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The City of Melbourne wanted to improve the pedestrian experience of deaf, blind and deafblind people. 

  • Research
  • Ethnography

While much work has been done to make individual objects or areas within the built environment more accessible, little has been done to understand how people with a sensory disability interact with a cityscape and its services as a whole.

Our research focused on members of the blind, deaf and deafblind community. With assistance from VicDeaf and Able Australia, we recruited people living with sensory disability to participate in the research.

Participants included members of the deaf community, a member of the deafblind community, a totally blind man who walks with a cane, a totally blind woman who walks with a guide dog and a legally blind woman who walks with a cane.

Vision impaired research participant
Deafblind research participant in train station

We worked with the City of Melbourne’s Access and Inclusion Unit, VicDeaf and Able Australia to co-design appropriate research methods. Participants were also involved in the design of activities, and in the co-design of final artefacts. People are the "experts of their own experiences", so it's important to understand them deeply – the best way to do that is to include them in the design process.

A deafblind lady navigating her way around in an underground train station, being observed by the research team

Initial design exploration saw the team interrogating and eventually disproving a hypothesis that an app might be helpful for people with sensory disabilities to better navigate central Melbourne. They were already using a broad range of apps and connected devices, and each were doing an excellent job. The challenge then shifted to how we might leverage existing partnerships, infrastructure, and data.

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Knowing that the best insights are built by ‘walking in the shoes’ of users, we conducted ethnographic research using city walkthroughs, along routes that were co-designed with the participants.

The participants helped the design team to identify trickier moments in a journey, and to design appropriate simulations in the field. This ensured the shadowing activities looked at an appropriate range of everyday – and trickier – situations.

Photo of team conducting ethnographic research in city street

[People] were invited not so much as participants but as co-designers. That allowed them to be empowered to highlight some challenges we couldn’t have anticipated.

Peter, City of Melbourne

During the shadowing exercises, the design team were able to observe the challenges each of them faced, and learnt from the way they improvised, made decisions and dealt with obstacles and challenges.

A series of co-design workshops helped the design team (which included the research participants) to deep dive into the problem space, reflect on their shadowed journeys, help synthesise research outputs, and generate ideas for improvement. We held one workshop for each of our participant groups; deaf, blind, and deafblind.

From this work, a bespoke design methodology was developed, with accompanying design principles, guidelines and method cards. These artefacts would allow the City of Melbourne to plan and execute design-led, human-centred project approaches that appropriately consider the needs of those living with sensory disability.

Photo of lady sharing a communication tool


The council is now launching twenty-one different initiatives to translate and action this project’s findings: from investigating how signage, wayfinding and information sharing can be improved to improving the availability of accessibility training.