duPont Hospital for Children and the University of Delaware
Vol. 2, No. 2 -- Winter/Spring 1997


ASEL's Consumer Innovation Laboratory

Applied Science & Engineering Laboratories of the University of Delaware and the duPont Hospital for Children has developed a project to incorporate consumer input into research on rehabilitation technology; it's called the Consumer Innovation Laboratory or ConLab.

The ConLab is one of 13 projects underway at the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Rehabilitation Robotics. Why is there a Consumer Lab at an an RERC on Robotics? "To be perfectly frank," says Robotics Lab Co-Director, Rich Mahoney, "rehabilitation robotics currently has no products that work. We decided that we needed to examine consumer involvement in hopes of making rehab robotics meet the needs of people with disabilities."

The ConLab currently supports three design teams. The Eggbreaker team is attempting to create a product to help people with limited hand function cook more independently. The Vacuum Cleaner team is working on a more accessible method of vacuum cleaning, especially for people who use wheelchairs. The Pageturner team is hoping to create the next generation pageturning device.

The design teams use the "total-design process" and begin with a blank sheet of paper. Each project moves through the following stages:

Swiss Army Knife All ConLab teams have completed the first three steps and are now in the testing and prototyping stage. During this stage, the ConLab holds a series of brainstorming sessions, where the PDS is taken from idea to prototype. Of course, some give-and-take between engineers and consumers must take place, each group arguing for its "side". The consumers want the product to remain uncompromising in its ability to meet the needs of consumers. The engineers want the product to be designed cleanly, efficiently and simply. ConLab technician Whitney Sample says, "Its a bit like this: the consumers want a Swiss Army Knife that can do everything and the technical staff wants a sturdy pocket knife that does a couple of things really well." This back-and- forth stage may last quite a long time.

But in the ConLab project, this stage is critical. It's not only worth the time and effort that it takes, it is the crux of the whole project. Jane Fee, the Consumer Liaison of the ConLab, says, "Once the product is out on the market-or even in final prototyping stage-it's really too late to get consumer feedback. There are so many variables that consumer input is needed throughout the design process."

The final stage of the process will be technology transfer. The goal of the ConLab is to keep consumers involved through the tech transfer stage and into the marketing and promotion of the product.

Team Members
Conlab members, Tina Hession and Kirtie Simpkins, discuss the pageturner project.

The ConLab uses its design projects as a tool to teach consumers about the assistive technology design process and its limitations. Meanwhile, engineers learn about the needs of consumers with disabilities.

Both the engineers and the consumers have had to learn to be flexible. For instance, adjustments have been made to the design teams. Neither a facilitator nor a consumer liaison were in the original ConLab proposal. This two positions added an administrative layer, but the need for these positions became apparent quickly. The facilitator's role is to help the engineers understand the consumers' feedback and help the consumers understand the engineers' concerns. A consumer liaison keeps in touch with the consumers, arranges meeting times, keeps the payroll records, and handles the minutes. Most important of all, the liaison provides consumers with someone to express their thoughts, not just about how the design is going, but how the meetings are going. The ConLab consumer liaison has dealt with extensive transportation problems, which highlights a real-world problem for many people with disabilities.

ConLab staff members are writing a paper on their model of consumer participatory design. "We hope that, through our experiences, we can help other groups set up successful consumer research groups," says Jim Fee, Principal Investigator of the ConLab, "because the effort is definitely worth it."

-Julia Mercier, Info & Outreach Coordinator, Applied Science & Engineering Laboratories