EP 21: The time is now for everyone.

Designing a watch for people who are vision impaired, or blind, is challenging, since talking timepieces are intrusive and not everyone reads Braille. There’s only one answer. Get vision impaired and blind people to design with you, and you’ll create Eone’s Bradley timepiece, which is practical, fashionable, a great fidget toy, and a perfect example of designing for everyone. Brand Manager, Daniel Ly, chatted with Manisha Amin about the timepiece and what inclusive design really means.

More information can be found at Eone founder, Hyungsoo Kim’s TED Talk which explains why he wanted to make a watch for the vision impaired and blind.


Manisha: Time can be a blessing or a curse. Some of us feel we don’t have enough time to get things done, while some complain about things taking too much time. Time tells us where we should be, and for what, and until recently, the only way you could tell the time was to have a watch, or look out for a public clock. And the problem with these non-digital clocks, of course, is they only worked for people who could see. But as Bob Dylan said, times are a-changing.

Welcome to With Not For, a podcast from the Centre for Inclusive Design. My name is Manisha Amin, speaking to you from the lands of the Gadigal people here in Australia. And my guest today, in Hong Kong actually, is Daniel Lee, Brand Manager at Eone. Eone design tactile watches. They started as a device for people who are blind or visually impaired, but they have now become quite a fashion statement for everyone. Welcome, Daniel.

Daniel: Thank you Manisha for having me on the show. And that was a lovely introduction there.

Manisha: Oh, look, there’s a lot of time in there, wasn’t there?

Daniel: There was, there was. Someone wrote that and took a lot of time to think about that.

Manisha: That’s exactly right. And so my first question for you is, could you describe for me the types of timepieces that Eone actually creates, and what actually makes them different from every other watch in the market?

Daniel: Definitely. So for those who are familiar with the timepieces, they can relate to this. It’s a very visually striking design. It looks very different from what is your conventional timepiece or watch that has the two hands. And instead of the two hands, it uses two ball bearings to indicate the time.

For those who are visually impaired or have low vision, when you first get your hands on this, this does not feel like your typical adaptive timepiece. It’s not made out of lower quality materials. We took a lot of time to consider the type of materials used. And it feels great in the hands, it looks great. But it also is a great conversation piece. So it’s very striking when you look at it. It’s very interesting to play around with. It’s a great fidget toy. So the ball bearings swing around on the dial, and people fidget around with them all the time, so yeah.

Manisha: So if you had to audio describe that watch that I can see on your hand there, how would you describe it?

Daniel: OK, so the easiest way to describe it for someone who’s never laid eyes on it, is to imagine the Oreo cookie. It has pretty much the identical dimensions of an Oreo cookie, and it has a, like a top sandwich, a bottom sandwich and an outer track, which is slightly grooved inwards. And that outer track houses a ball bearing, which tells the hours. And then the top facing track, which faces the user, tells the minutes. So contrary to your regular watch, where the shorter hand is the hour, the longer hand is the minute, it’s the other way around here. So the first reference is the minutes. The second reference is the hours.

Manisha: And it’s actually – like I love the Oreo cookie description there. But I think the key difference for me as well, is an Oreo cookie has lots of bumps on it. But this is actually really smooth, and this lovely, aesthetically pleasing design as well.

Daniel: Yeah, well actually, it has a lot of interesting surfaces from a tactile point of view.

Manisha: Oh, right.

Daniel: All the markers are raised. They’re very pronounced. So they’re easy to distinguish. The 12 o’clock has a triangle to represent the 12. And then the cardinal markers, the three, six, nine, are slightly elongated compared to the rest of the markers. So it’s very easy to differentiate where you are on the watch, whether you’re at 12, whether you’re at four, or whether you’re at seven.

Manisha: And so can you tell me a little bit then about how that design came about?

