Adobe UX Designer Lauren Dest talks about creating “Design Decoder” software that makes shopping more accessible to color blind people

At his Summit 2022 conference this week, San Jose-based Adobe presented a preview of its project design decoder. It’s software that the company says uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help make shopping experiences more accessible and inclusive. The tool is designed for people with disorders such as color vision deficiency, colloquially known as color blindness, who have difficulty perceiving patterns. Color blindness affects more than 300 million people worldwide.

Lauren Dest is a senior user experience designer at Adobe working on AI and ML technologies for enterprise e-commerce and marketing products. In an exclusive interview with me conducted via email, Dest explained that the inspiration for Design Decoder came after a brainstorming session with his colleague Michelle Saad, a business data scientist. “Michele and I were looking for online shoppers who might have difficulty distinguishing certain colors or encounter other issues that may arise when trying to view products online,” she said. “One barrier that stood out was the uncertainty or lack of confidence that people who have difficulty seeing the full range of colors may experience when researching products online.” Dest told me that she and Saad took ideas from pseudo-isochromatic plates, a commonly used color vision assessment tool where colored dotted plates conceal a hidden number or digit in a kind of “vanishing design”. Such imagery may be imperceptible to those with certain color vision deficiencies.

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The women then decided to try to transpose the concept of the color plate to their work in e-commerce; in this context, they would apply the same “disappearing” effect to the image of a colored garment. “Given the color combination, a shopper with difficulty perceiving patterns, shapes, or colors could purchase garments with logos, scripts, or patterns without their knowledge,” Dest said. “We created this feature to help those who perceive color in different ways reap the benefits of shopping online.” The initial prototype contained patterns in what Dest called “the three most common forms of color vision deficiency”: protanopia, deuteranopia, and tritanopia. She and Saad patented their technology, Dest added.

Following the creation of the prototype, Dest and Saad began recruiting other Adobe colleagues to help build the demo-ready version shown at this week’s conference. Design Decoder is the result of a highly collaborative, cross-disciplinary project that Dest told me the company is “really proud of.” Several people within the organization, including inclusive design boss Matt May, have helped Design Decoder grow steadily from concept to completion.

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“It was important for us to inform this project with the perspectives of different experts in accessibility and color vision,” Dest said. “Fortunately, Adobe has no shortage of people with passion and experience in these areas.”

At its core, Design Decoder lives because Dest and the rest of his team at Adobe believe deeply in diversity and inclusivity. Equal access to technology is a key element in promoting diversity and inclusion in society; of course, people with disabilities also use the Internet to shop.

“Accessibility and digital inclusion are extremely important, and we believe these should be built into products and development by default. Our goal is to empower shoppers, including those with color vision impairments, so they don’t feel left out of the online shopping experience,” she said. “As our lifestyles continue to shift to the digital world, we must keep inclusivity in mind when creating and improving the online shopping experience, so that users who perceive the color in many different ways can benefit from the convenience and breadth of options that e-commerce provides.”

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Dest explained that the company hopes the project’s focus on inclusivity through technology will help others appreciate how the online shopping experience can be improved for everyone. Dest herself is “fascinated by the human experience and how it shapes technology, and vice versa,” she said. Feedback on Design Decoder, she told me, has been positive so far. Dest said she and her team will continue their work in this space, telling me that the conversations they’ve had with people who are color blind will help them in the future as they refine and iterate on Design Decoder. They want to make the tool as suitable as possible for people’s varying needs and tolerances when it comes to color perception when shopping online.

“We want to keep taking Project Design Decoder to the next level,” Dest said.

Adobe has posted a demo video of Project Design Decoder to YouTube.

Abdul J. Gaspar