Blind Shopping - An Interview with the Founder and Researcher Meike Seidel

This is the transcript of a German podcast. I have smoothed the text a little, but retained the oral character as much as possible. Any inaccuracies and typos are my responsibility.

I talk with Meike Seidel about her career, her path to becoming the founder of a company that wants to make supermarket shopping easier for blind people and about the research project she is currently leading.

Domingos: welcome to a new podcast on digital accessibility. Today I have a guest: Meike Seidel, who will talk about the topic of shopping for blind people. She developed an app for it. First please introduce yourself to the audience.

Meike: hi out there first. I'm Meike. I was originally an interior design graduate and am now the founder of an IT company. I have also been leading a research project with this IT company called Sonic view since August last year, which is funded by a federal ministry. And everything together is aimed at making grocery shopping accessible for visually impaired and blind people.

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Meike's career

Domingos: But you originally studied something else. Maybe you can say something more about that too.

Meike: I once studied interior design and finished it because I was convinced that I would become a really great interior designer and it was ultimately my final thesis that gave me access to several disabled people for the first time. I dealt with different target groups and actually came into contact with blind people for the very first time in my life. Then I realized that shopping for groceries in supermarkets and discount stores etc. is not accessible at all and I became very suspicious and in fact this thought never left me and I did my master's degree on the topic and developed the vision of Sonic view during my master's degree and was firmly convinced until my final presentation that it was a purely theoretical work I have now written it down nicely and from now on I will work as an interior designer. But everything turned out differently. Many years have passed and I have never worked in the field of interior design, but have always driven the vision behind SonicView. At the beginning it was after work and on the weekends and now I do it full-time. Yes, that was the jump from interior design to an IT company.

Domingos: yes, super exciting. So your approach to the topic came about through a blind lady who told you about the problems or challenges she had while shopping in the supermarket.

Meike: yes, that’s true. I was allowed to visit this blind lady at home. She had a beautiful house that I was initially very interested in because I was originally interested in the interior design and also the architecture of the house. We sat with her in the kitchen and she made us tea and told us a lot and impressed me very much because, as I said, my first contact with a blind person was so intense.

She told me that she had planned this house that we were sitting in herself, together with an architect, that it was tailored exactly to her needs. She taught at a school for the blind and also has a horse that she rides off-road. That impressed me the most because I'm a rider myself and I know what that means and I can't imagine even riding blindfolded, but she said it completely naturally. So a very tough woman to whom I really took my hat off. She told me completely casually that she would never go into a supermarket because it was really bad for her, a really horrible place.

I then talked to her with the tongues of an angel and was actually allowed to accompany her - or she me - to a supermarket a few days later. And we had this experience of a little shopping together and that's when I really realized that this place really isn't made for blind people at all, that you're completely lost there and that you perceive this environment differently, if you go in there with such empathy and then simply notice how the background noise affects you and how disorientated you are when the visual sense is missing. And when we stood in front of the shelves and she said, I smell, this is somehow detergent and cleaning products and so on, but all these thousands of packages - there are detergent for the washing machine and dishwasher tabs and for the bathroom There are still thousands of different types of cleaning products and whatever - and you can't tell them apart by touch.

That was a very drastic experience for me and it made a lot clear to me. Then I set out to get this under control because it was clear to me that we actually have all the technology to deal with this problem at least contain it. But it's not clear that we make so little use of these technological possibilities to achieve really meaningful goals, so that's what I'm doing now.

From the idea to the app

Domingos: That's right. Then we can look at your solution, the apps are already in the app stores.

Meike: I would be very happy to do that. I would like to start at the beginning, because this app is not just any app, but it is based on a very specific vision and it was totally utopian a few years ago and it is no longer today. And that's actually a nice story.

