Next stop: Accessibility!

Everything you need to know

Where does my bus or S-Bahn stop and when do I have to get off? For the more than 550,000 visually impaired, 80,000 deaf and 17.1 million hearing impaired people in Germany, this is a major challenge every day. In several projects, we at Innovation Natives have developed app functions that make it easier for target groups to use buses and trains. And this is how it works: On the one hand, the target groups are provided with the information that is also available to sighted and hearing passengers. We have also developed additional assistance systems that make it easier to find the right bus, for example.

The development process consisted of iteration loops in which we were in close contact with the target groups. We conducted exploratory interviews to determine the requirements for accessible passenger communication and developed possible solutions and features for an app. We discussed, reviewed and further developed the new functions with the target groups in accordance with the Lean Development Cycle (build-measure-learn). In this way, we have come closer to a sensible solution step by step. We learned the following lessons from the process, which are also essential for future projects:

  1. Dialog instead of desk knowledge
    We have to engage in intensive dialog with the target groups and obtain feedback again and again on a topic like this, where we cannot fully understand the reality of life for blind or hearing-impaired people. Otherwise, we only ever make the assumptions on which we base our products from the perspective of people with unrestricted sight or hearing. This means that no part of our product development can be designed at a desk. Consequently, this means that we have to go into the context, i.e. to the bus stops and vehicles, to talk to the target groups about their needs and wishes directly on site.
  2. Rapid progress
    We have to achieve benefits for users quickly with our projects. Rapid further development is possible through a step-by-step approach with solutions that build on each other. This enables us to achieve a high level of participation and tangible progress for our target groups. In concrete terms: Every four weeks, we were back at the bus stops with our target groups to discuss and review new solutions.
  3. Neutral mediator
    As a service provider, we need to bring disabled people’s associations and transport companies together and get them talking to each other on our platform. As a neutral authority, we can often mediate more easily than would be possible in a direct exchange. This also helps to prevent delays and implement solutions consistently and sustainably.
  4. External expertise
    We need to connect the right people with each other. It is neither realistic nor desirable to bundle all the impetus and expertise required for product development in the area of barrier-free public transport. This is why we identify and involve external expertise. For example, we are in close contact with mobility trainers, sign language interpreters and accessibility experts.
  5. Quick Wins
    We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are many sensible and simple solutions to enable accessibility in public transport. It is important to cultivate these “quick wins” and offer them sustainably. This is because our target groups find it particularly annoying when services are discontinued due to insufficient traffic on an app or website. Even if the absolute number of uses of such services may seem low from the perspective of the operating company, they make a big difference for each individual.
  6. Suitable features
    We have to communicate in the language of our target groups. Many people who were born deaf describe German sign language (DGS) and not German spoken language as their mother tongue. Accordingly, we can ensure more comprehensible passenger communication if we consider DGS during development and offer it as an alternative to written language for conveying certain information. The same applies to screen readers (e.g. voice over) used by blind and visually impaired people on their smartphones. So when we develop new features, we always have to ask ourselves to what extent they can also be implemented auditorily, tactilely or in sign language.

Wide field

As part of the app development process, we focused intensively on the needs of blind, visually impaired, deaf and hearing-impaired passengers on public transport. In the in-depth interviews, we came across many other areas in which there is a great need to catch up on useful products and services. So there is still a lot to do on the road to accessibility.

Failure as a management technique? A concept that challenges the German soul

Everything you need to know

Children learn by making mistakes. They learn by trying things out, testing them and crossing boundaries. If the boundary crossing is successful, new skills are acquired and knowledge gained that can be further tested and refined. Companies also have to learn. Especially in the immediate environment of a basic innovation, the ability to learn is a vital quality. And that means that management must also develop an attitude towards “mistakes” and the concept of “failure”. The difference between children and managers? Children make mistakes because they don’t know any better. Managers should know better. That’s why we pay them not to make mistakes. Sounds logical – and yet is fundamentally wrong. Mistakes are a necessary side effect of risks. And taking risks is a necessary side effect of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs who do not take risks are living dangerously.

