Good vs Great Design: UX and Mobility Aids
Feb 23, 2023
On January 21, 2023 I volunteered at #A11yTOCamp at Microsoft here in Toronto. One of the best parts was meeting new awesome people and seeing ones I've met at events in the past again. With the event's focus on accessibility there were many people with visible mobility aids including walking canes, wheelchairs, rollators (walkers), white canes, and service dogs.
This led to many conversations about design and mobility aids. A couple of the guide dogs, such as Louise's GD Charlie, had the new CNIB harness with a guiding handle that detaches for when the dogs are laying down (like during a talk), then clips back on for guiding. Instead of the more common upside down u-shaped guide handle that attaches on either side of the guide harness, the new CNIB ones are a single pole that clips into the centre of the dogs harness on their back. What a revolutionary design! It's a solid example of good design. But what separates good design and UX from great design?
Great design and user experience isn't just about a product being functional and usable, it should be aesthetically pleasing and bring joy to users. It should make people want to use the product because it's fun, is enjoyable, makes them smile, and makes their day better - not only because it works well. Think about when you viewed a website, app, or software that had good content and functioned well, but the design was poor. How long did you stay on the site or continue using the software? Did you go looking for another site, app, or software that was more enjoyable? How would you feel if that site, app, or software was the only one you could use to get a major work task done, and you had to spend the majority of your workweek using it?
Now think about some of your favourite apps, websites, and software. Are there ones that make you smile and you enjoy using and do what you need them to?
How do these concepts for digital design apply to physical products such as mobility aids?
What Are Mobility Aids?
First, let's start with what a mobility aid is. A mobility aid is anything that helps someone with a disability, chronic illness, or injury be mobile. There are hundreds of types of mobility aids. The most commonly thought of ones are canes, crutches, wheelchairs, and scooters, but there's so many more. If you've used a bandaid to pad a bad blister to help you walk, you've used a mobility aid. Guide dogs (seeing eye dogs) and mobility service dogs and their harnesses are mobility aids - really cute and high maintenance mobility aids (that you shouldn't distract!). People who use mobility aids don't always need the same mobility aid(s) every day or even use them the same way. Disability, chronic illness, and injury are dynamic.
Too often mobility aids are medicalized and/or are promoted as only for elderly people such as in the screenshot of the Shopper's Drugmart Wellwise landing page for canes shown below. The latter reinforces the stereotype that disability only affects older people. The former is boring, joyless, and can be soul crushing. For braces and bandages, the beige "skin colour" of many of them isn't anyone's skin colour, and it gets dirty and even uglier with use.
While boring canes and crutches may be well designed for function, they're not great designs. They don't inspire people to use them, especially fashionable and younger users. They're the physical equivalent to good functioning, but ugly apps, websites, or software. If they're the only option, you might use them, but you won't be your best self when you are. This leads to the next point about great design. Great design can support mental health and happiness.
Great Design Can Support Mental Health & Happiness
I spoke to a UX professional at the after party who's sibling has a chronic illness that causes pain and fatigue. She's avoided using mobility aids that would make her life easier because they're ugly, and she's very into fashion. They're also very medical in design. Like many with chronic illness she also has medical ptsd. Avoiding using medically designed mobility aids isn't vanity. It's prioritizing mental health over physical. The only mobility aids she's seen are the boring, ugly, medical ones that don't reflect who she is. That lead to the main inspiration for this article - having one place to share some of the great designed, beautiful and/or cool mobility aids with others.
I've had similar experiences being an active outdoors person and former dancer who's sprained my ankles way too many times. There's been times, such as last summer/fall when I sprained one twice and the other once, when it would have been better for my ankles to use the ugly, clunky "air cast" walking ankle brace and grey ugly underarm crutches, but I opted to use my Nordic walking poles (or my purple and pink canes on transit) and pink zebra print KT Tape instead, because doing so made me happier. (And resulted in less people asking "What's wrong with you?" and more comments like "Those are really cool canes!".)
Lindsay Watterson, inventor and founder of Neo Walk walking sticks:
"I was so disappointed with the lack of choice, style, and inclusion in the fashion and disability aids world. I felt old, I felt left out and devastated that nobody expected anything better for me. So, I made myself a walking stick. People started asking me where I got this stick and so Neo Walk was born."
Some things to think about as you read:
- Why can't mobility aids be fashionable as well as functional?
- What links can you see between great designs for physical products such as mobility aids and digital products like websites, apps, and software?
- Why don't web designers and developers make more of an effort to use images with people of a variety of ages and ethnicities using mobility aids that look awesome?
Mobility Aids with Great Designs
There are fashionable, cool, and functionally well designed mobility aids. Here's a few. A few are from my own experience and/or wish list. Others are from my hours of watching YouTube while I knit, or conversations with people about their mobility aids. Not surprisingly, many of the best designed mobility aids have been designed by people who actually use mobility aids. This is not a comprehensive list of types of mobility aids nor brands, but an overview of examples of great design - aids that are beautiful, cool, and functional.
