Can This New Alternative to Braille Change the Way Blind People Read?

Can This New Alternative to Braille Change the Way Blind People Read?

Almost 200 years ago, a blind, 20-year-old French student demonstrated a dot-based reading-and-writing system at the 1834 Paris Industrial Exposition that would go on to become the single, universal standard for the visually impaired. Louis Braille, who lost his eyesight at age three from a freak accident while playing with his father’s leather-making knife tool, was inspired by a covert “night writing” code alphabet used by Napoleon’s army. Endorsed by UNESCO in the 1950s, it’s been adapted to 133 languages and spawned special Braille codes for music, science, and math notations. With growing awareness for accessible design, these embossed dots are everywhere: building signs, elevator buttons, new banknotes, even medicine packaging in Europe.

In its heyday, the blind community championed Braille as the key to independence, literacy, and employment. The problem is that only a very small fraction of blind people actually read Braille today. In the U.S., less than 10% (around 60,000 people) of the estimated 8 million blind population use it regularly. That’s a steep decline from the 1960s, when more than half the country’s blind population read Braille.

If you didn’t learn Braille as a child, the prospect of learning the system of cells and codes sounds daunting, requiring about six to nine months of intense study and memorization. With advanced text-to-speech technology and smartphone apps like TapSeeTap, which recognizes objects based on photos, or LokTell which helps blind users sort banknotes, experts fear that Braille may soon join Esperanto in the annals of dead languages.

This alarming disparity struck Andrew Chepaitis, a former equity research analyst who founded a startup called ELIA Life Technology. ELIA, which stands for Education, Literacy, and Independence for All, aspires to challenge Braille’s dominance through an easy-to-learn system based on letterforms of the Roman alphabet.

ELIA Frames, image courtesy of ELIA

After years of development, ELIA’s marquee project, ELIA Frames, is finally ready. Distributed as a free-to-download font on its website, ELIA Frames will be spotlighted in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s exhibition, “The Senses: Design Beyond Vision.” Chepaitis is also launching a Kickstarter campaign to introduce ELIA Frames to “a community of early adopters, innovators, and creative thinkers,” as he puts it.

For time-strapped adult learners, ELIA Frames offers a compelling proposition: Instead of months memorizing dot patterns and permutations, Chepaitis suggests that users can gain mastery of the Roman alphabet-based system in a matter of hours.  

ELIA’s system is based on a series of strokes and dots contained in four distinct shapes. Letters A-D are contained in a semi-circle; O-S are in a circle; and the rest of the letters are boxed in a square frame. Numerals are contained in a pentagon that looks like a house. Refined with the input of some 200,000 test participants, ELIA’s designers believe that the shapes that evoke letterforms from the Roman alphabet help distinguish characters.

“A family, classroom, or an office can learn it in five minutes and then incorporate it into their daily lives,” asserts Chepaitis, who got the initial idea for ELIA Frames from his mother’s PhD research. Because it’s so easy to learn, he’s hoping that ELIA will offer a common alphabet for all readers. “[Companies] may prefer ELIA, because all their employees could learn it during lunch one day and then share a common alphabet with their blind and low-vision employees,” he explains.

ELIA Frames, image courtesy of ELIA

ELIA already has a strong list of backers: It’s raised $450,000 in seed investments and $2.7 million in grants from the National Institute on Aging, the National Eye Institute, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and NYSTAR. It’s also partnered with Hewlett-Packard to develop a desktop inkjet printer that will allow users to instantly produce tactile fonts and graphics.

Chepaitis envisions that ELIA might attract more investment in assistive technology in general. “People have looked at our market as unattractive because of Braille’s performance, and that gave us time. Who would invest $3 million in a market where the standard has 59,000 potential customers?,” he says. “Braille is, in many ways, is still tied to the mechanical systems of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

ELIA, on the other hand, wants to position itself as the Apple of assistive languages: Friendly, easy-to-learn, and intuitive. It’s even cleaned up its branding and website with the help of Order, a graphic design studio founded by former Pentagram designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth.

