An Iterative Design Journey for Independent Mobility

Graduate students from U.S. and Mexico team up with Volkswagen Group of America to design for independent wheelchair mobility.

Graduate students showcasing final project

September 5, 2019
Contributed by: Da Hyang Summer Jung, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering

Every maker’s dream is to change the world through their design.

This is how I felt when I found out that I was going to work with Volkswagen Group of America on an accessibility project for my graduate-level product innovation course at a prominent American university.

This was a project-based class for graduate students in mechanical engineering to explore a new problem space and to develop an innovative solution using “design thinking” methodology. Student teams from my university were paired with student teams from different universities around the globe to work on a sponsored project.

Over the course of ten months, my team (consisting of four students) and a team from a large research university in Mexico (consisting of four students) began our design journey with a seemingly simple question:

“How will future robotic, on demand vehicles gracefully and safely accommodate wheelchairs and similar devices in 2025?”

It was an important question that had to be addressed now. Yet, we have never considered it before.

Design prompt

The Project

This project started in the fall of 2018, beginning with learning about our users (through interviews and day-in-the-life-of exercises). We also visited a conference featuring products and services for people with disabilities to investigate forefront designs.

We were highly encouraged to design for a specific user group. We created a user persona, “Peter”, who uses a manual wheelchair, and we posted a drawing of Peter next to our work station so that we could always be cognizant of his needs.

Over the span of a few months, we brainstormed and prototyped a solution for our users. By the end of the second quarter, we arrived at a design: SEDRIC-X. This is an accessible version of SEDRIC (a concept car from Volkswagen Group) that positions a wheelchair user with a turntable to face forward in the car and secures the user with a set of clamps by grabbing the back sides of the wheels. The design received positive feedback from the teaching team and a small set of users. The end-quarter presentation went smoothly, and my U.S. team, including myself, visited our teammates in Mexico. Everything was going according to plan.

We soon realized, however, that a barrier for our users was their concern with how to get their wheelchairs inside SEDRIC-X even before the clamping process could occur. Therefore, at the start of the third quarter, we were tasked with deciding whether to continue our initial challenge of securing the user within the vehicle or pivoting our direction to focus more on wheelchair entry mechanisms, to coincide with our users’ feedback.

Students demo their prototype Students demo their prototype during a student showcase.

This crossroads compelled us to consider the following: What is most beneficial to the potential end users? To Volkswagen Group of America? And to us, the student designers?

At a Crossroads

What seemed challenging to us was the idea of creating a mechanism that could accommodate all types of wheelchairs, in order to be broadly accessible. We realized that what might be usable for Peter might not be usable for other user groups. After all, there are a million different types of wheelchairs to address the varying needs of each person. There is no such thing as the wheelchair. Would it even be possible to design a securement mechanism for all types of wheelchairs?

We were also uncertain as to whether any of our designs would make it to production because the manufacturing process is unbelievably complex. To demonstrate these manufacturing complexities, we met with senior engineers in Puebla, Mexico who were working on design for manufacturability. Puebla is the home to a large VW assembly plant. One of the engineers showed us the process that he had to go through to find the best way to assemble three arbitrary parts. He had to manually run a program that assessed the error rate of a given assembly procedure. He would continue this arduous process until he found the optimal assembly procedure. If assembling three parts took that much time and effort, how much would it take to design SEDRIC-X, which is composed of thousands of parts?

Dancing with ambiguity

In our program, we like to say that designers should learn how to be comfortable “dancing with ambiguity.” In other words, designers should accept the inherent complexity of problem spaces and embrace the uncertainty until they can create a single coherent answer. The complete cycle of a design process consists of repeated phases of divergence, or the generating of multiple design ideas, and convergence, the narrowing down of these ideas. As the process unfolds, designers reduce the level of ambiguity by better understanding the problem space and specifying the details of the final design.

This design process sounds straightforward. However, in actuality, dancing with ambiguity is exceedingly difficult. During this process, we were overwhelmed at times by the scope of the project and its ramifications.

However, bearing in mind the gravity of the project, we could not give up. After all, design is a step-by-step process. Designers iterate because there is no such thing as “the perfect solution.” Although our design might not work for every type of user, it could provide some insights into our user group. We could start from a small success and build upon that. Also, our corporate liaison Maddie Douglas once told us that we should learn how to distill our user findings into concrete, memorable messages that can permeate the long chain of decision making at VW. Therefore, we decided to focus more on documentation, instead of losing hope entirely.

A new iteration

In the last quarter, we developed new ideas to help manual wheelchair users enter SEDRIC effortlessly.

It is true that our solution cannot help all types of users and that it is far from being a manufacturable design. However, we believe that what we achieve will be a drop of water that creates a ripple that becomes a wave.

All designers want to believe their designs will change the world. However, it requires overcoming innumerable obstacles. Throughout our design journey, there were points where we questioned both our abilities and the sheer feasibility of such an elaborate project. However, unlike others who may have been tempted to give up, we have consistently persevered and will continue on our journey with the hopes of making the world we live in more accessible.

U.S. graduate student group Students pose for a team photo.

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