Daniel: Yeah, definitely. I can’t take credit for this. This was the original team led by Hyungsoo Kim, the founder of the company, and a bunch of bright minds from MIT, Rhode Island, Harvard and Duke. So the original design was actually nothing like what we see today on this Bradley timepiece. Hyungsoo and the original team started out making a watch that had Braille on it.

Manisha: Right.

Daniel: And so the funny thing was, if you watched the TED Talk that Hyungsoo did, which was, I think it’s called Designing a Watch for Everyone, Sighted and Blind, he talks about the first misconception that they came across during the design process, which they automatically assumed going into the process of designing a Braille watch was the best solution. Because they were designing for the blind. And I suppose in keeping with theme of the show, this is definitely a With Not For story.

And the Braille watch caused a great problem at the start, because the original focus group, they said, well, before we get started on this, do you realise how many of us actually read Braille? And I think back then the Braille literacy rate was about 10%. And so it’s a very, very low number, if you think about it. So nine out of 10 people don’t read Braille, because they go through vision loss or blindness at a later stage in their life.

Manisha: Right.

Daniel: And so they reworked the design, and came up with something that was actually designed with the blind focus group in mind. And they ended up with a product that was wearable for both a sighted individual and a blind person.

Manisha: And I think that’s quite beautiful as well, that idea that we designed from that edge, and you had a design that worked for sighted people as well. I know that a couple of us have been using these watches internally as well. And as someone who is sighted, you mentioned this tactility that the watch has as well. I keep calling it, sorry, a watch. You don’t use that term, right? You use timepiece. What’s that about?

Daniel: So, the reason why we use the term timepiece, is because with a watch it insinuates that you have to visually look at it, because it’s a type of watch. So we use the term timepiece, because you don’t need sight to read it.

Manisha: Oh, I love that.

Daniel: It’s great.

Manisha: Well, because words matter, right?

Daniel: Absolutely, absolutely.

Manisha: OK, so I’m going to reframe that then. So in terms of this timepiece that works for people who can and can’t see, it’s very lovely to feel. What’s some of the feedback that you’ve had across, I guess, different groups, in terms of the timepiece?

Daniel: Yeah. So interestingly, another statistic that we could probably pull is, in the original Kickstarter project, when they launched in 2013, over 95% of the backers, as part of the survey, are sighted. And we’re talking about in excess of 4,000 individuals here. And so what that proves is that this design is attracted to not only the users who have different abilities, and low vision and blindness, but it’s also appealing to the mass audience. So from a sighted perspective, it’s a really fun watch. It’s really interesting to look at, it gets conversations going. And the same reason for those who are blind and low vision. It’s a conversation starter.

I think one of the most memorable feedbacks I can recall from feedback sessions, I can’t remember his name, but he has low vision. And he said, “The first thing that I noticed when I received this watch, and when I took it out, was people stopped asking me about my disability. And people started asking me about the timepiece.” And the conversations flowed, and in effect the watch, or the timepiece, has done its job in engaging the wider audience.

Manisha: It’s interesting to hear you say this, and to reflect on this in the context of your career, because you’ve had a long career in the watch or the timepiece industry, but not necessarily in the disability sector. So what surprised you the most when you think about working for a company like Eone?

Daniel: I think the biggest thing for me, what attracted me to the role and what I learnt very quickly in the early stages of my past three years here; the people. The people in the community. The people that we get connected to, like yourselves at the Centre for Inclusive Design. The community is very strong, and very focused, very willing to help and pull together. Because there is a common goal that we’re all trying to achieve out of this, and that is to make inclusion a bigger topic, and drive that conversation on disability awareness and accessibility. And I think that’s probably the most surprising thing about the company when I first started. People are, as I like to put it, Champions of Change, they like to advocate change.

Manisha: So is that different to other organisations you’ve worked with?

Daniel: I think so. I think the watch industry is very old. It’s centuries old and steeped in tradition, and they have their own design principles, and they have their own markets that they follow. But what’s really interesting, from a business perspective is that the guys who originally designed the Bradley timepiece, none of them came from watch backgrounds. None of them came from this sector. And so –

Manisha: Is it – oh, sorry, I’ve just interrupted you there.

