RESNA Annual Conference - 2012

Learning from People – A human-centered approach to universal design of workspaces

Gourab Kar, Faculty, National Institute of Design, India
Abir Mullick, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology, USA

This paper presents a research and design project dealing with work in behind-the-counter (BhC) workspaces. The project studied work requirements of intended users; determined how workspace designs affect safety, usability and performance; identified problems due to lack of environmental fit between workspaces and users; investigated commonalities and differences in work technologies to develop an inclusive perspective in workspace design; and designed modular workstations that offer universal access and allow customisations so that the individual and collective needs of users are met.


By 2030, a fourth of the US working population will comprise of older adults over the age of 55 years (Mitra, 2002). Globally, labour force participation rates for older adults have increased and forecasts show that this trend will continue (ILO, 2006). The growth of world’s older manpower in the years ahead poses a crucial challenge of retaining these older workers in the labour force. Consequently, there is need to research the work challenges confronting older adults and people with disabilities and identify barriers to employment, so workplaces compatible to their needs can be designed.

Conventionally, behind-the-counter workspaces are designed for specific environments using off-the-shelf office workstation hardware. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) have challenged the design of counters in public spaces (ADAAG, 2002) which have resulted in the design of few accessible counters for people with disabilities; these designs subscribe to the legal norms of accessibility. The designs offer a minimum level of accessibility required by the law and they are a long way off from being truly inclusive to the needs of a wide range of intended users.

There are many pressing reasons to study the nature of work in BhC workspaces, especially when it relates to the safety of and usability by older employees and those with disabilities: (a) Work in retail spaces is hazardous and it is among the top five professions that result in injuries and days-away-from-work (BLS, 2009). (b) The proportion of older adults in the workforce is rising steadily and it is projected to increase to 25% by 2030 (Mitra, 2002). (c) The incidence of work related injuries is known to increase with age and 15.4% of employees within the age of 55–64 are vulnerable to injuries during work (Stoddard et al, 1998).

While a range of research methods like environmental audit, usability study and precedent analysis were employed to examine the challenges of behind-the-counter (BhC) work for older adults and people with disabilities; and inclusive work environments designed in response to user needs (Kar, 2012), this paper will focus on only one method called Usability Study. This people focused and usability oriented research method uncovered the needs and preferences of BhC workers in secretarial, library checkout, hotel reception and airline check-in work. The method helped to map problems from different work perspectives, identify user needs and work preferences, develop guidelines to inform design, and direct development of universally designed BhC workspaces. A human-centred-design (McClelland & Suri, 2003) methodology formed the central basis for the design research and development process.

Research Questions

Mentioned earlier, present designs of BhC workspaces favor able-bodied employees and there is a need to study a wide range of BhC workplaces for usability and accessibility and employ important questions that challenge inclusion of all intended workers in the workplace. For example, are their commonalities in work needs for BhC workers engaged in different work-types, and if so, what are they? Do the current designs of BhC workspaces satisfy the user’s goals and expectations? How usable are these workspaces? What environmental barriers challenge older workers and how do the challenges affect safety, productivity and well being of these workers? What is the degree of ‘environmental fit’ between user needs and design outcomes? How can we translate user response into design strategies?


The Usability Study employs evidence-based method used in medical research (Rosenberg, 1995). It captures traces of use, abuse, safety, accessibility and neglect to learn about users and the environment. Also called Trace Study, Mullick employed the method to capture visible evidences of human use in the environment and analyse them to inform design. (Mullick, 2011). The Usability Study examined a wide range of BhC workspaces to learn about user requirements and work practices, system practices and associated experiences (Schuler et al, 1993). The study was conducted over a period of two months in Spring 2010 in the metro Atlanta area. Five specific work-types - library circulation counter, hotel check-in counters, airport check- in, office reception and registration counters were studied. User consent was obtained prior to the study and confidentiality of research data was respected. Each work environment was observed for two separate days of the week - an hour during the peak work period and another hour during the lean work period between peaks. Contextual observations offered accurate representation of user needs, range of tasks and activity types over a typical workweek.

Video recordings were made with the camera placed in a strategic location to get a view of the activity from both sides of the counter. Informal interviews were done with counter staff after the video recordings, and inputs from the video recordings were cross-tabulated with user responses to help with data analysis.

The number of subjects studied varied according to the nature of work and scale of the facility. The following came within the purview of the usability study: Four employees worked at the library counter at peak hours and two employees during non-peak periods; two employees worked at the hotel reception counter at both peak and non-peak periods; at the airport check-in counter, two check-in counters managed by a single staff member each was studied; for the office reception area, two separate reception counters within administrative offices of a university, each with a single receptionist was studied; and at the registration desk used for conference registrations there were four members at peak hours, and two during non-peak hours.