As I said, I studied interior design and had absolutely no idea about IT. And now my stubborn mind has decided to treat this problem. And the first thing that came to my mind in this whole context was that it is super annoying for a completely blind person to look for the barcode on a package in order to scan a package. At some point I came up with the idea that packaging could be coded completely invisibly, so that the image and text would not be disturbed for sighted people, but that the entire packaging could be scanned and you no longer have to look for this barcode.

I just continued to pursue this idea and it was always the cornerstone of the Sonic view app. I actually got confirmation that this idea was well received by winning a newcomer innovation award halfway through my studies. And after that, a lot of people, associations and the press and so on came to me and said, “Wow, that’s really cool, isn’t that possible, we have to do that?” the idea really caught on.

That really excited me at that time and I kept thinking in that direction and then at some point I found out that it actually already existed, even back then, even though it was a few years ago now, just not in Germany. There was a company in the USA that also creates a digital watermark and you can use it to print images, including the images on packaging, and in principle it works like an image glitch. So we can hardly see it with the human eye. If you now hold a really snow-white packaging surface that is correspondingly coded next to a snow-white sheet of paper, you can see the noise in comparison, i.e. with an eagle's eye, otherwise there is no impairment. So I designed an app that can not only read the barcode, but also the DW code. And originally it was about this: You simply scan the product with the app, the barcode or this other code, which is called DW Code digital watermark or digital watermark. And then you get the product information that is printed on it read out loud.

That was the original idea, that's what the app does. also

But over the years, the concept and now ultimately the implementation has become an app that is much more of a accessible, inclusive shopping app. This means that it works for sighted people as well as for blind people and it also works for a wide range of visual impairments and it is no longer only suitable for people with a visual impairment, which means that the only task of the app is not to read out packaging information, but it can still do so a little bit more I'll tell you this relatively quickly because it's pretty simple: you enter your nutritional profile in five individual steps, i.e. you say how you eat, whether you have allergies, whether you simply don't have certain ingredients in your food want. Often there are sugar substitutes or some spices or something like that that you just don't like. Organic and Fairtrade seals are also important for some people. Then of course a vegan or vegetarian diet. And ultimately you can also adjust the controls and decide for yourself how many proteins, fats, carbohydrates, sugar and so on you allow in your food. So what we know from the calorific value table, wherever there are numbers behind it, you can determine that yourself. And then, once you have created your profile, you can scan a product and get a result. And this result is either clearly red with a big in it and then you can see yes, that suits me, I can eat it And this app is also completely accessible. That was a second intention that I implemented from the start: that this app works for both Android and iOS via screen readers, so you can use it with talkback and voiceover. And yes, those are the basics. The last point about the app is this nutritional profile: You can create several nutritional profiles and you can also share them with each other. This means that you can create one for your children if they don't have their own cell phone yet, for example, or for your shared partner or for grandma and grandpa. Or you can also share profiles with each other and save them as guest profiles in your cell phone, so that when grandma and grandpa come to visit and they have sent me their profile, then I can go shopping just as long as I only have items there that also suit them. And from this I can also create groups and can take all of my guests into account for my next birthday party or, I don't know, a farewell party or some kind of class reunion event, wherever so many people come together, because everyone has different dietary requirements. There are hardly any people who just eat everything without paying attention to what it is, everyone has their own requirements and with the app we all come to one big table and can still eat individually and I find that practical .

Argus research project

Domingos: Definitely, that's probably what concerns a lot of hosts.

I think you took on this research project last year, which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Research. Maybe you can tell me a little more about that too.

Meike: yes, I'm very happy to do that. That's exactly what the Federal Ministry of Education and Research is and it's actually a very funny story: I once applied for a scholarship when I was just starting out and it was rejected. It was said that it was completely utopian to put comprehensive coding on packaging and that, as an interior design graduate, I had no idea about the matter anyway. Those are my own words, but that's what was written between the lines in this review. And there was a very valuable tip in there, namely that if I really want to deal with this topic, I can't ignore GS1. And at that point I had no idea who or what GS1 was, so I did some research and contacted GS1. This is the global barcode agency. I think that's an understatement because it's just a huge corporation that's located on every continent in the world. I don't know if they're based in Antarctica, but they're definitely based in the US, in Asia, in Europe and here in Germany they are based in Cologne.