Daniel: Oh, no, no. That’s all right.

Manisha: But so why did they do it?

Daniel: Well, the original story came from a problem with existing products on the market. Back then, before the Apple Watch was prominent, and we would have, essentially, the talking robotic voice watches. We press a button and it blares this hideous voice out at you. And then you’d also have these Braille flip up watches, where the user could touch the time on a hand. But those were rather unreliable once you jogged the hands out of place. And so it stemmed from this necessity to build a better product. But also, to build a product that didn’t marginalise people further, and say, here’s another tool for a disability. Rather, it’s a tool that both a sighted and non-sighted person can use.

Manisha: But I’m still really interested in this, because with those founders, if they didn’t have a disability, OK, and they weren’t from the watch sector, why did they come up with this thing that they wanted to solve? Why did they come up with Eone?

Daniel: Well, the original reason why Hyungsoo came up with this idea was actually he had a classmate who was blind. And during class, and during lectures, this friend of hers would nudge him on the shoulder and ask him, “Hey, what time is it?” And Hyungsoo was kind of perplexed by this, because he could see that this gentleman was wearing a watch on his on his wrist. But it was a talking watch. And obviously, you don’t want to be pressing a button and reading the time out loud in the middle of class, because everyone knows that you’re checking the time. It’s disruptive, it’s rude to some. And so he made it his mission to redesign that, that product.

Manisha: I love that. So it started with one person.

Daniel: Essentially, yes, it started with one gentleman, one friendship.

Manisha: And it’s lovely how one friendship can be so rich and insightful when it comes to designing a product or a service. And so I’m really interested in the role that the community has played, from that one person to a broader community, when it comes to designing and developing these timepieces.

Daniel: Yeah, so the community has always been there from day one, from the original focus groups, who kind of challenged the original assumptions and misconceptions that the founding team had. I mean, referencing the TED talk again, a funny part of that focus group was the first question after the Braille literacy point was, what colour is it? What material is it? And Hyungsoo was sitting there perplexed, going, why does this blind person care about the colour of the product? And that in itself speaks volumes to the sort of assumptions that we make when we design a product, without properly taking time and care to consider actual needs of the end user.

That’s still important to what we do today, and how we develop future products for the company. But beyond the actual product itself, we still involve our community, and the way that we communicate, the way that we build our campaigns and our events, they’re there from the inception of the idea through to the execution of it. So they play a part in every facet of our business, really.

Manisha: And you’re coming to this as a brand manager, as opposed to a design manager. I’m really interested in how you’ve had to think about your brand. When you think about your audiences, and when you think about what you’re creating, what would you say to other people who want to be more inclusive from a brand perspective?

Daniel: I think it’s any small increment could still be the right step in moving the needle on making things more accessible. I don’t think people necessarily have to say, hey, we need to redesign our whole product line and make everything inclusive. But making a conscious effort to make your web accessibility more accessible, following WCAG guidelines in that sense, or including users into a feedback loop more often for future product developments. Those things could be considered more inclusive as well.

Manisha: And what do you say to people who say, well, we can’t find the users?

Daniel: I think if you said that 10 years ago, sure, the resources weren’t around. And the idea of inclusive design was very young back then. But now there are so many organisations out there, there’s so many resources online. And I think it’s a misconception because we’re scared of change, or we don’t know how to start it. And in reality, it’s pretty easy.

Manisha: I’d like to unpack that a little bit more. Because that notion of being scared of change, I’m really interested in how this worked for you, coming from not working with people with disability, not working in an organisation which was focused on new young people, as well as people who are on the edges. What were the things that you were worried about? And how did that play out in those first few days, when you just changed jobs into this one?