ELIA Frames, image courtesy of ELIA

But not everyone is completely sold on the Braille alternative, as Fast Company reports. The U.S. National Federation of the Blind (NFB) says ELIA Frames will slow readers down because they’ll have to trace around each frame with their finger. “You are never going to build up the kind of reading speed and fluency that you would want,” says NFB spokesperson Chris Danielson. “This idea that Braille is hard to learn, we would argue that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Chepaitis is hopeful that NFB might warm up to ELIA one day, but for now, he’s not letting its reservations deter his momentum. “We respect their opposition and criticisms of our work. This is a field where a lot is at stake. People’s independence, educations, literacy, and ability to work—those may be affected by our work, especially if we fail. The onus is on us to demonstrate that we can do good. If we do that, perhaps they will collaborate with us,” he says.

Chepaitis says he’s less concerned with replacing Braille altogether as he is with offering a faster, more accessible alternative for 90% of the blind population. “We are focused on helping people achieve greater independence and literacy,” he says. “It’s been really challenging. But I’ve had faith that this initiative is the most worthwhile way I could spend each day.”

from 99U99U

Duncan Wardle, When Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone Means Saying Goodbye to the Corporation

Duncan Wardle, When Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone Means Saying Goodbye to the Corporation

Duncan Wardle spent 30 years at Disney, ultimately as Head of Innovation & Creativity. While anyone else would be happily contemplating their pension, Wardle left the cushion of corporate America to strike out on his own, coaching companies on cultures of creativity. Wardle will be hosting a breakout session at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Since our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, we asked Wardle to reflect on a moment when he faced a tough decision and how he pushed through.

“My most daunting challenge was walking away from Disney last year, after 30 years. The moment of realization came when they handed me the bronze Jiminy Cricket Statue for 30 years of service. I had always preached getting out of your own expertise, trying something new, being brave. But I realized that I hadn’t really ever stepped out from my own comfort zone. If I was going to do it, now was the time.

I looked at a few in-house roles and was approached for a few. But one of the key challenges you face is: the more senior you get inside any organization, the more you manage the politics, not the work. I left Disney to create my own startup, helping companies embed a culture of creativity throughout their organization.

The first few months were completely terrifying. I was starting from zero as an entrepreneur after 30 years inside the safety of a corporation. The whole time, I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m bloody mad!’ My greatest fear was: would companies and agencies hire me?

I confess it took longer than I thought, but the last few months, things have taken off. I’m on a mission to prove to everyone that they are creative and give them tools to think creatively. I wake up most days 50% excited and 50% terrified. I think that’s a really good place to be.

It’s very early days. I’m still finding my way. But I learned that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams. It sounds cliche, but you only get one life. So, as Marc Anthony would say, ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work another day.’”

See Duncan Wardle along with more creative leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, at the 10th Annual 99U Conference.

from 99U99U

At Work With MoMA Design Store’s Merchandising Team

At Work With MoMA Design Store’s Merchandising Team

When the MoMA Design Store opened in 1989, it wasn’t the first design museum shop in the country, but in 2013 it became the best. The year before, a new director of merchandising, Emmanuel Plat, came on board, bringing with him 20 years of experience at Conran Shop, the design retailer where he worked his way up to president of the company. With Plat came new concepts, a new strategy, and a fresh personality that would eventually turn the MoMA Design Store from a museum gift shop into an international design destination. But first, he had to convince his new team, many of whom had been with the organization for decades, to trust him—and his first, crazy $6,000 idea.

To see them now, you wouldn’t guess that the tightly knit team had ever been at odds. Working closely, the five lead buyers are responsible for curating a selection of roughly 6,000 products each year, available online and in MoMA’s five locations (three in New York and two in Japan). One buyer handles books, and another personal accessories; furniture, lighting, tabletop, and kitchen are a department all their own, as are kids, desk, tech, and household, and paper goods, holiday items, art reproductions, and artist collaborations. Each buyer works with an assistant, bringing the body count to a lean 11.

Today, in their 11th floor office just steps away from the museum’s midtown location, they gather around a pushcart overflowing with household items to discuss a new product sample that just arrived. Beside this is another pushcart full of children’s games and toys, beside another piled high with tech gadgets, and another stacked with desk accessories. These pushcarts stretch all the way down the aisle of cubicles like cars in a traffic jam. Each buyer gradually adds products to their pushcart as they build out the next season’s collection. These carts are then wheeled around to various product review meetings, culminating in a presentation to the museum’s curatorial staff.

They’re looking at a handy little kitchen tool that purports to age a bottle of wine in less than five seconds. Chay Costello, who works directly with Plat as associate director of merchandising, says she was skeptical until she brought it home for a taste test. She’s still unsure if it’s really “MoMA,” though, as she sets it down on the edge of a cubicle wall—not quite pushcart material yet, it seems.