No matter what you do with the barcode, if you do anything with the barcode, you can't get past GS1. And that was actually one of the tips from that review back then. Then I established contact with them and met very nice, very experienced people there and maintained and maintained this contact over the years in the interests of both parties. They then also gave me information that this DW code existed and we spoke on the phone every now and then and yes, that was very nice

At some point after six or seven years, GS1 sat me down at a virtual table with several other people, that was at the beginning of 2021, when it was said that we had found such an announcement here. Announcement is a kind of announcement from a ministry that says you can apply for it if you have a research topic and can apply for funds. And if you're lucky, you'll get the funding. And in an announcement like this there are always certain guidelines that say we are now concerned with digital accessibility or participation in social life with the help of digital products or something like that. And then it says exactly which requirements you have to meet and so on. The GS1 just said: Meike, you've been so stubborn about your accessibility vision in supermarkets for years and we have a few other contacts here who might be a good fit for you. Talk, sit down at a table and talk. We did that and there I was sitting with, I think five or six other people, in a Zoom meeting or in a virtual room, who I had never met before in my life and with whom I got along very well, both on a human level and, as we quickly discovered, also on a professional level. We talked a lot, we discussed a lot and in several conversations, which ultimately became: Hey, if we put all our knowledge and experience and expertise and specialist areas together, then we can make this announcement we can research and meticulously research the barriers that exist for blind people in a supermarket. We can interview and accompany blind people and do surveys and really find out what all these problems are in a supermarket. It's too easy to just boil it down to navigation and product information.

We can then build a kind of digital agent by combining a wide variety of innovative technologies. And this is supposed to be a pair of glasses that help a blind person to orientate themselves in a grocery store and to find out about the product and, with the help of this digital agent, to find out whether the item suits me or not or the person fits or not. The whole thing actually happens with AI, i.e. artificial intelligence with object recognition and voice assistance. Ultimately, we are four partners, including the hbrs, the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences and a startup that can do voice assistance systems and another company, a medium-sized company, that can do object recognition and artificial intelligence. I'm going in there with my Sonic view company because we already have an app that provides product information, for example, and the capabilities. I just have people who can design a surface and other people who can program surfaces. This is how this research project came about and we spent the entire year 2021 writing the application and went through the approval phase, well into 2022, and were then approved in July last year, i.e. July 22. It started right away in August, which means we've been researching for a good six months and are now taking the first steps, developing and pushing this project forward. I find this incredibly fun and I think it's really great that we have time and money to use the most innovative technologies for something useful like this. Yes, so much for the research project, by the way, it's called Argus and you can also find it at www.projekt-argus .de.

We have already tested with people in Hanover, but - that is one of the challenges - we are spread across the whole of Germany, so from Berlin to Hanover to Cologne-Bonn or Siegen, Augsburg, ST Augustin we are spread out. This means that we mainly work remotely and a lot of it takes place in the Cologne Bonn region because that is where most of the project partners are located. But since I am very well connected with blind people here in Hanover, with the local association for the blind, we said that we would actually do the purchasing studies here in Hanover.

And that's what we did. Last November we carried out these very intensive studies with twelve blind people. We conducted interviews that lasted an hour and a half or more. We were in the supermarket with people and did what they say was shadowing. That means we accompanied them, observed them and, of course, assisted them. So we didn't throw anyone in there alone and said have fun, we just assisted ourselves and one person observed. We extracted an incredible amount of knowledge and now we are at the point where we have just transcribed all of these results. That means that everything has been put into text and we also have the audio recordings and will now start to evaluate them so that they can then flow meaningfully into IT and we can create a good concept of how this digital agent works.

