Notes from "Innovations in Accessible Technology" at the USBLN Conference

These are some of the topics and questions we covered in today's  “Innovations in Accessible Technology” at the USBLN – US Business Leadership Network Conference. I may or may not have discussed all of these things, but I wanted to put it down here for posterity.

How do you engage users/customers with disabilities into the innovation and design process? How do the retail outlets (or other channels) act as a feedback loop?

We are not a product company like Microsoft or IBM, at least not in the same way. Traditionally our work has been performed directly for government and commercial clients. More recently we have ventured into product development on the investment and innovation sides of the house. This has been very exciting.

From our website: We are a global firm of 22,600 diverse, passionate, and exceptional people driven to excel, do right, and realize positive change in everything we do. We bring bold thinking and a desire to be the best in our work in consulting, analytics, digital solutions, engineering, and cyber, and with industries ranging from defense to health to energy to international development.

We work across many different government agencies that focus on health and accessibility, like the VA, Military Health, NIH, CDC, NSF, and Transportation.

No matter where we start with a particular project, we always engage the end users as part of the design process. We like to use the Agile method whenever possible as well. That means building something in iterations with a feedback loop from the stakeholders and end users.

In my role as the Solutions Evangelist and Lab Manager in the Booz Allen Innovation Center, I do get to run a tech "store" of sorts. We have hundreds of employees, clients, and other visitors in the Center every week. They come to work, to meetings, for events, and to experience our products and our partner’s products. I spend a lot of time giving demonstrations, but I make sure to allow the guest to get involved. I feel this is one of the best ways to get buy-in and input. Trying something for yourself is always a bigger impact than just reading about it or even seeing a video. For example, we show off virtual reality, which most people have not experience yet, and people go “wow” every time.

Research enables us to work on big ideas that sometimes turn into products. How do you know which project to invest in? What does the process from idea to product look like?

We do this in a few ways. One, we have an investment system across the firm within each major team (or market team) as well as our Strategic Innovation Group. Each team makes its own priorities, but we also work across teams in certain areas to pool money, people, and resources.

We also have programs like The Garage, a crowdsourcing platform that runs regular challenges for new ideas to solve big problems like the opioid epidemic, better access to healthcare for our veterans, or providing cybersecurity to protect our business.  We also have an annual Ideas Festival where our employees get together to share what they are passionate about. Apps like Microsoft's Yammer and Teams people across the firm to communicate and to help build out ideas and teams to solve all kinds of problems.

One of my favorite things that we have introduced in recent years is the Summer Games internship program. Each intern team works with a Challenge lead to choose a problem to solve. Many of the topics are near and dear to their hearts. The teams are given autonomy and support over the ten-week internship span to build a business plan, prototype, and final presentation. Many of these projects end up as continued investments and become client deliverables, branded products, and internal or external open source projects.

I got to engage with many of the Summer Games teams this summer and help support them with advice, feedback, and devices they could borrow from our Solutions Lab in the Innovation Center. This is where I love to be: at the intersection of people, process, and technology.

A few of this year’s Summer Games projects had to do with accessible technology:

  • IRIS – An outdoor navigation system for the blind
  • SAMI – Solution for Accessible Mapping Indoors
  • Assistive Keyboard – Customizable input app

As I mentioned before, as part of my role as the Solutions Evangelist and Lab Manager at our Innovation Center I get to show off many of the cool products that we have built as well as partner products and other off-the-shelf technology that we are trying out. Getting exposure to these things is key: trying something on is much more impactful than just reading about it. This also stimulates new ideas. Many visitors have come through and seen our demos and had an ah-ha moment that applied to their own situation. I see this all the time while showing off tech like augmented and virtual reality, location tracking devices, and eye tracking.

I also do this at home with my family, partly because I like it but also to see what we can find to help my son with special needs engage with the world, like with the touchscreen iPad, Philips Hue lights, and music.

Putting accessibility at the heart of inclusive design produced products that are accessible to people with disabilities, but it also delivers great usability that customers love. How are you using inclusive design to meet the needs of people with and without disabilities? 

Universal or inclusive design is key in any design. From websites to desktop and mobile software, to hardware, furniture, and architecture, it makes the experience better for everyone.

We have a Section 508 group that supports software development across all teams at the firm. As we traditionally have been a tech firm focused on software and websites, this is probably our largest area where universal design comes into play. I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here, but it's common sense that something made to follow accessibility design rules will also help a wider audience.

To this effect, we have design and user experience groups that work across all of the markets and investments to ensure that usability and accessibility are addressed from the beginning to the end of the project. It is key to engage with design and UX experts the entire way. This must not be forgotten. You can't just bring someone in at the end to "fix" a product. You can't just have a designer apply UX to the original design. You have to engage with them the entire time, including testing, revisions, and final production. Iterations are key, and those cannot be done in a vacuum.

How do you take advantage of the intellect and talent in your companies to drive research and innovation?

Our Innovation Center in Washington, DC is a great example of how we can bring people together to create a sum that's greater than its parts. The Center enables us to connect people that may not have been connected before or work in completely different markets with different skills and networks, it encourages cross collaboration and idea-sharing. This includes the project teams that apply to work there, the people who come to attend meetings, and the visitors that come to experience our demos.

As I mentioned before, we have a few other ways of connecting ideas with investment and support. That includes The Garage crowdsourcing platform, the annual Ideas Festival, and our Summer Games internship program. Investments are created across the firm as ideas funnel through the processes. Communication platforms like Microsoft's Yammer and Teams help make those connections. (See above sections for more information.)

As the Solutions Evangelist and Lab Manager for the Innovation Center, I get to connect with many people across the firm. This brings in new demos and content to the Center, as well as helps incubate new ideas and expand on current solutions. Getting people out of their silos is important. I enjoy being part of opening people's minds and hopefully inspiring some new ideas.

Aging is the fastest growing demographic group. No other groups suffer from disability than the elders. With such global challenge, how can technology help people aging in place?  

This is an exciting area for developments with technology. We have so many new technologies on the consumer and enterprise side that can easily be applied to solutions for those with the disabilities and our seniors.

Tech like mobile phones, home automation, health and wellness wearables, sensors, telepresence robots (like the Suitable Technologies Beams we use in the IC), cameras, RFID, beacons, autonomous cars, and implants can help with these challenges.

Machine learning, AI are hot topics.  How can we not talk about this?

This is also a very exciting area. Machine learning and AI will fuel advances in such things as voice control and concierges, robotics, monitoring and tracking, and even tech like our own IRIS blind navigation platform. The more computers can learn about our environment and how we use it, the better than can aid us with traveling, experiences, and keeping us safe.

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