The difference between what makes a good, quality design product and good, quality MoMA design product is the result of an eight-step “filtration” process and years of experience in the field. Great taste doesn’t hurt, either. Among the many considerations are: Is it useful? Does it solve a problem? Does it use materials or technology in an innovative way? Does it relate to the museum’s design collection? And lastly, will the customer buy it? That’s one reason the team was so surprised when the first product Plat wanted to introduce was a $6,000 kitchen set. Designed by Malle W. Trousseau, the w. Trousseau handmade wooden chest of 43 kitchen essentials easily passes all the design filters, but at a price.

“It was an interesting journey,” says Plat, reflecting on his early years on the job. “This was post-2008, so the product selection was very much what we jokingly call ‘cheap and cheerful,’” meaning colorful items often made of plastic and priced under $50. But when he started, “the strategy was to elevate the product offering and collaborate with artists. At the time, this was not necessarily accepted, and I had to make a lot of headway convincing people to go in that direction. The data we had showed there was a potential appetite for higher price points, and I wanted to experiment with that. Many people from the team thought it was crazy. ‘No one is going to buy your $6,000 kitchen set,’ they said. ‘This is MoMA Design Store, people buy postcards.’ The highest priced item at the time was, I think, a $200 kettle.”

However, when the w. Trousseau debuted at the press preview that season, “all the media outlets there were fighting for the exclusive” says Plat. “And as soon as it hit stores we sold a dozen pieces. That was validation of what we suspected: There aren’t only visitors to the museum who want to take away an affordable souvenir, but also a design-savvy, affluent customer, mostly local New Yorkers, who are interested in more exclusive objects.”

Since then, it’s been the mission of Plat and his merchandising team to establish the MoMA Design Store as a platform for launching brand new products and as a destination in its own right, independent of the museum. Plat’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. “After the economic downturn of 2008,” Costello explains, “we were catering to the market and the pricepoint people felt comfortable with. But as time went on the market changed and the design world in New York City changed. A lot of really terrific design retailers didn’t make it, which left open a great opportunity for us.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as putting gorgeous, expensive items on the shelf and watching the sales tick in. “Sell it and they will come” isn’t anyone’s motto for a reason. After looking at the store’s sales, the cluster of price points in each department, and where there were obvious holes, “We knew people would, say, buy desk accessories at this one specific price point, and furniture at another,” says Costello. “Then it was a matter of trying to raise up the price and the offerings and see how people would respond.”

Another early success is the Lumio Book Lamp, designed by Max Gunawan, which the MoMA team spotted in 2013 after its wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, raising over half a million dollars. Although it quickly became one of the store’s top-sellers, placing a bet on Lumio was something of a risk. At the time, Kickstarter wasn’t the platform of choice for product designers, but MoMA’s merchandisers noticed a growing trend and partnered with the crowdfunding platform on a special launch of 20 products selected from an initial list of hundreds. “It was a challenge,” Costello concedes, “as many of these Kickstarter designers have never sold retail, let alone wholesale, so we were teaching them how to create pricing structure, how to scale, and how to deal with lead time.”

While a lot of product research is done online, trawling Kickstarter as well as a slew of other sites and blogs, much of the search for undiscovered designs happens IRL, often as the result of serendipitous encounters. The team does more than its share of travel to design industry trade shows around the world (London, Paris, and Milan are regular stops on their annual itinerary), but for each major international fair, they make sure to pack in visits to as many local shops as their schedule can accommodate.

Soek-Hee Lee, who oversees the kids, desk, and tech product range, recounts her trip last summer to Berlin for the IFA trade show. After she finished there, she flew to Brussels to meet up with Plat and Alex Glaser, who heads up personal accessories, but they didn’t find anything that piqued their interest, so a few hours later they rented a car and sped off to Antwerp, where they were rewarded with plenty of great shops. The next day the three of them jumped back in the car, this time heading to Eindhoven, where they discovered a selection of products that will be launched at MoMA next season. After sending samples back to the New York office, they flew on to Paris for Maison & Objet, hitting three countries in just three days.

At this point, it’s relatively easy for the team to spot a promising item. “When we walk into a design store we usually know 100% of the products there,” says Costello. “So if we see something we don’t know, it stands out.” Plat agrees, adding, “The mentality we try to spread in the team is to be on constant alert.”