Some of, if not the most fashionable walking sticks out there are from Neo Walk in the UK. Neo Walk walking sticks are made of beautiful tactile acrylic, come in so many colours including clear translucent and glitter, a choice of handle shapes, and can even light up. Lindsay Watterson created Neo-walk in 2013 after becoming an amputee in 2010.
Three cool Neo Walk walking cane options:
- Gatsby themed clear with gold glitter inside
- Bubblegum Blush bright translucent pink with bubbles
3. Beetlejuice themed walking stick with t-handle
A more affordable option for those of us in Canada (or the USA) is a folding walking stick by Switch Sticks. They are sturdy metal folding canes with a variety of colours and patterns. There's only one handle style - derby. I have two of these, both purchased on Amazon. My newest one is the "Viking" purple after I sprained my ankle again in summer 2022. As I've used these personally here's my pros and cons for Switch Sticks.
- the designs. I get compliments on the colours
- a wood handle that stays warm in cold weather,
- they fold so can easily be tucked into a bag or even a coat,
- they're adjustable, so can be worn with a variety of footwear/heel heights
- the price (range from around $60-$80 on Amazon Canada).
- The colours and even parts of the wood on the handles do tend to chip over time and when you drop them. The included wrist loops help in not dropping them when using both your hands for something.
- The metal stick is cold and can be hard to fold while wearing gloves or mittens.
- The metal can chip over time, especially if you have to fold and unfold it a lot.
Here in Canada we tend to use underarm crutches. But in the UK, Europe, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia forearm crutches are more common. While some people and small companies sew covers for underarm crutches, the coolest crutch designs are all forearm style. (Please let me know if you've seen any great designs for underarm crutches.)
Smart crutches are adjustable forearm crutches that take the users' weight off of their hands, wrists, and underarms.
Smart Crutches were invented by Colin Albertyn after he ruptured his Achilles tendon. (Patent issued Feb 7, 2013). There's a strong trend of mobility aid users designing our own mobility aids that both function and look better than the standard medicalized mobility aids.
Smart Crutches also comes in a folding travel version.
Just like Neo Walk, Cool Crutches was started by a mobility aid user. Clare Packham wasn't happy with the crutches options available in the UK when her daughter Amelia had a life changing injury.
The NHS crutches "were very uncomfortable on her hands and unstable; they clicked so everyone could hear her coming, and most importantly, made her look and feel disabled.". https://www.coolcrutches.com/pages/about-us
After researching, designing, and sourcing Cool Crutches were developed. They are moulded to left and right hand, sturdy, don't make a clicking noise, and have a wide variety of designs. The crutches can even be made with custom colours, pictures, and patterns provided by customers. They are both functional and fashionable supporting both physical and mental health. There's even an option to custom design crutches!
I discovered Cool Crutches on Stela Sulzdorf's YouTube Video Fashionable Crutches ‘Cool Crutches’ Review // Testing Beautiful Crutches
Amelia Packham using a red glitter Cool Crutches crutch
Electric Mobility Aids
I first discovered Batec on Gem Hubbards' YouTube Channel "Wheelsnoheels" by watching her video "I test drive the Batec Mini2 Wheelchair Bike" A Batec is an electric attachment for a manual wheelchair that turns it into an electric bike. Not only do Batecs allow wheelchair users to go on bike rides and rough terrain with friends and family, and have longer days out when they're having a lower energy or high pain day, but they look really cool and fun. I had a nice chat at a local park last year with a wheelchair user using another brand of electric handbike while she walked her dog. She said it was really useful for going across grassy and muddy areas and giving her (very cute) dog a good run.
"It's so good to get out into the woods like this. It's really good for your mental health. But the key here is that it's also enjoyable. It's a piece of equipment, but it's enjoyable and fun to use." Gem Hubbard.
I'm a big fan of Jessica Kellegren-Fozard and followed her journey in getting powered mobility aids. The mobility scooter Jessica ended up getting fit with her lifestyle and style. Instead of just being functional, the Greenpower BZ500 has a cool sleek retro style. This retro style ends up having the added function of storage under the seat, unlike most scooters that have no or limited on device storage.
Again it's through Jessica Kellegren-Fozard's channel that I first discovered that electric tricycles can be used as mobility aids. They allow disabled people to get out and about and be active while providing assistance for balance and propulsion. Adult tricycles can also carry quite a bit in the rear basket making them really handy for running errands like grocery shopping - or even taking a cat or dog in a carrier to the vet or groomer.
