Sunday, November 25, 2007

Innovation Protocol - Day 1: User-centred design - 1st posted on 23rd Sept 2007

The past week has been a most enlightening, yet humbling experience for me, especially in my professional capacity as a design educator. I was involved in yet another one of those training sessions, but this time with a difference! It was just a short 2 days training-cum-workshop organised by the Idea Factory, but yet it does leave some remarkably lasting impression on the power and potentials of design, where its impact and place in social re-engineering is concerned.

Besides the usual first day briefing on the training objectives and such, what the workshop requires us to do as participants was to be engaged, and I meant it in a more 'immersive' sort of way. We were supposed to be broken up into teams, and to take stock of the greying population issues that are fast becoming the social problematic norms in most developed countries, including Singapore. What follows was a visit to one of our potential clients, an elderly/disabled who is wheelchair-bound, and who is suffering from various ailments. On a footnote, this experience sure reminds me of the one done by Jane Fulton Suri, the Chief Creative Officer at IDEO, during one of her social/user-centred experiments on re-engineering a patient's experience in a hospital.

We managed to take a lot of pictures during the visit, and the link to these pictures are in Flickr.

The team's first impression when we reached the house of our client was the relatively steep staircase that greeted us. I think it must be one of the steepest accent that I personally have made, and I am not THAT old yet! And to think that this is located in one of the oldest housing estates in Singapore, sure shows the failing of some of our urban planners in the past, when the primary considerations of housing was more to provide the basic necessitities of housing, rather than aesthetics and/or the future-proofing of housing design. I hope that any urban planners from any developing countries that are reading this, should strive for a balance that incorporates design functionability, and future-proofability, for lack of a better term, since they would eventualy reach a state that a country like ours would be, i.e. a growing greying population, and all its ramifications

The interior of the housing design of our client, Mdm K, was relatively large, I guess due to the relatively generous offerings by our urban planners when they were considering housing design, way back. This is a stark contrast to the newer housing that are being offered, where I guess, and I am really feeling strongly for this, that the architects that designed and planned for our public housing should actually take up one of these courses, to really give them an idea on some of their ridiculously-designed HDB flats! Anyway, back to our client, no doubt the furnishings and basic layout of the room does potray the relative simplicity of the dwellers, but this definitely does not hide the fact that our client and her primary care-giver are seriously in need of a better living condition.

Our client, Mdm K, is down with Parkinson's and has been wheelchair-bound for the past 12 years. Her primary care-giver is her loving husband, who, as the team have brought up before, is the epitome of a loving husband! I mean for someone to be totally be the sole care-giver, to be the one that takes care of her needs, including preparing her meals, bedtime, shower time, and all the usual basic routines of daily living, and doing it for 12 years, and to top it all off, to do it when one is himself not that physicaly capable all the time...I mean isn't this what TRUE LOVE really is!

The team manages to catch glimpses into the daily routines of this exemplary couple, their daily cleaning routines, what they do to while away their time, the somehow fixation on daily routines through the placement of wall clocks in each of the major areas of interaction, the sadly deteriorated state of some of the furnishings in the house, and in fact, the ever-decreasing population of the fishes in the fish tank also struck as as a reflection of the kind of time, or lack of, that the husband has in the pursuit of his other daily personal space and time!

The team, and myself, was struck at the way things are centred around the routines of our client. Notwithstanding that the design of the house was nowhere near an ideal one for the wheelchair bound, but somehow one would observe the user-centricness of some of these details. Like the placement of the house and other keys near the doorway, to I guess, minimise the search routines of the house keys in any given day; the arrangement of the furniture in the house which are all stacked up close near the walls, which somehow potrays the necessity of wheelchair movement, rather than one of aesthetics, which would seem to be the pervasive domain in a typical Malay/Muslim household in an average Singaporean Malay household; the placement of mirrors at the main 'expressway' of the house, which brings out to mind the need for basic human dignity, to look and feel good, in the mirror, even when one is incapacitated; the lack of newspapers and magazines and the somewhat more explicit arrangement of the radio and TV, which somehow gives one a small peek into the usual source of entertainment and/or information (this does disturbs me a little as I interviewed further as it seems that this seemingly lack of informational resources might just be one of those things that can actually hinder them from having a better quality of life, from giving them the usual distractions like 'hentaming' the goverment :), or just as a means to be able to take stock of whats happening around them, rather then the usual self-centricity that is actually having more of an adverse effect, rather than otherwise!); the ingenuity of MAN, even when they are old, through the use of the doorbell system as a means to seek and sound off for help; the seemingly clean look of the window grille, but yet equipped with a complete curtaining rack system, which demonstrates that this house, in her former more glorious days, seems to be well-decorated with nice-looking curtains (from our interview further, we were told that Mdm K was a seamstress before!)...and a lot more little details that I think would be better left to our own humanistic interpretations as one look at all those pictures!

So what was the takeway that I had, as I left their place! I think beyond the usual design issues and all its social ramifications, more than anything else, I do feel a certain sense of nostalgia! Why would you ask...I guess I can't help but be reminded of the household that I grew up in, when I take a look at the physical state of the house. And more importantly, in that short 2 hour session, I had my most valuable life lesson that I would ever have...ever, and that is on the meaning of TRUE LOVE!

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