Making buildings more accessible with indoor wayfinding
The UCAN GO Wayfinding App enables people with sight loss to navigate indoor cultural venues independently and with confidence, including the Wales Millennium Centre, Hackney Empire and Cardiff Central Library.
UCAN GO is a free digital service that breaks new ground in disability research and mobile technology. Underpinning the success of the project is that it was co-designed with users and not just tested by its target audience. This user-led approach emphasised the importance of personalisation of the app, landmark-based navigation and a solution which was not dependent on connectivity or hardware installed at the venue.
A Collaborative Approach To Development
Cardiff based UCAN Productions is an award winning performance and creative arts co-operative for blind and partially sighted young people. When members of UCAN said that they wanted to be as confident when going to the theatre as they were when on stage, the idea for UCAN GO was born.
Jane Latham, Development Director of UCAN Productions was awarded funding from NESTA to create a scalable digital solution to achieve the challenge set by the young people. Jane chose to partner with Calvium to research, design and develop the innovative app.
Calvium worked closely with UCAN Productions and two partner venues- The Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff and the Torch Theatre in Milford Haven. The aim was to research, develop and explore aspects of mobile technology that could improve indoor accessibility for visually impaired arts audiences. Ultimately equipping the visually impaired community with confidence, independence and a sense of freedom when accessing these venues.
The Initial Research and Development Stage
Due to the nature of the project, it was vital that every step of the design and development journey was informed by the members of UCAN. In addition, to ensure that we created something that was intuitive and genuinely helpful,we needed a combination of user insights and technical expertise. Therefore, we adopted an iterative development approach quickly prototyping and developing ideas, testing and refining them.
Calvium became a part of the UCAN family almost overnight. From day one we became a team who shared the same vision and we all desperately wanted to make it work. Calvium’s willingness to listen to both Megan and I and other users has played a huge part in the success of the app. A user lead project will only work if the users opinions are acknowledged and valued and this is exactly what Calvium have done.
In terms of technical solutions, there are many options available for facilitating indoor navigation. However, due to the nature of the application, it was essential that UCAN Go was robust and not reliant on tools or technology that were at risk of breaking or otherwise failing. Many indoor navigation tools rely on hardware, device capability, signal or strong wifi connections – all of which are subject to failure. We discounted other methods of indoor navigation as follows:
- GPS signals are often unavailable in indoor environments
- Wi-Fi signals can be sporadic and are often unavailable
- iBeacon technology requires maintenance and is therefore subject to human error. Beacons can also be affected by many variables beyond control. For example, a large amount of people in a room or a thick wall can block signal.
- Device tools (such as accelerometers, gyroscopes) are not universally available on every smartphone
- Vision-based approaches that focus on images from the camera and image recognition reliant on seamless communication between a user’s mobile device and server systems, should be discounted due to signal interruptions or traffic
- RFID solutions can only be sensed and read at short distances from the reader
The challenge therefore, was to create an app free of any hardware that could still navigate a user around a building.
As the app has been designed by people with sight loss, it has features tailored to the needs or fears that the user group have.
UCAN GO works by visually mapping the building, offering visual cues in addition to an audio guide to walk the user through the building, step-by-step. The building overview audio description helps you build a mental map of the building and the routing feature gives easy to follow instructions to get you to your chosen destination.
The app is free, requires no internet connectivity (after the initial download) and can be highly personalised. You can choose from three user-friendly colour contrast options, select your preferred route, audio speed, toilet preference and whether you can use stairs.
Unanimously Positive Response
Following the launch of UCAN Go, rigorous user testing was undertaken by University of Surrey and funded by Nesta, with outstanding results.
Responses from formal user testing were overwhelmingly positive, fully confirming the app’s value in enabling users to find their way around arts venues confidently. User testing also revealed the app’s potential for non-visually impaired users, for example those suffering from anxiety or low or no mobility.
In addition to the feedback gathered from the formal testing, feedback from the app given both in person to UCAN Productions and posted online via the app store was unanimously positive. Users reported that in addition to the app being reliable and easy to use, they liked the anonymity of using it. Whereas before the alternative would be getting a friend or alerting a staff member to lead you to your seat, the cafe, the toilet etc. Rather than drawing attention to the fact they need assistance, using the app allowed them to be independent and simply looked like texting a friend while listening to music.
Feedback also revealed further, unexpected benefits. In addition to it being a transformative tool for those with visual impairments – users suffering from anxiety or simply those who worry about visiting new places said they also found the app extremely helpful. The app took away the mystery of the building, allowing it’s users to prepare for their visit, offering a level of comfort and confidence.
Over 2 million people in the UK have sight loss, by 2050 it will be 4 million. It is well understood that living with sight loss impacts negatively upon a person’s social, economic and cultural quality of life.
Equipping people with the confidence to access buildings is therefore of vital importance when considering the future of our cities. Accessibility is a key element of digital placemaking, and with the rise of smart cities, connected devices and growing demand from users we hope that more buildings will install UCAN Go and therefore improve their offering to the visually impaired community.
We’re thrilled that to date, four venues have UCAN Go available to their patrons. They include; Wales Millennium Centre, Torch Theatre, London Hackney Empire and most recently, Cardiff Library.
Calvium continues to partner with UCAN Go with the shared vision of mapping more buildings and adding them to the app’s locations with the hope of making all public cultural venues and buildings accessible and inclusive.