I just told you about the GS1. They're based in Cologne and they have a supermarket laboratory, which is a supermarket that doesn't have any day-to-day operations, but simply looks like a supermarket. There are real items in there that are replaced by the manufacturers themselves even after the expiry date has expired, but bread displays or fruit are always made of wax or plastic. You can do research there, they do eye-tracking studies, for example. We're also doing a few studies there and as soon as we've developed something that we want to test, we'll go to this shopper experience and try things out there. We will then encourage blind people to come and join us. Because that is still a different perception, I still maintain that a sighted person who blindfolds himself is not the same as a blind person, because the rest of the perception is somehow different, i.e. the senses are one I think blind people are often sharper and a sighted person always has this ulterior motive: they can take off the blindfold and then they can see again. I think this intuitive I live as a blind person is something else again. You deal with technologies differently, you deal with your environment differently when you're really blind and that's why we want to work with the target group and not just pretend for a brief moment as if we were the target group.

Challenge of accessibility

Domingos: That sounds like a super exciting project and I'm looking forward to continuing to follow the progress.

Maybe in general on the topic of apps, you hinted at that a bit, it was a somewhat longer journey. How long did it take in total until you were able to implement the app?

Meike: So from the first idea to the realization from the first idea to the first upload to the App Store it was five years, but that was still a very rudimentary prototype that we uploaded in 2020. A lot happened after that and you can honestly say it was actually seven years.

Yes, I know, it's a very long way. But you shouldn't forget that in the beginning I did all of this after work and on the weekends and I came from a background that had nothing to do with anything I do now. So I had no idea about IT, digital accessibility, or starting a business, with everything that goes with it. And that's why it took time, as a part-time job and I'm also a mother, to grow into it and create what is there now.

And to be honest, I'm also very happy about this slow path because it gave me the opportunity to really grow into it and not completely overwhelm myself and just crash into the wall at some point.

Domingos: I definitely understand that. Most people don't understand how much goes into an app like this, it's not something that's just done on the side. Programming the thing and keeping it up to date is a big effort that involves many people.

Meike: yes and you don't just have the app, i.e. what we as users hold and operate, but there is always the so-called backend, i.e. what the app actually does, i.e. access to various data pools and data processing. And these are complex systems that have to be created so that everything works like this. And if you don't have any money to give to people, then you always need people who are up for it, who will continue to work on this idea for free and simply do it for a good cause. And finding them also takes time.

Domingos: Very interesting. A special challenge is finding developers for apps and convincing them of accessibility. Can you tell us how that went for you?

Meike: yes, very much. In fact, over the course of these seven years, several developers, I would say, went through this project. And what I was able to offer, because I had no money, was the opportunity to develop personally in this area. That means that a developer who came and still had rudimentary knowledge of accessibility, i.e. how to deal with VoiceOver and Talkback, was able to learn this topic with me with time and leisure and they did it themselves. So of course I learned how to use VoiceOver and Talkback, I can also use an app or a cell phone with the screen reader, that also took time. Then I found people who were interested in understanding how it works and then doing it really well, and the Sovi app was basically an area for a few developers - although actually only developers up to that point , in which you were able to develop personally. That was a big benefit because people learned a lot about how the whole thing works and the Sovi app has become better and more accessible.

When I was explicitly looking for an iOS developer in 2022, I - well, people already knew me quite a bit through various social media platforms and also knew what I was doing and could also follow that I've been in this area for a while and I've advertised what I'm looking for, i.e. someone who is interested in accessibility, maybe also has previous knowledge, and I also described what we want to do in the research project in the argus project and what the app can and does and I was looking for someone.

