SEGD Xlab Speaker Interview: Benjamin Baker

In anticipation of Xlab 2021 kicking off today, SEGD talks with Benjamin Baker, Media Producer at Bluecadet. In his upcoming presentation “Examining Accessibility in an Emerging Digital Landscape,” Wednesday January 27th at 12pm EST, Baker explores the need for new accessibility standards within the brave new world of digital interactives and how those standards can be realized through R&D, prototyping, and testing.

Benjamin Baker is a producer at Bluecadet, the experiential design firm based in New York and Philadelphia, which develops media components for digital products, web platforms, and exhibitions. But producer is only one of Baker’s roles at Bluecadet. He also serves as the firm’s de facto expert on accessibility.

Baker describes himself as “differently-abled” and uses a manual wheelchair to move around (and to play rugby with the Philadelphia’s Magee Eagles wheelchair team!)  This gives him a specific viewpoint when it comes to accessibility in design, as well as the testing and prototyping of newer digital technologies to create better accessibility standards.

“Current ADA standards don’t take into account a lot of the emerging technology … it’s kind of the wild, wild West out there,” says Baker. “There are some organizations who are creating standards. There are some individuals who are creating standards. But there is nothing that is a standard across the board that everybody is trying to follow.”

Baker examines the efforts to formulize these emerging standards in his 2021 Xlab presentation “Examining Accessibility in an Emerging Digital Landscape.”

Bluecadet has a history of incorporating newer digital technologies into experiential design projects with strong storytelling components. These include the Discovery Center at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Campus Innovation at The Henry Ford, and “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” at the Art Institute of Chicago. But the pandemic—and its subsequent social distancing and no-touch policies—presented opportunities for Bluecadet staff to further explore the potentials of newer technologies, including gestural interfaces.

“[Gestural technology] is something that over the course of the pandemic, in the past year, we’ve spent a lot of time prototyping and researching and developing because we understand that when we come back to a new normal, touchscreens will not be as widely used as they were,” says Baker.

There are many areas where gestural technology can be used. Museum exhibitions are just one example. Another very promising area is therapy, both physical and occupational.

“Some of the research I’ve participated in, or served in an advisory capacity, has been around gestural control. How can you make physical therapy or occupational therapy more interactive?” asks Baker. “I think that’s another place where you’re really going to see a lot of gestural control come into play … to make therapy more interesting, because it’s always a challenge to get people to want to participate!”

But the big question—whether you’re using touch screens or gestural interfaces—is how do you make these experiences accessible to everyone?

“I think a lot of times what unfortunately happens in the world is that ‘accessibility’ is a checkmark in the process—and not necessarily at the beginning of the process—and then you’re retroactively trying to fit accessibility in,” says Baker.

“If you’re designing something and it works for one set of people, and you have to design something else that has to work for a separate set of people, you’re discriminating right off the bat. How do you create an equitable experience?” asks Baker. “Every time we’re designing something, we should be thinking of how to make it one-to-one. How can it just be one experience?” continues Baker.

The main way of ensuring that digital experiences are accessible—and equitable—to everyone, according to Baker, is through R&D and prototyping followed by user testing.

“There’s a plan you can put in place that’s going to help you achieve that equitable experience or at least get it as close to it as you can,” contends Baker. “In the early stages of the project, you should be bringing in experts … then later in the process, validate the decisions that you’ve made with a less expertise control group or testing group.”

Baker will present examples of this plan and show how R&D and prototyping, as well as user testing, can lead to successful design outcomes, but also new standards for accessibility. But before beginning this process, Baker contends that a core tenet for designers should be empathy.

“Before getting into prototyping and R&D, lead with empathy,” suggests Baker. “By leading with understanding and empathy, you’re going to arrive at something more successful.”