The video recordings for work environments were reviewed and frames captured the problems and opportunities in usability. Analyses involved side-by-side examination of work videos and informal interviews; usability audit of work environments highlighted positive and negative features associated with each workspace. Inferences generated from the observations helped outline specifications for design and development of a new range of universally designed BhC workspaces.

Selected examples from the Usability Study

Figure 1: Usability study example from library counter d

The Usability Study examined work situations through selected snapshots from videos to learn about the inadequacies of the work environment and the challenges users confronted in performing work activity in BhC environments. The images represent observations of the environment, work processes, and user involvement. Primarily visual in nature, the analysis involved reviewing work traces and annotating work process to examine environmental fit between user-and-environment or the lack of it (Steinfeld, 1997). To better inform design and directly respond to the research, the information in images was broken down into three important categories: observation, that is, what is seen; inference, that is what contributes to the problem, challenge and opportunity; and design specifications, that is design opportunities. The visual nature of the research method lends itself to a representational style and here are a few examples (Figure 1 & Figure 2) of the method are illustrated.


Here are a few key findings from the Usability Study:

1. Usability Issues: Naturalistic observation techniques in combination with video analysis of BhC worked offer a visceral feel of usability conflicts in real time. (a) Airport counters showed usability conflicts in context of check-in procedures. Fixed counter heights, lack of adjustability in monitor, keyboard and printer positioning; and need to lift luggage to weighing scale and transfer to conveyor belt were the primary usability concerns in airport counters. (b) Important usability concerns in library counters were related to positioning of book demagnetizer below counter, monitor and keyboard positions coming in way of book transactions, and sharing of on-screen information with users across the counter. (c) Fixed counter heights, lack of useable countertop space and storage zones beyond optimal reach envelope, conflicts between device placement and workflow emerged as usability issues in hotel and office reception counters.

Figure 2: Usability study example from hotel reception d

2. Observations and Inferences: Contextual observations across workspaces showed conflicts between user-environment and user-technology domains. Findings from observational research were translated into inferences that informed design decisions. (a) Observations at airport check-in counters revealed need to provide easier access to weighing scale, space to keep carry-on luggage during transactions, grab bars at both staff and passenger side for luggage weighing and transfer; and optimizing of counter layout and device placement to aid workflow. (b) Usability study in library counters outlined the need to integrate bar code scanners and book demagnetizers into countertop, provision for body support devices in place of chairs and storage zones in optimal reach envelope. (c) Hotel receptions revealed need for inclusive access, storage and retrieval in optimal reach envelopes, creation of useable counter space by integrating of devices into work surfaces. (d) Office receptions suggested adoption of flexibility and adjustability in location of devices, cable management and opportunities for individual customisation.

3. User Responses and Inferences: User responses complimented research findings, provided insights about BhC work, and informed future design directions. For instance, hotel receptionists complained of pain in the lower limbs due to work at the counter for long hours in the standing posture. Airport employees talked about occupational injuries due to the stress of lifting luggage from the weigh scale to the conveyor belt. These responses were useful in creating an appreciation of the users’ real needs and enabled the exploration of empathetic solutions in this regard.

4. Synthesizing inferences into design specifications: Inferences from observations and user responses were synthesized into preliminary design specifications. The synthesis process transformed ideas into actionable design outcomes. For example, in case of the hotel, airport and library counters, seating was either absent or hardly used due to the dynamic nature of work. Staff complained about pain in the feet and ankles due to long hours of standing on- the-job. Video analysis revealed postural shifts to relieve pressure on the legs by partially resting hands on the counter and frequently shifting body weight from one leg to another. In such a context, the design team thought of developing a body support that allowed occasional resting during breaks at work. In this case, the idea to reduce stress on the lower limbs was the inference and the body support was the design specification.


The Usability Study offered an evidence-based-research method rooted in observation, and documenting traces to learn about the workers and the environment. The study elicited information about how people use workspaces, work practices, problems and opportunities inherent in workplace design to increase usability, safety, accessibility and social inclusion. The study helped focus on ‘environmental fit’ between user needs and the design of BhC workplaces (Steinfeld, 1997). An important technique grounded in contextual inquiry, it helped conduct systematic observation, methodological analysis of visual observation and outline important design issues needed to develop initial design concepts through better understanding of user needs, environmental design and user-environment interaction.


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The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), US Department of Education (Grant H133E070026) supported this project . The opinions contained in this publication are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of Education.