Retail Immersion: Designing accessible retail environments.

One of my first experiences immersing myself in user research was during a college course, when I spent a day in a wheelchair in an effort to understand issues of accessibility.  At the shopping mall the narrow aisles and high clothing racks and displays made the need for certain design improvements clear.  However, what I had not anticipated was the dramatic reactions to my apparent disability from the store clerks I encountered. I was treated with either nervous avoidance or condescending and contrived over-enthusiasm.

In one store I accidently wheeled out the front door with a dress hanging on the wheelchair - complete with tags and hanger.  To this day I wonder if the sales clerks were so focused on ignoring me that they didn’t even notice the perfectly visible dress.  Or, did they clearly see the dress, and just decided that the potential awkwardness of a confrontation with me was enough to let it be overlooked as a loss?

This experiment gave me a new perspective on the challenges to which a person in a wheelchair may be subjected.  If you look at a situation only from outside, you may miss unanticipated but important details that define a person’s experience.

In my current work for CFI’s Healthy Aging & Independent Living Lab (HAIL Lab) I am once again returning to investigate the shopping experience of those who are wheelchair bound and have other mobility issues.  Part of our exploration of the elderly and their comfort with new technology includes considering retail environments.  How can these stores, which typically build their strategy on being “cutting edge”, also address the unique needs of our older, and perhaps more traditional, generations?

Emily Friedman, MID, CPE, Senior Designer & Design Researcher, Mayo Center for Innovation