Once the buyers return home from the trade shows, it’s time to whittle down their selections. “We have these major style outs where we have hundreds of products that we put out on a table,” says Costello. They review the mix of items spread before them, considering what’s already on offer in the store. They ask things like: Do we already have too many teapots? Not enough teapots? Is this $10 notebook distinct enough from our other $10 notebook? Then the product testing begins. Every item goes home with a staffer, is used, evaluated, and then brought back into the mix or cut from the running. “We’ll give it to our kids and watch them play with it. Are the pieces too small? Do they seem engaged?” Only about 75% of products meet the criteria.

An obvious, but sometimes elusive criteria is whether something is on-brand for MoMA. One recent on-the-fence item is the classic Kit-Cat Clock. While it’s likely familiar to most Americans, especially Boomers, “I had personally never seen it before,” Plat says. “We thought it was fun and whimsical, but it was a little on the edge of ‘is this MoMA or not MoMA?’ But the box said ‘Made in the U.S. since 1932.’ So we snapped pictures and sent them to the office for research and reviewed it with the museum’s curators.” Despite the kitsch factor, it passed the test because, Costella says, “we thought that when presented in the context of all of the clocks we offer, it did tell a story.” Like Lumio, it’s become another best seller.

But a product doesn’t have to be a money maker in order to have a home at MoMA. “Sometimes we find a product that we think is extraordinary and we fall in love with it. We think it’s important, that it’s documenting something in the world right now.” Take the ClockClock, a series of analogue clock faces that are choreographed together to project the time digitally. Designed by Humans Since 1982, it was originally presented as an installation at Basel in 2013. “When we heard they were producing multiples, we were the first ones!” Plat recalls. “We all fell in love with it, but didn’t have huge hopes for sales. But it’s been a tremendous seller—and it’s a $7,000 clock, so that’s a surprise.”

Another important part of the review process involves the museum’s curators. Every couple of months, the buyers wheel their pushcarts into a meeting room, lay all their items on a table, and review them one by one with a group of curators. About 75% of the products make it past this stage, “but the dialogue and guidance is critical,” says Plat. “We get feedback and direction, and we hear what they’re interested in seeing. Throughout this process we learn a lot.”

A curator’s voice is especially critical when it comes to artist reproductions. If the merchandising team wants to print an artwork on a silk scarf, for instance, the curator might like the concept, but note that the piece in question is not actually from the period the museum is collecting from a given artist. It’s a constant dialogue and, as you might have guessed by now, a lot of meetings. “We’re very meeting intensive. We’re very old-fashioned that way,” says Costello.

Despite its connection to the museum, Plat insists that the MoMA Design Store “is not a museum store, it’s a design store.” Still, the connection is hard to overlook. “Besides generating revenue for the museum, one of our missions is to make good design available to as many people as possible. We can reach people who may not be interested in coming to MoMA, or may be intimidated by it, but the experience of the store can be a point of entry to the museum.” The relationship is reciprocal, too. Unlike a typical retailer, the MoMA Design Store receives natural traffic from museum visitors.

As the MoMA Design Store becomes known as a hub for launching new products and debuting exclusives, it will only continue to stake its claim as a design mecca, regardless of the museum nearby. One essential reason it has real staying power? The store passes its own eight-step “filtration” process, namely: Is it useful? Does it solve a problem? Would the world miss it if it wasn’t there? Yes, yes, and emphatically yes.

from 99U99U

Google’s Tea Uglow, on How to Share Something About Yourself that You’ve Never Told Anyone

Google’s Tea Uglow, on How to Share Something About Yourself that You’ve Never Told Anyone

Tea Uglow works on a range of projects enabling artists, writers, and performers to use digital tools to fuel their artistic practice. Her output includes seven books, 17 websites, six apps, a feature film, three plays, two concerts, four museum exhibits, and some teddy bears that talk. Uglow, the Creative Director of Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney, will be speaking at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Since our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, we asked Uglow to reflect on a moment when she faced a tough decision and how she pushed through.

“Doesn’t everyone find life to be daunting? I find life completely terrifying. I am sure there are professionally daunting prospects, but most of my real challenges have been being myself; finding myself, growing into myself, growing out of old selves, closing chapters, turning pages, starting fresh.

