InvENting 101: Innovation Insights: Elise Roy

InvENting 101: Innovation Insights: Elise Roy

In this special edition of InvENting 101, we’re starting off with a question…??

Did you know that the typewriter, audio books, remote controls, OXO grips and closed captioning were all created by designing for disability?

We recently had the opportunity to be introduced to Elise Roy, a deaf human-centered designer, former lawyer and motivational speaker who works in the vanguard of the disruptive innovation movement.

Elise is a strong proponent in the notion that when we design for disability, we often develop solutions that are better than when we design for the norm.

Elise is truly a source of inspiration and ?invENtspiration? and we had the opportunity to pick her brain not only about her journey so far, but her mission to innovate in new ways.

Please provide a little information about your background.

I?m a hybrid of sorts. I began my career as a disability rights lawyer and then transitioned to design. I?ve been a graphic designer, marketer and architectural salvage designer/fabricator. Then, I got my Masters in Social Design and started learning Human-Centered Design. That?s when I knew I had found my calling. Human-Centered design is a design framework that helps us innovate and solve problems for things that may not traditionally be considered design. It focuses on involving the human perspective at all junctures in the process. Within Human-Centered Design, I focus on inclusiveness. This means that I help organizations analyze their problems and innovations from the perspective of disabilities to solve problems and innovate more effectively.

What sparked your interest in innovation?

During my masters program at MICA I focused my thesis on helping deaf individuals gain access to metalworking and woodworking.

Although it was possible for them to learn, it wasn?t always easy or even very safe. They encountered things such as how-to videos not being captioned, tools that gave safety feedback audibly and teachers who taught verbally, rather than visually. I focused on solving the problem of not hearing the valuable sound that tools emit to signal that they are being improperly used and are about to kickback at the user. I developed a prototype that was a pair of safety glasses designed to visually alert the user to pitch changes (that they otherwise would never hear). These glasses picked up the audible feedback before the human ear could and it could be applied to a wide variety of tools, making it better than the safety mechanisms that tool designers had designed in the past which applied to just one tool. The idea was picked up by DeWalt but I decided to hold off on it because of some advice that I was given at the time. Unfortunately, I never developed the idea under my own company but it is now being developed by another company.

This experience sparked my interest in innovation. It was extremely satisfying to find a problem, experiment (fail, and experiment some more) and eventually, develop a solution to it.


You’re known for speaking about innovation within “Human-Centered design.” What is your definition of “Human-Centered design” and what is your mission?

That?s a great question. It?s such a new field that people have defined it in many different ways. The main thing is that it focuses on the human.

Often in the past when we solved problems and designed solutions, we failed to look at how humans react to our solutions. Instead, we thought that experts had all the answers. When we focus on the human experience, we develop much more targeted solutions. It?s also a framework that can be applied to business problems, strategy and other disciplines not traditionally thought of as related to design.

For inventors who are either everyday people solving problems or serial innovators and product developers, what are some things to keep in mind when innovating “outside the box??

As inventors or everyday people solving problems, we always want to find the best solutions and the most innovative ones.

It may seem counterintuitive to look to people with disabilities to help us do so but it actually helps us be more creative and create more effective solutions. Email, the typewriter, remote controls, captions on our Facebook videos, Siri – all of these were originally created to help people with disabilities, but they were game changers for our society.

The reason that designing for disability works is that as humans we are always wanting more – to go further, to be faster, to do more, see more, hear more, etc. And when we try to solve for disability we learn how to create ability in the absence of natural human ability. People with disabilities are also masters in adaptation and problem solving because they?re forced to constantly problem solve because of their disability. They would be an extremely valuable addition to your team.

To innovate means to think about things in new ways, and we hope that Elise helped inspire your next great idea!

A huge thank you to Elise for her time and for sharing a bit of her journey!

To learn more about Elise and check out her Ted talks, check out her website at:

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