By Heidi Biggs
As the landscape of new technology changes so rapidly that at times it can be hard to fully grasp, there seems to be some enjoyment in critiquing emerging technologies through speculative design. However, Solji Lee demonstrates that speculations can also imagine how emerging technologies can foster equity. Lee’s thesis is committed to imagining a more accessible future by re-designing autonomous vehicle (AV) taxis in ways that will give disabled people equitable access to AV taxis in the future. What resulted from this agenda is quite inventive — her research is part case study of how to apply universal design principles for accessibility to emerging technologies and part exploration of how 3D modeling and animation can be used to conduct speculative co-design with people with disabilities. The implications of her research are far reaching and by imagining preferable and more equitable futures, she exposes the inequities in public and private transportation for people with disabilities today.
Lee has a background in industrial design (ID), and in her thesis she used her ID training to generate concepts and models that bridge artifact, theory and social justice issues. While she originally planned to work on interface design for AVs, she discovered early-on that AV interfaces were already under heavy development by industry. Pivoting, she decided to focus on asking how AV taxis might better serve people with disabilities, conducting co-design sessions and integrating universal design principles for accessibility into her concepts and ideation. To do this, she reached out to an online community for people living with a variety of disabilities to be co-designers. She talked with six different people who had diverse disabilities ranging from visual impairment, loss of an arm due to an amputation, and wheelchair users, which gave her a range of insights. Instead of designing for the people she was interviewing, Lee wanted to design with them, and she came up with a clever methodology of using 3D models and animations to conduct first-person walkthroughs of AV taxis with her co-designers. Lee discovered that using 3D modeling created a space where people with disabilities could easily imagine use and could give direct and specific feedback about what it would be like to use an AV taxi. This method is an innovative way to offer people with disabilities input in the development of future technologies, which is in and of itself relatively accessible since the research can be ‘first person’ but still conducted at a distance.
According to Lee, interviewing and connecting with disabled individuals as co-designers was her favorite part of her thesis because they continuously surprised her with their detailed and critical feedback, which also exposed the inequity in current transportation systems. For example, one co-designer, while ‘walking through’ one of Lee’s models, claimed the current design of the AV taxi was ‘worthless’ to him because the door slid open in a direction that would require use of his amputated arm. Other co-designers expressed how difficult access to transportation negatively affected their lives — one interviewee mentioned she wouldn’t go to friend’s houses if they thought it would be too hard to get home afterwards using public transportation, while another expressed that they sometimes wait hours for a taxi that can accommodate them. Lack of equitable transportation requires difficult decision making and extra expenses, which compounds and has broad ramifications. Therefore, designing and optimizing AV taxis for disabled people before they are widespread holds promise for making transportation more equitable in the future. The impacts of equitable transportation are reinforced in a publication by the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), which claims equitable access to transportation for people with disabilities is vital to opportunities in healthcare, education, employment, housing and community life.
Beyond innovating within the realm of co-design and clearly addressing a social justice issue, Lee’s thesis serves as a case study for applying universal design to emerging technology. Universal design principles for accessibility suggest that centering the needs of disabled peoples in design makes better designs for all, and advocates for a focus on equitable, flexible, and intuitive designs . One thing that is quite lovely in Lee’s work is the way that she integrates universal design principles into her design rationale in multiple different design phases such as user journeys, illustrated frameworks, and final renderings. For example, a user journey map Lee created illustrates this perfectly, as it graphically weaves together universal design tenets, user actions and design affordances seamlessly in a design process artifact. This type of synthesis of design theory and design ideation offers what might be considered an example of intermediate knowledge production, which is a type of design output that bridges the gap between an individual artifact and abstracted theory.
Ultimately, while Lee’s work feels outwardly pragmatic, and I believe it will translate well in the design industry, it also offers a speculative provocation about more equitable transportation which enters into the territory of discursive design by prompting reflection and awareness. By using 3D modeled animations, which look polished and industry-focused, the viewer is drawn into Lee’s work expecting a narrative more characteristic of AV — maybe someone reading the news while the car drives them to work. However, as one leans closer to her work and engages the content, they are met with a concept engaging in a social justice issue and based on innovated co-design methods. Ultimately, this experience of having one’s expectations upended leaves room for meta-reflection: Lee’s thesis suggests that equitable and accessibility-centered futures could be the norm while any emerging technology designed without such considerations would be shocking or strange.
 Disabilities, American Association of People with. 2016. “Why Equity in Transportation Matters Surface Transportation Legislation.”
 “The Center for Universal Design – Universal Design Principles.” https://projects.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_ud/udprinciples.htm.
 Löwgren, Jonas, Bill Gaver, and John Bowers. 2013. “Annotated Portfolios and Other Forms of Intermediate-Level Knowledge.” Interactions, no. January: 30–34.