Overcoming my denial about my sexuality, my gender dysphoria, and face blindness have been  a 40-year-long program of assembly, delusion, disassembly and reconstruction. The singular most daunting part of that is: how do you communicate to everyone a truth about yourself that you’ve never told anyone? Not a lover, not a therapist, not even a pet.

The whole ‘project’ ultimately became the consolidation of everything I never wanted to admit, unpacked into a series of open letters. It wasn’t an act of bravery. It was an act of obligation, to myself and the people around me who I desperately wanted on the journey: my creative team, my colleagues, my professional collaborators and my friends.

I wrote 350,000 words during the first two years of my transition. Most of it was garbage. Three thousand words made it to my first open letter—a coming out letter. Two further letters followed.

I’ve learned that letters are a far better way to share information than blog-posts or social media. They scale way better than trying to tell everyone.

I learned that the internet is fickle.

I have learned never to read the comments.

I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s useful to insist people ask ‘How are you today?’ rather than ‘How are you?’

I’ve learned that people do want to hear from you, your story. I’ve learned never to trust a newspaper sub-editor. I’ve learned the average time-to-burn-out for a truly supportive friend (about 6 months). I’ve learned what a mess clothes sizing is for women, and how broken or under-acknowledged many female-oriented systems and models are. I’ve learned to love getting my nails done, and to take a certain pleasure in being occasionally objectified. I learned how to use Tinder. I learned loads of stuff.

I’ve mainly learned that however much you think you know yourself, your mind, your beliefs, or your history, that the world can flip on a dime. And you cannot even try to be ready for it. But you shouldn’t try to stop it when it does. I’ve learned that the human mind is incredibly powerful, and incredibly fragile and that you should look after it. Exercise it, support it, nurture it, love it.”

See Tea Uglow  along with more creative leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, at the 10th Annual 99U Conference.

from 99U99U

Tax Tips for Freelance Creatives: Debunking Common Myths

Tax Tips for Freelance Creatives: Debunking Common Myths

Does the thought of doing your taxes make you want to cry? For many in the design industry, including myself, the answer is a resounding yes. But a solid grasp of figures and finances is the equivalent to building the strong foundation to a building. If you can shore up the money part of your business, you can spend more time doing what you really love—the creative part of the job.

For those workers issued a W2 form, managing taxes is a relatively smooth process. Your employer does much of the heavy lifting and your income stream is typically more straightforward. However, taxes can be a beast for freelancers. I experienced this when I freelanced for six years before joining 99U. There are all sorts of nooks and crannies, rules and methods that apply to self-employed workers that I had no idea about, but needed to quickly learn to ensure I abided by the IRS rules and paid my fair share of taxes. 

What follows is a dive into some of the muddier parts of the freelancer taxation waters. With the help of certified financial planner Susan Lee and accountant Amy Northard—both specialists in preparing taxes for creative souls—we debunk some widespread myths freelancers might stumble across while doing their taxes.  

Myth: Everyone pays taxes annually every April.

Wait a second, you say, what’s wrong with paying your taxes annually? Let’s break it down into two buckets. If you’re a full-time employee, your taxes, along with your contributions to Medicare and Social Security, are taken our of your paychecks throughout the year. But if you’re freelance, you need to take the tax equivalents out of your paychecks. Northard recommends setting aside 25%-30% of your net profit on every job to account for your taxes on the payment.

Then, rather than waiting to pay your taxes annually every April, set up quarterly tax estimate payments where you project your total earnings for the quarter and pay the corresponding taxes every three months. “This is beneficial so that when you do get to tax time, you are not draining your account,” says Northard. This two-part approach allows you to have money at the ready when it’s time to pay taxes and helps to better manage cash flow evenly over 52 weeks.

Myth: You bring home the same amount of money as a W2 employee that makes your same wage.  

For many of us, our Social Security and Medicare contributions are a blip on our taxes—the contribution percentages seem nominal and it feels like eons until we can collect on them. But, if you’re a freelancer, you’re at a disadvantage in this department. That’s because companies split paying these amounts of 12.4% (Social Security) and Medicare (2.9%) with their employees, whereas you have to pay the entire amounts. You’re paying 7.65% more than your W2 peers, something to take into consideration when you bill for jobs. (Maybe you should add 8% to your rates to cover your Social Security and Medicare costs.) The good news, though? Your net self-employment earnings are reduced by half the amount of your total Social Security tax, and you can deduct half of your Social Security tax.