In her video I found my unicorn! Jessica Kellegren-Fozard says:
"I'm really proud of myself. I feel quite accomplished. It's the first time I've ever ridden a bike and not fallen off or crashed into something or in some way injured myself. It feels really good. ... When you turn it onto electric you can make it move by twiddling the handle. You don't need to move your legs at all... ."
She goes on to say that she got a bit stuck in a ditch and didn't have the strength in her legs to get out and the electric mode got her out of the ditch.
Here's the tricycle in Jessica Kellegren-Fozard's video
Great design and user experience isn't just about a product being functional and usable, it should be aesthetically pleasing and bring joy to users. This applies to both digital and physical products. Accessibility and mobility shouldn't be joyless and clunky. Life is short. We need to find and share joy where ever possible.
A Final Quote
From Neo Walk's Instagram
Neo-Walk founder Lindsay Watterson: I’ve spoken to many people who use fashion and style as a creative tool to cope with chronic pain and illness. I know I do. I always feel much more ’ human’ when I’ve made the effort, even when it’s a struggle.
Today our gorgeous @bumpandhustle speaks about her day.
@bumpandhustle Today, instead of hiding my pain and not posting, I went from pjs to yellow heels, a white tulle skirt, a tie-dye top and did my hair and make up just so I could.
Because in that moment, that’s what my chronic pain needed as a creative outlet.
I’ve written about this before- recently even. That sometimes I lean into my pain or my anxiety by dressing her up.
Letting my body feel with flourish.
It doesn’t work all the time and that’s ok.
But sometimes when I feel that particular tremulous voltage, whether it’s a flare or swirling anxious thoughts -or today my connective tissue disease causing severe joint pain - I know it’s time to plug in and show up this way.
And my whole family shows up with me.
That’s all for today.
I just wanted to show you what showing up looked like.
I wanted to show you how we got my mind off my pain, while celebrating my body for a good 30 mins.
Thank you Heath for taking this pic. For being there with me.
I love you so much.
There were a few times today I didn’t know how to get through but we did it, as always, one breath at a time.
If you are navigating through a hard day please know that I see you.
You are not alone.
I am so glad you are here, showing up however you feel is right for you.
References and Resources
Himansu Bharadwaj. Can Design Be More Joyful.
Andrea Bregoli. What is Good Design?
Charlotte Hiller. When Medical PTSD Stops Me From Seeking Treatment
CNIB Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Guide Dog Etiquette
Richard Corbett WheelstoWalking interview with adaptive athlete Amy Sams Check out her racing wheelchair!
Richard Corbett WheelstoWalking Taking Off Road Wheelchairs to the Limit
Gem Hubbard. Pimp Your Wheelchair from £1 - £1000
Gem Hubbard. Wheelsnoheels. Wheelchair Etiquette playlist
Jen from Momming With Migraine. What To Do if You See a Service Dog Team in Public
Jessica Kellgren-Fozard Mobility Aids Hunt Playlist
In the order that they appear in this article:
- Cover Image: Neo Walk's Instagram Feb 22, 2022 (https://www.instagram.com/p/CaRitA5sr_i/?hl=en
- Neo Walk cane at formal party or wedding reception https://www.instagram.com/p/CiK4BLJqPGr/?hl=en
- Shopper's Drugmart Home Health Care canes (landing page) https://shop.wellwise.ca/pages/canes
- Gatsby themed cane by Neo Walk https://www.neo-walk.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Neo-Gatsby-7-scaled.jpg
- Bubblegum Blush cane by Neo Walk https://www.neo-walk.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/IMG_6067-scaled.jpg
- Beatlejuice themed walking stick by Neo Walk https://www.neo-walk.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Beetlejuice-1-Close-Up-1-scaled.jpg
- Switch Sticks purple cane https://switchsticks.com/products/folding-walking-stick-cane-viking
- Pink zebra print forearm crutches by Smart Crutches https://www.instagram.com/p/CSNKsRprI1I/?hl=en
- Folding forearm crutches by Smart Crutches https://smartcrutch-usa.com/products/folding-traveler-forearm-crutches-sold-as-a-pair
- Five forearm crutches in different designs by Smart Crutches https://www.coolcrutches.com/collections/all-crutches/products/design-your-own-personalised-crutches
- Amelia Packham, CEO and Co-founder of Cool Crutches using a red glitter forearm Cool Crutch https://www.instagram.com/p/CojjTQGMm7K/
- Batec Mobility handbikes https://www.instagram.com/p/CmKNpW6N3pr/?hl=en
- Greenpower Retro Mobility Scooter https://www.mobilitypower.co.uk/product/bz500/
- Jorvik Electric folding tricycle https://jorviktricycles.com/jorvik-elite-low-step-through-electric-folding-tricycle-jet-e
- Final quote - Neo Walk stick "Bump and Hustle's Instagram" https://www.instagram.com/p/CJ3OnbIjWJF/?hl=en