This is a very nice story. I actually only made one call via LinkedIn and then received a lot of applications, including from people from other countries, many from India or the USA, and I always thought, if that happens, I don't want to close myself off from it, But somehow that feels awkward for me because I would like to have a person with whom I can actually converse in German. I speak reasonable English, that's not the problem, but I'm worried that too much information will be lost in the foreign language together with the fact that it's still a bit foreign to me. That means I was already looking for someone who speaks German and preferably also lives in the German area, so that we also have the opportunity to sit together from time to time. I can't fly to India once a month to meet with my developers and vice versa, so I just waited a few days or weeks to see what happened and a lot happened. I always thought that somehow it wasn't.

Then all of a sudden an application came from, I think I can say it, Chari. Shari applied to me with a wonderful, fantastic application, she had actually worked in the area of accessibility for blind people before, she had already gained experience and had just completed her studies or was in the process of completing her studies and has one Looking for a position to enter the world of work. She is a person who lives one hundred percent of the values that I want to spread with Sonic view, namely an inclusive society and a feeling of belonging, good interaction with one another, but also has the appropriate specialist knowledge. I read this application and jumped around my apartment cheering and thought, definitely, I want that. And after that everything happened very quickly. So, we then spoke on the phone and I also brought one of my main developers into the call because I said, yes, then just ask your critical IT questions, but I don't really care, I definitely want this woman. And then we had the call and, as expected, it went really well and I was really excited from the first second. She's been working at Sovi as our iOS developer for a few months now and I'm thrilled with her every day, her work and the way it's so simple, so it was a really special stroke of luck just happened and for which I am eternally grateful. But of course she's not the only developer, I also have other developers and I think very highly of them too. However, she is currently the main developer for the frontend. Then I still have a backend developer and the Android version, which is unfortunately a bit short at the moment because we don't have the funds to hire someone for it. We definitely need more subscriptions so that I can pay people to keep both apps equally running. I'm always amazed at how well this team sticks together when it's important, even at the most inconvenient times, the computer is quickly opened and then a few more things are done and that's great. So this team is really great.

Of course people complain when iOS is preferred, but that's really the main platform for many blind people

Domingos: And it really costs a lot of money to develop two apps and keep them up to date, and people misjudge that.

Meike: yes, unfortunately that is the case. So they're not that far apart, but there are differences. So we really need to update Android and, thanks to funding that I received before the research project, we were able to position ourselves in such a way that we could actually develop the app in parallel. but for different platforms and so we launched an app in May 2022, so both in the same month. I think we even went online in the same week and were at the same level. Everything that came after that, all the improvements, we then tested together with blind people how well the app worked, what problems there were and are, what can be improved and so on. And then there was all the money for Android and we said yes, now it's really about the target group of blind people and we have to make a decision either we make both apps half better or one is really right and we use the other as soon as we can. And we just decided that we said, okay, we're really going to bring iOS up to date, so we're going to bring the iPhone version up to a point where it's actually really good because the number of users for iOS is around 80% for blind people. Actually, that's a glaring difference to Android and that's why we're continuing to develop the iOS part first.

Domingos: I find that understandable. It's really a learning process with accessibility when it comes to the topic of accessibility. I remember you posted at some point that you found a bug where information was only communicated via color.

Meike: That was embarrassing for me and actually it's almost a bit funny in retrospect, because we have very patient users it wasn't that bad now, even at the very beginning. I initially created the concept for this app during my studies and in the years that followed. I can do that myself and I was - and this has been part of it for me from the beginning - that everything that you perceive visually can also be perceived acoustically and this of course includes when I have scanned a product that it then makes a noise that tells me as a blind person whether this product suits me or not, whether the result is positive or negative, that is, the red screen has a different sound than the green screen with the check mark and we forgot about that during development. I know it's totally embarrassing, but it's actually funny, we just forgot about it and it was brought to us in the first few weeks after the release: hey, that would be an idea, how about you put sounds in there. It was really a moment when I was sitting at the dining room table at home, but I briefly put my head on the table because I thought, that's not true, how long did it take you, 7 years. Yes, but mistakes happen and we were able to fix them relatively quickly. So of course it works with sounds from now on.

