Sunday, 26 November 2017 09:14

    Tough Facts: Why We Need Diversity in Design and Engineering

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    History offers a few "great" examples of products that were built for the people who designed them and failed to address needs of other groups of the population. The history of he airbag is a popular one, as well as the history of speech recognition. And even safety belts are worth mentioning here.

    The first ever car airbag system protected tall, heavy passengers, while women and children were at a severe risk (read more). And not just the lack of female engineers is to blame. While airbags became compulsory in the nineties, it was not until almost 20 years later that they were properly tested with female statue dummies. Only in 2008, the US Department of Transportation updated their standards to use female dummies on the passenger seat in crash tests starting with model year 2010, taking into account mixed perspectives from automotive companies (you can check out the report from the Dept. of Transportation). Among the considered comments, GM presented evidence that women occupied the passenger seat frequently and got injured worse in accidents. Car front safety ratings generally decreased as a result of the legislative change (read more). Moreover, studies determined a 20-40% chance of serious injury or death for a woman using a design that tested fine for men. And by the time this legislation was passed, many women and children had died in airbag-related accidents, often at very low speeds, when the airbag deployment might not have been necessary. A study at the University of Virginia found seatbelts put women at a 47 to 71 percent higher risk of getting seriously injured in an accident than men in a comparable accident. The reason for this discrepancy: Not only are women smaller, placing their chin where an airbag might hit them but also their necks are less muscular, potentially leading to spinal trauma and brain injuries as a result of sudden deployment of an airbag (read more). Asked by ABC News why car makers did not take the female physiology into account when testing vehicles, Dr. David Lawrence, director of the Center for Injury Prevention Policy & Practice at San Diego State University, replied: “Manufacturers and designers used to be all men. It didn't occur to them they should be designing for people unlike themselves”. This attitude certainly runs contrary to any human-centered design philosophy.

    And still today, seat belts are often uncomfortable to pregnant women and may, in rare cases, lead to the loss of the unborn child in case of an accident (read more). As a result, pregnant women in the United States often choose not to wear a seatbelt, putting themselves and thus their unborn child at greater risk (there's a very insightful journal paper here). This highlights just how important empathy is in the design process.

    Another example is early speech recognition, which had problems recognizing higher-pitched voices and accents, and still does, for example in the automotive space (read more). In some cases, contrary to any human design philosophy, engineers may not see the problem in the system, but rather in the user. ATX Group’s VP of voice recognition was quoted saying: “Many issues with women’s voices could be fixed if female drivers were willing to sit through lengthy training …” to essentially learn to speak like a man (he actually said that ... read it here). In an anecdotal story, a friend experienced that it helped to imitate a German accent with his BMW 5 series from the early 2000s, since the brand new infotainment system had trouble with his American English. While all sorts of English accents are available for computer-generated text-to-speech voice output (here's a list), the recognition of spoken words in those accents has been a struggle (read more).

    Breakthrough innovation is often designed for the majority user, while minorities’ needs remain unaddressed. In many cases, a product’s main design target is the majority user, but the design is improved as soon as minority users’ or extreme users’ opinions are taken into consideration. It has been shown over and over that a more diverse design team improves overall problem-solving skills, i.e. diversity trumps ability (there are lots of publications about this, one here).

    In many cases, however, individual needs are exclusive to a small market, which may not justify an investment, such as specialized sports or hobbies. If we want to serve those minorities, we have to reduce the investment that is required to develop new technology.

    To open up the engineering space and invite diverse groups to participate and contribute to innovation, a new set of technologies and components can be employed. These have become widely available and accessible and they are the basis for a range of novel products with varying utility, which are suitable for versatile applications. 

    Read 464 times Last modified on Tuesday, 28 November 2017 04:08

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