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Prioritise People in Design

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Who: Trinity College Dublin undergraduate engineering students engaging with; community members, the National Disability Authority and the National Council for the Blind of Ireland

What: An ambitious pilot “Service Learning” module, investigating and designing innovative solutions to everyday difficulties relating to activities of daily living.

Why: To encourage students to understand universal design, creating products which are accessible to all in the community.

Where: Trinity College Dublin and the local community.

When: The project was piloted in 2012 as part of the School of Engineering undergraduate course

Project descriptionStudents with adapted kettle

In 2012 undergraduate engineering students at Trinity College Dublin piloted a service learning module focusing on the need for engineers to create ‘Universal Design.’ This is the concept of designing products and environments to be accessible to all, as identified in Irish, European and United Nations legislation.

Dr. Gareth J. Bennett, the course developer was inspired by the Stanford University’s design school, where human values are at the heart of their collaborative approach. He developed the module to encourage students to produce creative solutions to almost any problem, by adopting a user centered approach. In small design teams the students conducted ‘Needfinding,’ identifying and interviewing a broad spectrum of local community members to discuss difficulties faced with everyday tasks, from emptying a bin to boiling a kettle. 

The teams were then tasked to design solutions to the needs uncovered in the interviews, gaining advice on design considerations from specialist consumer group representatives from the National Standards Authority Ireland (NSAI) and NCBI – Working for People with Sight Loss. These experts represented the needs of a range of people including those with: Limited Visibility, Short Stature, MS Ireland, Age and Opportunity and Limited Mobility.

The module culminated in a competition held in Trinity College, where the students showcased their design solutions to the community members who helped identify the design problems. Mr. Hubbard, Senior Design Advisor, Products and Services from the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD), chaired the panel of judges which was comprised of consumer design advisors from the NSAI, the NCBI and Dr. Sonja Hermann a Trinity Research Fellow, an expert on User-Centred Design.

“Today’s students are future engineers, who will be responsible for designing, developing and manufacturing products, services and environments that members of the community will use. It is therefore critical that these students are taught to appreciate the impact that their designs have on members of the public. They need to be educated about the diverse needs of the community and to learn how to effectively engage with ordinary members of the community when they are designing. This course is an opportunity to provide this critical training.” Dr. Gareth J. Bennett, Course Developer and Coordinator 


  • To address genuine community need through the ‘Universal Design’ process
  • To integrate and relate theory to practice; reinforcing learning objectives as well developing the personal, professional and ethical capacities of the students
  • To provide a framework to encourage creativity and innovation and develop team work, communication skills and fosters self-directed learning and critical evaluation.

Dr Antoinette Fennell, from NCBI’s Centre for Inclusive Technology (CFIT)

Results an outcomes

What worked well

In consultation with their user-groups, the students identified opportunities for improved designs and developed tangible working prototypes with electro-mechanical functionality in response to user-need.

Innovative solutions were developed to redesign the kettle, the toaster, the remote control, the wheelie bin, the plug socket and the iron. Thermally engineered smart clothing was developed to save on heating bills for all by delivering heating more directly, a mechanism built into a staircase to carry bags up and down the stairs was demonstrated along with bracelets which vibrated to inform patients when and what medication to take and to alert the wearer to acoustic warning signals such as fire alarms.

“Such curriculum reform and activity is in line with the University’s strategic plan and similarly the School is committed to reinvigorate the civic mission of higher education and to instill in students a sense of social responsibility and civic awareness.” Prof. Margaret O’Mahony, Head of the School of Engineering

In addition to ‘Needfinding’ to investigate daily difficulties the module integrated the Universal Design Principles and user-centred design processes to prioritise peoples’ needs in design and engineering to improve the accessibility and usability for all. This worked well for the community who saw their needs and ideas addressed in the products presented by the students at the final competition event.

Feedback from community participants:

"It was an event I was very proud to be a part of."

"Congratulations to you on the design projects. I was really impressed with the final results and it looked like the students had fun too. Well done and thanks for having me involved."

Lessons learned

  • The pilot was introduced late in the academic year. It was intense and exciting, but rushed and the results were time limited. Next year it is hoped the module will begin at the beginning of the year.
  • The User Centred Design process requires user involvement at every stage of the design process. This takes careful planning, especially with large student cohorts, and funds to pay for travel and time.
  • Experienced and engaged community representatives are excellent at being both subjects: in the early stage of the design process the students can interview and observe them to find design needs, as well as being expert advisors: the students’ designs can be critically appraised but real end users.
  • Large student cohorts, as well as being broken into teams (four is a good number) need to meet as a team individually – this requires significant extra timetable time and human resources.
  • The design process allows for open ended questions to be explored without constraints. However, the students still want a clear timeline for the project and defined project outcome expectations.


  • The new module was supported financially by a “Service-Learning” seed fund for course development as administered by the TCD Civic Engagement Office
  • Research fellow, Dr. Sonja Hermann, an expert on User-Centred Design advised the course providing structure, lectures and learning related activities for the students. 
  • Mr. James Hubbard, Senior Design Advisor, Products and Services from the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD) at the National Disability Authority collaborated as an advisor in the development of the course.
  • Time to develop reciprocal relationships with community partners

Top Tips

  • Believe in the students and give them space. They will always exceed expectations.
  • Respect the community partners and allow them a sense of ownership of the course.
  • Ensure the community partners are involved at the end so that they see outcomes and that their input has been addressed or at the very least considered.
  • Allow enough time and resources and plan thoroughly.


Name: Dr. Gareth J. Bennett


Photo: School of Enginnering, Trinity College Dublin