Myth: If you’re 1099 doesn’t arrive, you don’t need to pay taxes on the income.   

“No, no, no, no, no,” says Lee. “What it means is that the 1099 hasn’t come.” It’s still your responsibility to track it down and submit it with your tax documents.

Myth: You can travel anywhere for “research” and write off that expense. 

“Someone going somewhere for research, when it looks like a vacation spot, is one of the most common things I see,” says Lee. “Don’t try to do it. It’s not going to work.” What then is defined as a legitimate business travel expense? “If you are in another country, be sure to get work there,” says Lee. “Have records of contacts and some money that you were paid. And if you’re going for a two-day assignment and you spend three weeks there, the IRS is not going underwrite that.”

Myth: If you work from home, you can write off your home office, even if it’s in the kitchen/living room of your apartment.

“For the home office deduction it’s got to be exclusive office space,” says Lee. “If you’re working on your kitchen table, by definition, that’s not exclusive space.” If you do have separate office space, measure its size to deduct that percentage of your home from applicable expenses, such as mortgage interest, insurance, utilities, repairs, and depreciation. “There is something else about home office,” adds Lee. “For those taking losses in your business, you can’t take a home office deduction that year because you can’t take a home office without a profit.” One last note to add: Though you can’t take most home office expenses with a loss, you can take your portion of mortgage interest and taxes.

Myth: Bank statements are adequate documentation.

“It’s a common misconception that you can just provide your bank statements to show proof of your expenses,” says Northard. “The IRS actually wants to see receipts for things.” These can be digital receipts or paper ones. “The big point is that bank statements won’t be enough,” says Northard.

Myth: Side hustles aren’t taxable.

If you earn more than $400 gross annually, you need to pay taxes on the amount. “A lot of creatives start out doing things on the side and they don’t really treat their work as a business,” says Northard. “They’ve got expenses and income going into their personal checking account or they’re using their personal credit card. And when it gets to tax time, it’s hard to go back through all of your personal transactions and remember the business events.” This leads to expenses or income being left out or forgotten. Northard recommends having a different bank account for anything craft-related so you don’t mix it up with your personal transactions. 

Myth: An audit means you’re in real trouble.

“An audit is a request for information and it’s not necessarily the most pleasant thing,” says Lee. “It may be the only time many of us are put into a quasi-adversarial position. You feel strange about it.” Something didn’t look right to the IRS on your forms and they want to probe deeper to find out why. “Try to have back up records showing both a receipt and method of payment for every deduction,” says Lee. “If you don’t have every single thing, bring what you have. If you’ve made a mistake, tell them you made a mistake.”

from 99U99U

Vince Kadlubek, on Running out of Project Money, and Needing More to Finish

Vince Kadlubek, on Running out of Project Money, and Needing More to Finish

Kadlubek is the visionary CEO behind Meow Wolf, the much-buzzed-about, hard-to-describe, immersive art installation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It might just be the future of experiential art. Kadlubek will be speaking at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Since our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, we asked Kadlubek to reflect on a moment when the future wasn’t so certain and share how he pushed through.

“Opening the House of Eternal Return [Meow Wolf’s art experience in Santa Fe] was definitely the most daunting challenge I ever faced. Prior to House of Eternal Return, the biggest project I’d worked on was about one-fifth the size and one percent of the budget. And it was temporary. House of Eternal Return was the first time we ever got into business. None of us understood business. We kept running out of money. We were sleep deprived. And we were working around the clock to finish it on time.

“‘I can’t do this’ came up all the time. And then it was followed with, ‘Yes, I can.’ We operated for a year with a constant pressure of running out of money. We never had more than two weeks worth of cash on hand. One time our bank was overdrawn and I had 100 artists to pay; $75,000 was needed. I had to make some really difficult phone calls. I called existing investors to ask them to very quickly invest more, with the transparent knowledge that we were out of money. That’s the most difficult and leveraged position a business can ever be in.

“It was nuts.

“The project was really rough at times, but there was a collective creative high that we were all riding. We all just wanted to make amazing art, and that’s what we were doing. There was always this really exciting thought in the back of our heads saying, “What if we really pull this off?”

“During the build, we had over 100 artists working together, volunteering their time, and staying late. Every single person involved was absolutely crucial to the project’s success. We could not have pulled it off if we had not been working together as a collective every step of the way.