Daniel: I think it’s breaking your schema and breaking your bias, and actually just putting everything you know aside, and saying what are the lived experiences? What are the actual experiences that these people can share to me? Because none of us know everything. I think it’s foolish and arrogant to go into a design process thinking that you know everything. And so to get people involved, and really have them just share their lived experiences. That was the biggest takeaway, that was the biggest learning.

And the more I did it, the more it was just, it was an essential part of the week really, just to carve out time to say, like, “Hey, we’re going to engage the community here. And we’re going to learn about something new this week.” It’s just like a constant learning process. And it still has been for three years now.

Manisha: I love that. I love that. OK, I’m going to change topics a little bit. I’m really interested in the lessons that can be applied from Eone to the watch industry as a whole. And then also the other industries as well.

Daniel: I think – so kind of going back on the last point, really. I don’t know if I can speak on behalf of the watch industry. But definitely there are lots of things that we can do overall, in terms of moving, moving ourselves, as brands, as businesses, to become more inclusive of users of differing abilities, just to have them involved in the conversation. I don’t think it requires any more effort than it originally does.

And I think there are amazing case studies out there that we can all learn a lesson from. People like OXO who made the Good Grips, and Sony has followed in in the footsteps of Microsoft recently with the new adaptive controllers. And I think it’s exciting. It’s a positive response in the community, and we’re including more and more people in. So if anything, I would just say, look around, because lots of things are happening.

Manisha: And I’m really fascinated by what you’re doing at Eone, because when we think of the watch industry, as you mentioned at the beginning of this podcast, it’s an industry that’s been around for a long time, and fundamentally hasn’t changed a lot, when we think about that timepiece. Except, of course, in the digital age, where with phones and computers giving us the time and reminding us of appointments, what’s the future of timepieces in general?

Daniel: I think from my standpoint, the idea of a timepiece or a watch is oxymoronic in itself, right? It’s a product that transcends time; it’s timeless. They carry with them stories, they mark milestones in one’s life. Birthdays, birth of newborns, marriage, retirement. It’s a reference of time, right? And I think that’s where we kind of fall in love with watches.

And I think, to that extent, they will always be around. I don’t foresee myself in five to 10 years passing down a Samsung Z Flip 5 to my kids as an heirloom. I might pass down a watch though, that’s a different thing. So I do think they have that sentimental aspect to them.

But I guess speaking from the community front, so the Eone timepiece represents this freedom of choice in the self-expression as well. It’s also part of the identity. So same reason why we choose the clothes that we wear and the products that we buy. And same reason why we buy the mobile phones that we buy. I think for that reason, they’ll stick around.

Manisha: As you were talking then, one of the things that came to mind is how tactile this watch really is. So it’s not actually ephemeral, like time, it’s something that I have a relationship with, because of those ball bearings, and the way they move across this, this artwork, really. But you’re also moving on with this timepiece as well, right? Like I think we were talking earlier before this podcast about some of the ways this timepiece can be used, in ways that digital products can’t be used. So tell us a little bit about some of the use cases.

Daniel: Yeah, I think for a lot of users, the idea of discrete notification or discrete time telling is also important. Yes, there are accessible ways to tell the time now, having your Apple Watch hooked up to your AirPods, and telling you the time through there. But you wouldn’t necessarily be sitting around in a meeting with AirPods on. You can tell the time very easily on a timepiece, on a Bradley timepiece, under the table, whether you’re at a really long meeting or a dinner that you don’t want to be at, you can just reference it very quickly under the table there.

Manisha: So I think you were also telling me about how digital watches don’t work in certain locations.

Daniel: There are limitations to smart watches where – especially when we’re not talking purpose built adventure watches as well. And they do have their limitations in different environments, or whether they are in the mountains, deserts. I have been spending a lot of time with Justin, who’s a rock climber. And the guy is just not a smart watch kind of guy. But he’s happy to wear our timepiece out, because it’s robust enough for him to take around with him on his journeys. It’s interesting enough for him to keep it on his wrist. And at the end of the day, it serves one purpose; it tells the time and it does it very easily.

