being used by a visually impaired person, he decided the company should go in a different direction. “There was a look on their face..[they] would just light up because they knew which way was the right way to go,” he observed. If you’re communicating everything through visuals or sound rather than touch, according to Kirkland, then the blind or visually impaired do not have equal access to any of that information.
Design mobility experiences to improve physical and mental health
Mobility is not just about moving from one place to another; it also impacts our health and well-being. Noting that most people transition into blindness, Kirkland revealed that this slow loss of sight “shrinks their lives” as they restrict their movements and interactions with others. “They may go to work or the doctor’s office, but they don’t hang out with friends or go to the new coffee shop, because it’s just too much work and mental anxiety around being out and navigating someplace new because there’s a real danger of getting lost.” His company’s device gives the vision-impaired more independence and freedom as well as safety, as sidewalks are not always accurately mapped. As one user relayed to Kirkland, “It’s like having extra eyes on my shoulder watching me, and I feel I can do this by myself.”
Greenidge agreed that mobility means removing both physical and mental barriers, and as such, policymakers and urban planners “have a deep responsibility to pay attention to these things when designing streetscapes and other forms of infrastructure.” Bike lanes, for example, were designed to make cycling safer. But according to an analysis by Smart Design’s John Anderson and Anna Bernbaum, published in Fast Company, they sometimes don’t offer any protection at all. New York City, for example, has reported more than 34,000 collisions between cyclists and motorists since 2014, despite the addition or enhancement of about 330 miles of bike lanes (with 27 cyclists killed in 2019, the most of any year since 2000).
To make cars safer—for those inside the vehicle as well as everyone in the immediate environment—Tafazzoli made clear that Mercedes-Benz is looking at how the flow of data can help us better understand “how we can manage and handle” situations such as when a driver might be distracted, or sleepy, or is dealing with a kid in the back seat. Now it’s possible to know where someone drives on a daily basis, whether they’re stressed after work, and what music they like. She has predicted that, in the future, “more data will enable us to also understand pedestrians and everybody else around us in our environment, and help them in different ways.”
Continuing the discussion about mobility and freedom, Tafazzoli believes that “personalized and intelligent” driving experiences not only let drivers avoid traffic but also open possibilities to explore and experience new things. For instance, with AI systems knowing what a driver’s preferences are, they are able to map a nicer, more scenic route, and help find a good restaurant or EV charging station along the way. Acknowledging that she too likes changing her driving routine, Tafazzoli noted that these features “might get you out of your comfort zone and help you enjoy the ride.”
Kirkland went deeper into this topic, questioning what the term “exploration” really means nowadays, and how to make traveling a richer, more rewarding, and social experience. While maps chart a path for cars down the center of the street to reach a destination by the fastest route, the “walking space” is quite different. “All travel isn’t for a utilitarian purpose,” he pointed out, noting how mobility is largely car-centric. “Sometimes we just want to go for a walk in a circle.” The advantage of mapping information being delivered through your skin, as is the case with his company’s device, is that it frees “your eyes and your ears and you have the mental space to actually pay attention to what’s going on around you.” With heads-up navigation, you can discover things you hadn’t noticed before, in your neighborhood and your city, rather than wandering around, head down, staring at your phone, constantly looking at a map. It’s also safer for the visually impaired, especially when the geography of the street is changed, if there’s scaffolding or if it’s garbage day, with piles of trash on the sidewalk that pose obstacles.
Our panelists see great potential for mobility, as new technologies and human-centered design principles only become more integrated. Kirkland envisions exploring places “without an annoying person constantly talking in your ear.” Tafazzoli says the advent of autonomous driving will require figuring out how to handle unpredictable behavior and communication between vehicles and other objects on the road, as well as its impact on people and their lives. And Greenidge urges a comprehensive policy approach that balances the need for cars with that of public transit. “Owning a car is very much American,” he declared. ”But I think cities need to put people first and figure out the proper mix of policies.”
Understand the impact of mobility
Ask how mobility policies have affected communities—and might in the future. Investigate whether communities have been disproportionately excluded from transportation infrastructure and/or public transit. And work with community groups and leaders in order to design better and more meaningful mobility options for all.
Assess the state of infrastructure
Analyze current infrastructure and evolving needs to see if systems are able to fully support new products and services. Work with government and business leaders to devise policies and programs that keep infrastructure up to date as new technologies emerge.
Engage all the senses
We have five senses—let’s use every one of them to better experience the world around us. When considering design possibilities, incorporate touch, smell, and taste—in addition to audio and visual—so we don’t miss opportunities to “see things” differently.
Aim for inclusivity
With innovations such as AVs and AI-powered mobility changing how many people get from point A to point B, look into how technology can be applied for wider impact. Develop creative solutions that lead to positive outcomes benefiting groups such as the disabled, the elderly, and the visually impaired.
About Jasper Dekker
About Vasily Romanov