“This project really made me believe that I, and the rest of the people at Meow Wolf, are capable of anything. No matter how daunting the project may seem there is always a way to make it happen.”

See Vince Kadlubek along with more creative leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, at the 10th Annual 99U Conference.

from 99U99U

Can UX Design Fix Digital Healthcare’s “Women’s Problem?”

Can UX Design Fix Digital Healthcare’s “Women’s Problem?”

For anyone who’s ever Googled their medical symptoms and then flown into a panic over the results, good news is on the way in the form of a slew of new, allegedly life-altering healthcare apps, many of which are specifically targeted at women. There are period-tracking apps designed for a variety of different users, from hopeful parents trying to conceive, to those tracking how hormonal cycles affect their skin. There are fertility apps that come with their own Bluetooth thermometers, and others for people going through menopause. There’s even a pregnancy app that provides prenatal imaging (the result is strangely similar to the floating Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Beyond services that collect data, there are telemedicine platforms that link users to doctors who can prescribe birth control, and an app that sends alerts designed to help catch breast cancer at an early phase.

The digitization of health is on the rise. On the one hand, this brave new world has garnered praise for its egalitarian and educational possibilities, but the landscape hasn’t shifted without due criticism, either. Some argue that trackers marketed to female consumers encourage yet another way to obsess about the body. Medical experts bemoan the problem of false claims generated by incorrect data entry, as well as the decline of vital in-person patient/physician relationships, and the issue of the way private medical information is shared. Then there’s the way an app represents its user base; one of the biggest challenges to emerge from the growing number of health startups dealing with female reproduction is how they engage with marginalized groups typically left out of the design process.

The health app industry has given way to a whole new range of challenges for UX designers; challenges that will not only affect a user’s digital experience, but  their mental and physical well-being, too. How can UX effectively inform and console a user in the deeply personal topic of health? And how can design not only encourage trust, but also provide us with a truly trustworthy analysis?

womens-health, app, ux-design, Maven, period-tracking

Maven app screens. Courtesy of Maven.

Maven, founded in 2015, is a telemedicine startup that specializes in women’s healthcare in the US. It’s just undergone a significant redesign, and the number one challenge for its design team was creating a space that felt dependable. The platform offers people advice and prescriptions without the need to actually visit a doctor’s office; for most, trusting an app with your sensitive healthcare needs is not an easy leap of faith to take. As with any other telemedicine network, users book video appointments directly through the app, but Maven differentiates itself through the experts it makes available, such as lactation specialists ($25 for 20 minutes) and midwives ($18 for 10 minutes).

One positive implication of Maven is access. Considering the high cost of healthcare in the U.S., the platform is especially helpful when it comes to providing information, services, and birth control to those who might not otherwise be able to receive attention. But Maven doesn’t want to replace office visits to a doctor. Instead, it wants to replace the practice of Googling symptoms or ignoring a problem because it feels embarrassing. As a result, the app’s design attempts to create a space that makes users feel comfortable and at ease, “as if they’re talking to a best friend,” as Maven’s design director, Kara Yeomans, puts it.

“Our goal with the rebrand was to reject the clinical feel that a lot of telemedicine apps have—they’re medical, white, and rigid, not personable at all,” Yeomans says. “On the other hand, we didn’t want something too playful. When you’re trusting a medical app on your phone, fun isn’t the first thing you want. We decided to use a serif and earthy tones to connect the user with a feeling that we’re here for you.”

womens-health, app, ux-design, Maven, period-tracking

Maven app screens. Courtesy of Maven.

Maven doesn’t use millennial rhetoric like many of the new healthcare apps do—its tone is critical for communicating that sense of dependability to its audience. Friendly, hand-drawn icons rendered in a soft palette of pink, green, and brown balance this authoritative tone, providing a user with that all-important friendly feel. “They’re our favorite elements to design,” says Yeomans. “They have to be universally understood and inclusive for all demographics. The only problem we’ve ever had with an icon was a symbol for the breastfeeding category—a pair of naked breasts—which conservative users had a problem with.”

Viewed from the perspective of gender, Maven leans slightly towards the stereotypically feminine. Although it’s not teeming with flowers and swirls like many health apps marketed towards female-bodied consumers, its soft pink tones and curving font suggest that all its users identify as female. For those who don’t, the feminine elements can feel alienating, and not like a friendly, like-minded hub at all.

