Empowering artists & designers with hand impairments


9 months
Sep 2022 - May 2023


Michael Tranquilli - SME
Eric Forman - Advisor
Liz Danzico - Chair


Voice User Interaction
Co-Designing Workshops
Prototyping and Testing


Designing for Inclusion

The digital age has revolutionized the way we create art and design, opening doors to countless possibilities. However, not everyone can fully embrace this digital transformation, particularly those with hand impairments. VoCreate is a ground-breaking project aimed at empowering artists and designers facing severe hand impairments, enabling them to express their creativity digitally.

The Challenge

Reimagine an interaction as simple as drawing

Imagine losing the ability to hold a pen or manipulate a mouse due to a traumatic injury. The frustration of not being able to create art or design can be overwhelming. The challenge was clear: create an intuitive, accessible, and enjoyable drawing experience for individuals with hand impairments.

To address these challenges, I fulfilled the following roles:

  • Conducted in depth user research using hypothesis testing and design and user tested wireframes and prototypes
  • I worked with a subject matter expert and co-designed with two users constantly to ensure the solution was research-led
  • Presented designed solutions to thesis committee and AIGA NY Fresh Grad jury

Introducing VoCreate

Draw with your voice

VoCreate is a drawing app designed for the iPad that empowers artists and designers with hand impairments to draw with their voice. It was designed meticulously with the input of artists with hand impairments, to ensure that it meets their needs and allows them to express themselves freely.

Voice-First Interface

Users can control the app using their voice, such as vowel sounds to move the brush and paint. By making the "EE" sound the user can move the paint brush to the left and by making the "AW" sound to the right. It's fun, but also useful when drawing longer strokes while maintaining artistic control.

Accessible Navigation

The redesigned tool menu allows users to access drawing tools from anywhere on the screen, making it more accessible than a fixed toolbar. This reduces the need to constantly reach for frequently used tools, saving users energy and breath.

User Research & Discovery

Co-Designing Workshops

At the core of the project, we conducted Co-Designing Workshops with two users who had spinal cord injuries that were pivotal in shaping the outcome. Their invaluable insights ensured that our solution was authentically user-led and research-driven. We collaborated closely with them in the following key areas:

  • User Interview: Identifying current behavioral patterns and challenges.
  • Ideation and Conceptualization: Brainstorming ideas for the project.
  • Wizard of Oz Testing: Acting out voice-recognition scenarios to fine-tune the interaction.
  • Usability Testing: Ensuring the final product offered a delightful user experience.

User Insights

To gain deep insights into the experiences of individuals with hand impairments, we conducted remote interviews with six participants. These interviews revealed a common thread of isolation, dependence in setting up assistive tools, and fear of no longer being able to get back to creative work.

Scoping the Problem Space

Our research delved into the nuances of spinal cord injuries (SCIs). By consulting with Subject Matter Experts, we narrowed our focus on individuals with SCIs ranging from C4 to T1. This critical decision was based on the fact that users in this category were not life-threatening and they respond better to rehabilitation.

Comparing Assistive Technologies

To understand the landscape of assistive tools, we analyzed six existing products and services. We discovered that splints, though commonly used, had their limitations. Key user insights pointed to the importance of tools that could be set up independently, offer finer motor control, and remain affordable (costing less than $50).

Hand Splint for Holding Pen

While splints allow users to hold a pencil or a stylus, it does not allow them to control it accurately as users are mostly able to control their shoulders. Also, it takes longer to get used to.

Goal: Improve precision and ease of learning

First voice drawing app for PC

University of Washington designed one of the first voice-drawing application for PC introducing the vowel-joystick. However, users said the interface was not user-friendly.

Goal: Test the viability of vowel-joystick

Road To Recovery

One key outcome of the research phase was the user journey map, designed to empathize with the user's recovery experience. Initially, medical assistance is paramount, but post-surgery during the recovery phase, individuals often feel isolated. Art therapy proves valuable, yet traditional tools used in therapy can be frustrating and challenging to learn.

User Journey Map identifying where in user's journey can the experience be improved


Designing a voice-activated drawing tool will help users with hand impairments draw more accurately and easily

Problem Statement

How might we empower artists and designers with motor impairments to draw unassisted?

User Personas

Sam, the Artist

Sam is an aspiring artist who suffered a spinal cord injury. Despite the challenges, Sam is determined to continue creating art and expressing personal creativity through digital drawing.

Alex, the Designer

Alex is a professional designer who faced a similar injury. Frustrated with existing adaptive tools, Alex seeks a more effective and enjoyable way to design digitally.

Ideation and Concept

Brainstorming Sessions

We conducted experiments to test the primary hypothesis: Are users comfortable drawing using their voice? Visual stimuli, micro-adjustments, and conversation-style interactions were explored. Key insights included the value of visual stimuli in helping users focus on interactions being tested, the need for micro-adjustments for precision, and the challenges of conversation-style interactions due to cognitive overload.

Promising Concept - Voice-Controlled Painting

Through user testing and observation, we explored two main methods of moving the paintbrush on the screen: directional method and the vowel joystick. After several user tests, the vowel joystick emerged as the preferred method due to its advantages:

  • More control: Users had greater control over the movement direction and speed of the cursor.
  • More accessible: It was more accessible to people who did not speak English exclusively.
  • More fluid Despite initial skepticism, users found it more fluid, benefiting those with spinal cord injuries due to its reduced respiratory requirements.

Design Iteration

Prototype (Version 1)

Taking feedback into account, we iterated on the prototype. Changes included switching the device from desktop/laptop to an iPad for improved accessibility, reorganizing tools and features to align with users' mental models, and refining the user interface for better usability and feedback.

Prototype (Version 2)

The second iteration was based on critical feedback from users. This version considered users' reduced lung capacities due to their injuries, their drawing environments with limited maneuverability, and an immersive interface that allowed users to have a delightful drawing experience.

Prototype Version 2 after incorporating design changes for better heuristics
Outcome & Impact

VoCreate outperformed traditional splints, the standard tool used by artists and designers with hand impairments. Users reported increased joy and independence, highlighting the potential of accessible design to transform lives. Here are some of the key outcomes:

Some WOW moments discovered during testing

“I can imagine using this product during the recovery... this would've brought much joy to my then isolated life.”

User with C4 Spinal Cord Injury

“I've been injured for 10 years and no one ever involved me in designing products for my own needs. I really enjoyed the process.”

User with C5 Spinal Cord Injury for 10 years

Key Learnings

This project provided valuable lessons in user-led design, accessible design, and the potential of voice-first interactions:

User-Led Design

Extensive user research and hypothesis testing were crucial to understanding the complexities of the problem space and making trauma-informed design decisions. This research-driven approach helped streamline research goals and provided benchmarks for measuring research success.

Accessible Design

Designing for accessibility required a deep consideration of the needs and perspectives of the user community. It emphasized the importance of genuine connection with the people and communities being served.

Voice-First Interactions

The project opened up exciting possibilities for voice interactions in various applications. Beyond drawing, voice-first interactions have the potential to enable users with motor impairments to perform other complex tasks like driving wheelchairs or interacting with computers.


VoCreate is a testament to the power of user-centered design and technology's ability to empower marginalized communities. By understanding the unique needs and challenges faced by artists and designers with hand impairments, we were able to create a tool that not only empowers them to draw unassisted but also brings joy back into their creative lives. This case study illustrates the impact of accessible design and the potential of voice-first interactions in transforming the lives of individuals facing significant challenges.

Read Next