Domingos: There is no app without errors, at least I don't know of any from my long career as a tester. It's about identifying and fixing such problems.

Meike: yes and now I can look at it from the other side. For us people who want to develop and advance the whole thing, it's actually very much about constructive feedback. This is also an experience that I still have and have had from the beginning, that the feedback that is given to you after a publication is not always constructive, but is also used to vent a lot That often doesn't help, so if you just say it's shit that you have to register in the app, everything doesn't work at all, the app is uninstalled again, that doesn't help me because I don't know what didn't work and why the person doesn't want to register or I can't even explain why that's necessary. There's no other way, otherwise you can't share the profiles with each other and that's why we're always grateful for constructive feedback where someone says, pay attention, I tried this and that, it didn't work for such and such reasons, maybe take a look then you again. I answer every single email, I have never made any person who wrote to me or wrote to us as a team wait. Or maybe let it wait, that can happen sometimes, but I've never ignored anyone. So everyone gets an answer. Of course I'll be happy if it's constructive again. But I'm actually happy, this goes out to you out there, if someone writes, hey, I've now downloaded the app, I've installed it, I've registered and I'm completely happy with it. People don't do that, and I don't do it myself either. But just to say, hey, that's a nice thing, of course it's something that makes you happy at the dinner table at home.

Meike's tips for imitators

Domingos: So guys, you heard it, constructive feedback is welcome.

One last general question: there are many people who would like to do meaningful projects and perhaps want to go in a similar direction as you. What ultimate tips could you give them?

Meike: Well, first and foremost is stubbornness and perseverance: you can see from me that you can have no idea about anything and in the end you can still achieve something if you stay on the ball and that's what you do in the world You always read or hear in the media that most startups or projects fail because people simply don't hold out long enough. And if, for example, you allow yourself to be so depressed by the rejected scholarship that you then give up, you just think that you won't get any further. And if you really always take feedback and criticism and setbacks in order to keep going, to grow from them, then you show perseverance and then, in my opinion, you reach your goal.

A professor of mine at the time once said that when the rejection of the scholarship came, he said something like this: it's best to look at it like a javelin thrower. Headwind creates lift, if you throw your spear against the wind, it will fly even higher. I have no idea if that's true because I can't throw the javelin, but I just found this picture so beautiful that I think to myself, okay, then I'll just let it carry me and then I'll see which direction this setback takes me now The ultimate tip is perseverance.

the second is networking: you always have to network with people, companies, organizations and groups. You also have to maintain and maintain these contacts and new contacts will always arise from this. This creates a network and the more you talk about your vision and what you want, the more it manifests itself in you and the more you focus on what you want to achieve. This means that this networking and talking about it sharpens your mind in the direction of achieving your goal and that can take a while. You also have to have perseverance and you will certainly meet people along the way who won't be with you forever. Of course, that always happens, but then you also learn to rely on your feelings, your instincts, your experiences and, in the end, to have the right people around you and the right contacts who will help you move forward, who share the same values Networking is the second ultimate tip.

And the third tip: Fight for a good cause. That's my value: I'm not doing this for money, I'm actually doing it because I believe in the thing and in my opinion it makes you last longer than if you do it for money and after a certain period of time you have decided for yourself, ah, I still haven't become rich, now I'd better stop. If money is your motivation, then leave it alone or do something else. But I think doing charitable things, things that go towards an inclusive society, aids for disabled people or something like that, doesn't make sense for money, you do them because you really want to and because you have the vision Delivering added value to a specific area and that is what ultimately gets you to your goal.

Domingos: yes, I can sign all of that. Thank you for your tips and for the time you took for this podcast. : We definitely wish you much success in your future journey. Where can people continue to follow you?

Meike: I have a channel on YouTube as well as on Facebook and Instagram. In fact, the best way to follow what we do is on Instagram and LinkedIn.

Domingos: Thank you very much and if you want to take a look at the app, as already mentioned, it is in the stores.

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