Manisha: Right. And a lot of people who are blind or low vision, are adventurous, right?

Daniel: Oh, absolutely. You’d be surprised. You’d be very surprised that the stories I’ve heard of scaling Kilimanjaro, and doing absolutely crazy things that I would never do.

Manisha: So final question, then, a what-if question for you. If you could change or redesign one thing in your everyday life to make it more accessible or inclusive, a bit like Justin has been with you when it comes to Eone, what would your product be, and why?

Daniel: I personally am not a huge fan of touchscreens. I like them when they need to be there. I dislike them when they don’t need to be there. And I think that extends to touch capacitive controls as well. So in and around the home, I actually prefer my home appliances to have like physically tactile buttons. It’s a lot easier to navigate, and I don’t think about it as much. Especially around the kitchen. When you’ve got like wet hands from cooking, and you’re trying to get the microwave to get going or things like this, or the dishwasher, and they’re just like just flat surfaces with no tactile registration at all. And you have to sit there fiddling around with pressing the right spot to make sure that you hit the right button.

And I remember I spent a lot of time on the road in previous jobs, upwards of 40 hours in a week. And I just loved the fact that in my old car, the buttons were tactile, and the controls in the centre console were very easy to navigate without sight. From muscle memory, I know where they are. But the touchscreen now, when you drive something – I won’t reference cars in particular – but when you drive a certain car with just a touchscreen in the middle of it, it’s just annoying to try and reference anything on the screen whilst on a highway. I just don’t get it.

Manisha: I love that, because that’s also about form versus function, right?

Daniel: Correct. Yeah. I think there was a study on the Ford Focus that came out in 1999, as being an incredibly accommodating piece of design. We might argue it doesn’t look great. But it took into account users of old age, and young age, and wider door entrances, more headroom, the centre console controls were very easy to navigate, differentiate and operate. And I think those were key things that led to the success of the Ford Focus as well.

Manisha: Absolutely. And I think this is a really interesting point you bring up here as well, around the difference between design that looks good, and design that’s a good experience. And the two aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Daniel: Absolutely. And I do have a funny story from Justin, if you want that as well?

Manisha: Oh, yes, please.

Daniel: So when I was hanging out with Justin, he told me about this time he was shopping at a large US supermarket chain, and he was at the cashier, checking out. And when it came to the card payment process, the card terminal was next to the cashier. And for those who don’t know Justin, Justin Silas, he has optic neuropathy, so he has very limited peripheral vision. Which means that when it comes to using his mobile phone, or any small screens, he sticks his face really close to the device to actually use the screen.

And so when it came to the card terminal in the US, you get a million prompts on the checkout about receipts and whatnots. And so he started sticking his face really close to the card terminal. And the cashier got very aggravated by it. And she was like, “What are you doing to the card terminal? You can’t be doing that,” and started calling the security guard over.

Manisha: Oh no.

Daniel: And Justin was like, “Well, I’m blind, I can’t see. And I can’t see what it’s asking me on the screen.” All in all, they managed to walk away from it after someone spoke up about it. But I just find it hugely, like hilarious, but also deeply saddening, that that’s the case.

Manisha: Absolutely. And the world isn’t designed for so many people. But I’m really glad that companies like Eone exist to actually help to make the world more inclusive, and also to show us what we can do, even with products that we think of as old world products rather than new world products. Yes, I think that’s a really interesting thing. So thank you so much for your time today. It’s been wonderful having you here, and to hear your stories as well.

Daniel: Well, thank you, Manisha, for having me. It’s been lovely. Thank you.

Manisha: Absolute pleasure. And thank you everybody for listening to this podcast and being here with us on With Not For. If you’d like to learn more about how you can make your world more inclusive, contact us on www.cfid.org.au, or see the show notes, where we’ll also put a link to that TED talk as well. So until next time, this is Manisha Amin from the Centre for Inclusive Design.