A good, certified health app can become an authoritative, safe space for a user, a place that tells you what’s normal and helps you understand what isn’t. If a platform is going to make statements about what’s normal, it should consider how its iconography depicts gender and sexuality, too. Not all pregnant users, for example, are heterosexual or female-identifying, and so UX must encompass a range of identities if it truly intends to be inclusive.

A 2017 report published by Human Computer Interaction & Design research group DUB (Design, Use, Build) out of the University of Washington, found that women’s health apps regularly fail to support marginalized populations of gender and sexual minorities. One of the biggest complaints is how app iconography often assumes that all users identify as female and their sexual partners are male, excluding same-sex relationships, transgender users, and people with non-binary gender identities.

womens-health, app, ux-design, Clue, period-tracking

Clue app screens. Courtesy of Clue.

This is something that Clue, a period tracking startup based in Berlin, takes very seriously. “Clue’s philosophy is that more than 50% of the world’s population get their period, so the design should speak to all of those people,” says design director Katrin Friedmann. Clue’s design doesn’t rely on any stereotypes. Rather, it stems from the company’s overarching brand concept, which focuses on the idea of cycles and balance. Its brand colors span the color wheel, aligning with the idea of a cycle, and its header font, Mrs. Eaves, was designed by type designer Zuzana Licko in 1996 as a homage to the forgotten women in the history of typography. All aspects of the design of Clue embody a feminist sensibility, right down to the icon colors.

For example, where Clue uses red to represent mensuration in your calendar, other period trackers use bright pink, or even worse, a pattern made from flower petals. “We also didn’t want to use that clinical blue to signify menstrual blood, which you often see in period-related products,” says Friedmann. “People bleed during their period, and we shouldn’t shy away from that.” Turquoise represents ovulation in the calendar, and storm clouds represent PMS. These clouds have spurred some criticism from Clue’s user base, as the design perpetuates a negative expectation. “Sometimes PMS comes with positive symptoms, which a lot of people don’t know,” notes Friedmann. “We’re working on replacing the clouds at the moment.”

Like Maven, Clue uses a series of icons to represent different health categories and symptoms. Lightning bolts represent cramps, for example, and a non-gendered stick figure represents high or low energy levels. For skin, a can of tuna represents oily, and a cactus represents dry. While most period-tracking apps use icons of male figures to indicate whether or not a user has had sex that day, Clue uses a boot to designate protected sex, and a rabbit to denote high sex drive. “We love playing around with the icons,” says Friedmann. “To avoid alienating any potential user, we often have to think playfully and creatively. At the same time, the icon’s symbolism has to be immediately obvious to a user; there needs to be that ‘a-ha’ moment.”

womens-health, app, ux-design, Clue, period-tracking

Clue app screens. Courtesy of Clue.

While Clue is bold about its use of red, a quick glance at the screen doesn’t obviously suggest that the platform is a period tracker at all. Its playful icons don’t scream “sex” or “acne.” Clue’s design manages to be empowering in its frank discussion of periods, but it’s also as subtle as a wink for those don’t want subway companions to see the private data they’re inputting in their phone. Its icons are like a secret language exchanged between best friends.

The design of Clue is especially progressive and refreshing compared to some of the other trackers available from the App Store. Yet its UX designers, as well as the UX teams at all other tracking platforms, still haven’t found a solution for effectively addressing and responding to the forgetfulness of a user. While it’s possible to turn on alerts, it’s easy to swipe reminders off the screen when you’re busy, and not all users necessarily realize the importance of regularly entering their data into a tracker. Forgetfulness severely impacts predictions and the reliability of a platform.

One important detail highlighted by DUB’s 2017 report is the negative impact that the visual language of certainty has on users. Instead of emphasizing probability, especially if a user hasn’t inputted much data into an app, most trackers visually suggest that a prediction is a certainty. Recent studies have shown that many U.S. teenagers rely on apps as a primary form of birth control, so this small design detail can have serious implications. Design has yet to adapt fully to these new responsibilities and obligations. It must suggest, for example, that “you might get your period tomorrow,” or “you might be ovulating in two weeks.”

Currently, UX designers of women’s health apps like Maven and Clue have successfully created user experiences that feel authoritative, friendly, and trustworthy, guiding users through the new world health tech like a big sister extending a helping hand. But, moving forward, the largest challenge for UX designers in the health industry will be responsibly addressing the potential ineffectiveness of their platforms, too.

from 99U99U