Nevertheless, in the corporate context, learning from mistakes is quickly equated with failure. This principle permeates the company at all levels: The Supervisory Board monitors the Management Board in the interests of the shareholders and, in this function, sanctions mistakes; in the most serious cases, it even reacts by dismissing the Management Board. In production, the shift supervisor monitors the work performance of the employees on the assembly line. It also sanctions errors with the consequences provided for them. The dilemma and the underlying question already become apparent here: Which mistakes are good mistakes? Which failure is a good failure? When should failure be sanctioned and when should it be rewarded? It seems as if the evaluation of behavior is a question of context and the – occasionally strategic – argumentation that precedes failure. Context and strategic argument make the difference.

In theory, this sounds logical and understandable. But the extent to which we Germans lack confidence in learning from mistakes is shown by a population-representative study by the University of Hohenheim entitled “Good mistakes, bad mistakes. Although – or precisely because – there are many events and discussion formats at which failed founders talk about their experiences with failure – such as the Fuckup Nights Berlin – Germany is still a long way from a positive culture of failure.

The study surveyed 2,000 participants aged between 18 and 67. And at least a growing number of people are willing to say that they are positive about failures and that failed companies deserve a second chance. However, this seems to be an ethical rather than an economic point of view. When asked whether they themselves would enter into business relationships with failed companies, more than 40 percent of respondents answered that they would have reservations about a company that had already failed. A second chance? Let others put them away instead. The study examines which reasons for failure are accepted by the German population. Failure is most likely to be accepted if the reasons for it are beyond the company’s control – such as macroeconomic developments, overwhelming competition or rising prices for relevant production factors. The respondents were least understanding of founders and entrepreneurs who simply try things out. Taking arbitrary risks is hardly accepted by the German population.

The fact that ethical concerns play a role in mistakes becomes clear when you analyze more closely what the reasons for failure actually are: They are excuses – reasons that make one’s own failure excusable. A willingness to take risks, which from the outside cannot be interpreted as entrepreneurship but as arbitrariness or even negligence, is a far cry from confession and remorse. It does not justify forgiveness. No forgiveness, no second chance. The topic of failure cannot be viewed from an objective economic perspective. It is overloaded with subjective projections that stem from our own Christian-Western socialization. And that is a problem. Because this mindset runs deep. It is so deeply rooted in us that we find it difficult to argue against it, let alone act. Entrepreneurship as a term has positive connotations. Risk not. The fact that one needs the other is a dilemma that can only be resolved through successful entrepreneurship. What can a plea for failure, for the courage to fail – against all cultural and historical convictions – look like?

In the context of innovation, the failure of ideas and ventures is a necessity: companies need the courage to try out new things, to experiment, to test, to go through iteration stages in order to ultimately achieve a result that creates added value. There is no progress without risk and failure. Or to put it another way: without planned failure, progress becomes a matter of luck – and luck has not yet established itself as a management technique either. Mistakes and setbacks are a natural part of development processes. The Anglo-American management doctrine is of the opinion that those who do not make mistakes have not given themselves enough credit. Agile management methods, such as the lean startup method, have been propagating this tirelessly for years. Lectures and books on this topic are in great demand. (Also worth reading in this context is the article by David J. Blandwho reports on his experiences with the lean startup method). This shows that there is a willingness to re-evaluate the topic of “failure”. However, a necessary prerequisite for this is transparency and a comprehensible vision that is understood and shared by those who also share the risk. Those who can strategically justify their actions and meaningfully derive them from changing environmental variables lead, take action and are also allowed to fail: strategic argument and context have the power to encode failure ex ante as a case of success. However, this is only possible if the stakeholders of the failure are involved.

Back to the topic of “learning”. There is no learning without the willingness to have negative experiences. Especially in today’s world, managing a company’s learning curve is a key management and development task. A steep learning curve sometimes also means taking risks that are not always manageable down to the last consequence.

The fact that these modern views are difficult to anchor culturally may be partly due to the fact that a significant part of Germany’s prosperity is based on the establishment of companies in the industrial sector in the 1950s, which were supported by the economic upturn in Germany induced by foreign countries after the Second World War. For societies with great prosperity and a functioning economy, efficiency has always been a valuable asset and a central component of management practice. However, Chantell Illbury and Clem Sunter’s statement must be held against this: Success breeds failure. The digital age, with its ever shorter development cycles and high development speed, is forcing companies to rethink.

Developing a positive culture of failure takes time – especially in Germany. And the study also shows that Germany has made progress: the younger respondents aged between 18 and 39 already rate entrepreneurial failures far more positively than the older generation. The social rethink has already begun. And that is important. This is the only way to make the breeding ground for start-ups and innovations more fertile.