Inclusive Design Challenge – Making In-Store Experience more inclusive to the visually impaired

July 17, 2020

Five ways how retail stores can use inclusive design

You’ve probably gotten a bit overwhelmed when you first encountered all signage, rules, lines, and people when you walked in to pick something up at a store. But as good citizens, we quickly learn and adapt to our new normal.  As the country is battling the surge in COVID-19 cases and a side-war fueled by anti-science willful ignorance against the use face masks, social distancing and other health precautions in public spaces — people with disabilities are again being left out. 

Retail stores, restaurants, public spaces are making a huge effort and investment to ensure their customers and employee safety. However, their design process completely left out accessibility and inclusion.

As a person who is legally blind with low vision due to albinism, navigating the supermarket with all the signs, postings, floor signs, rules etc has made the ‘in store’ shopping experience even more stressful (and a times dangerous). The experience is even more confounded when I’m trying to read or identify signage, labels and products while other shoppers anxiously make their way around me. I too need to get out to shop, be in my community and carry out activities of daily living while practicing the important health safety measures.

The in store shopping experience is even more confounded when I’m trying to read or identify signage, labels and products while other shoppers anxiously, and angrily make their way around me. 

There are over 20 million blind and visually impaired people in the US, and over 50 million Americans living with some type of disability. Design for inclusion and accessibility needs to be a priority. And it can be achieved with minimum added costs or investment if done right from the start.

So now that we’re here, how could retail stores make simple design changes to be more accessible and inclusive?

Design for inclusion and accessibility needs to be a priority. And it can be achieved with minimum added costs or investment

Inclusive Design Building Blocks: start with diversity, equity and inclusion in the design process

We need to reverse the paradigm of accessibility being the afterthought in the design process. Start by including people with various abilities from the beginning of the design process and include us throughout the entire cycle. We need to stop thinking about only designing for the perceived majority. When we include accessibility within the design process, we can create an even more inclusive experience for everyone.

This has been the case for technologies which originally were designed to be ‘assistive’ such as voice recognition- and are now ubiquitous in smartphones and intelligent speakers like Alexa.

Inclusive design to engage the senses

If you’re changing the in store experience with signage and placards, then please consider that signs can engage the other senses than just sight. Signage can become more inclusive by using relatively inexpensive technology.

Combining a proximity sensor with an audio output on a visual sign could enhance its utility for blind and low vision consumers. As a person approaches within a minimum radius of the sign, the sensors could activate the audio queue. Of course the information provided needs to also make sense to someone who is blind.

Inclusive design to communicate with tactile

I’m concerned when I hear brands saying that they’ve completely removed everything that is tactile from their stores. It again points towards an unimaginative design process for the physical space.

Floor signs that are used to direct direction or provide spacing between people can made tactile, similar to the bump-strips found on most street corners. A well designed floor tactile sign can provide both sighted and non-sighted shoppers the necessary information. Any tactile design needs to be intuitive, just like bump-strips alert people when they reached an intersection.

Tactile graphics can enhance the experience for museum, aquarium and zoo visitors. Though there are health concerns regarding tactile exhibits and signage, certain materials and coatings offer additional protection. The versatility of using tactile floor signs or combining it with other sensors and audio queue can certain provide a richer experience for everyone.

Educate employees and staff

It’s even more important today to education and accessibility training to store employees. This isn’t rocket science. First, begin by providing disability awareness. This includes learning how to recognize a person who is blind, or sight impaired and having etiquette awareness.

Everyone wants to be helpful, but there is proper way to do it in which empowerment is provided instead of taken-away. Knowing how to offer help or assistance is key to providing a good in store experience. Asking “how can I help you?” instead of simply assuming that a person needs to be led or is helpless, put the individual in control while retaining safety for everyone.

Providing disability awareness and accessibility training enhances empathy and equips employees to provide a better sales and customer support in store experience.

Engage with technology

Technology has a big role to play in the inclusive design experience within physical spaces. There are a variety of mobile, wearable and IoT technology that can enhance the in store experience for visually impaired customers. Some of these assistive technologies are providing sighted assistance, mobility and way-finding, and even some brands have created successful partnerships with technology startups. Retail stores should be open to partnering with technology companies in creating mutually beneficial opportunities for innovation.

Wegmans Supermarket partnered with Aira, the creator of a smart-glass to provide sighted assistance to blind customers. Other apps and IoT technology creators are addressing the needs around indoor navigation and access. Retail stores could be a new sandbox for piloting and testing emerging technologies.

Final thoughts on Inclusive design for retailers

This is by no means a conclusive list of design suggestions. User experience design with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion requires research, analysis and involving other stakeholders such as people with disabilities, advocates, experts and organizations. Fortunately there are already people doing great work in this area, and retail, hospitality and government needs to open its eyes to including diverse communities within the design process to make their physical spaces and services more equitable and inclusive.