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Empowering blind people to travel independently

with Umesh Pandya, Co-founder at Wayfindr

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Things like staircases, escalators and lifts often make navigating indoors difficult for visually impaired people.

But what if it was possible for a blind person to step off a train and get from the station’s platform to a coffee shop on the first floor, all by themselves? Thanks to Wayfindr, indoor navigation is set to take a turn for the better, especially for visually impaired people.

Starting out as a mobile app, Wayfindr is now creating a free and open standard for indoor navigation that everyone from developers to organisations and venues can use to design and provide consistent and user-friendly audio-based navigation in indoor environments.

Joining us on this episode of HealthRedesigned is Umesh Pandya, Co-founder of Wayfindr. He discusses how the award-winning tech nonprofit plans to use navigation technology and digital design to empower visually impaired people to navigate the world independently, even indoors.

Bringing accessibility indoors

How would you describe what Wayfindr does?

Our core aim is to create an open standard for audio-based navigation. We hope that one day, a visually impaired person would be able to wake up in their bedroom in London and get to a meeting in New York by navigating indoors and outdoors seamlessly without any human assistance and just by using their mobile device.

Our open standard is a free-to-use guide that helps venue owners and indoor navigation services to improve the way-finding experience of all their customers. For example, if you’re vision-impaired and want to be able to get around inside a building, there are certain indicators and instances you need to look out for in the building, whether you’re moving down a staircase or moving to an escalator. The standard helps venues understand how best to design their environment using indoor navigation technology to meet the needs of customers or visitors to their places.

“When you get it right, not only does it help vision-impaired people, but it helps anyone using audio-based navigation.”

How did the idea for the Wayfindr evolve?

We identified very early on that there are around 285 million people living with sight loss worldwide and 42 % of the two million who are in the UK said they would like to leave home more often. Not being able to do this much can lead to isolation, poverty and even mental health issues like depression. We wanted to help reduce that, so we worked with a group of young people from a charity called the Royal Society for Blind Children (RSBC).

We ran a series of exercises involving user-centred design approaches and did our early prototyping with this community. We also carried out simulations and did some observation exercises where we shadowed vision-impaired people and looked at other systems that were already in place to help them travel through London.

We often did interviews in context while travelling with vision-impaired people as we moved through the journeys. After gathering insights through observation, simulation and interviews, we decided to co-create the solution with the group of young vision-impaired people from the RSBC. That was a great experience for both parties and the results are where we are now.

Enabling independence with technology

What were some of the insights that stood out for you while running these trials and observations?

Young vision-impaired people like anybody else wanted to be able to travel independently in their own time, when and where they wanted to. They didn’t want to be restricted to being able to travel only when someone else was there; they also didn’t necessarily want a parent, guardian or friend to take them to a location because they might not want to let everybody know where they were going. So independence was a real core part of it and we’re focusing on using technology to solve that need.

Why did you pivot from a navigation app to an open standard?

Our initial solution was to build an app that helps vision-impaired people navigate indoors. The hypothesis was that we could use Bluetooth beacons which are used for contextual marketing and trigger ads on your phone. So instead of saying, “Here’s 20% off,” we could use the beacons to say, “Turn left” or “Turn right.” That was the initial hypothesis and marrying that with the need of a vision-impaired person wanting to navigate in the London Underground meant you had to navigate indoors. There wasn’t a solution that allowed you to do that.

There are indoor navigation companies, but the market still isn’t mature yet. What we quickly realised is that yes, we could build an app, but there was no consistency amongst some of the app providers that were already providing navigation for vision-impaired people outdoors. They piggybacked off Google Maps or OpenStreetMap using GPS, but it isn’t very accurate and it’s really hard to know which side of the road you’re on.

Bluetooth allowed us to get a little bit closer and in an indoor environment, it was really beneficial. We took that thought and extrapolated it out further to build a way for manufacturers and designers of systems to consistently build experiences that allow a vision-impaired person to safely move from building to building to building. We came up with an idea for a standard suite for design guidelines to help people design better navigation for vision-impaired people.

From there, we started to work with indoor navigation manufacturers and blind charities like Guide Dogs UK, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and the World Blind Union. We created this community that is now made up of vision-impaired people and the organisations that represent them. We’ve also got manufacturers of indoor navigation, app developers who develop navigation apps for vision-impaired people, research institutions and universities.

“We work with these groups because we know that this solution cannot be resolved and designed by one organisation itself.”

It has to be a multidisciplinary cross-sector collaboration and that’s where Wayfindr kind of sits. It facilitates these organisations in creating and testing assumptions in context such as the transport environment to gather new insight and feed it back to the open standard so it feeds the group again—like a build-measure-learn cycle which we then open out to everyone to use and then contribute back to. We use this cycle not only in our product development but in the way that we run and interact with other organisations.

How did you develop the standard so that it’s recognised by relevant organisations and goes on to impact the public?

We didn’t know how this would pan out in the beginning and effectively took our insights from trials, user testing and our work with young vision-impaired people. Then we put a flag in the ground and said, “This is what we believe to be true based on these trials, these are our assumptions” and listed out all the things we knew and didn’t know. We then worked with other organisations that were involved or had interest in this space, like researchers who have been doing this for awhile in theory but hadn’t implemented it practically.

Then we started consulting with our community and gradually grew it from there. Once we had the momentum behind the community and well-recognised people in the industry looking at the work that we had done and saying, “Actually this makes sense,” “This resonates,” and “Yes, I believe this to be true,” we started gaining momentum within other charitable organisations for vision-impaired people. More organisations are still joining—it’s important that charities and organisations that look after vision-impaired people are all aligned around one vision. We realised that we were onto something when we were introduced to the International Telecommunication Union who’s the standards organisation that looks after communications on behalf of the United Nations (U.N.).

This is important because the U.N. has a treaty called The United Nations on the Conventions for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which requires countries that have signed up to ensure that persons with disabilities can equally access their environment, transportation, public facilities and services in ICT. For an organisation to look at the Wayfindr open standard and say, “This is something that can help with persons with disabilities. How would you like to make this an international standard?”, we thought that was pretty amazing and never expected that to happen.

Leading the way for better indoor navigation

What are your thoughts on Wayfindr’s future?

I believe that by 2021, the indoor navigation market value will be around $21 billion. One of our goals is to create a way for all navigation apps to be able to deliver an audio navigation service through apps created for their customers. The ideal scenario is that the usage data finds its way back into updating a live version of the standard which has navigating escalators, staircases and lifts. Every time someone completes a journey successfully, it marks that part of the standard as validated once again because that audio instruction helped assist an end to end journey. That means that everyone has to cooperate and collaborate at large through corporate ties and work with competition to push that back to one central system that feeds back out to everyone else. That’s the dream state and it might seem a little scary, but I don’t see why it’s not possible.

Another state in the middle which I’d still be over the moon about is for organisations, app developers or anyone who’s helping people move through an indoor environment to use the standard and the insights from it and apply it towards delivering audio instructions to help people navigate through the space, especially visually impaired people. So if you’re telling somebody to turn right, you actually say, “Turn right,” instead of “Turn 90 degrees” or “Turn to 3:00 o’clock.”

“I would love to see a consistent language used across indoor audio navigation.”

And that doesn’t necessarily have to be feedback into a central system, but just using it as a set of guidelines and implementing that language into your product. This is somewhere we definitely believe we can get to.

If you’re a designer or app developer, Wayfindr would love your feedback on the standard. It’s open, so feel free to contribute. Keep the Wayfindr standard in mind for the indoor navigation market and whenever you get the opportunity, share it with clients, customers or your design or development team.

Connect with Wayfindr: