IXD Extremis

What if you can’t connect?

How do you design an interaction for someone who can neither see these words, nor hear you speak them?

In 1887, Anne Sullivan heroically confronted this challenge as she attempted
to connect a child to a world she could not perceive.

Seven-year old Helen Keller spent her entire young life captive to a world she could neither see nor hear. But she could feel, and taste and smell. Her tutor exploited these alternate senses.


Helen Keller and her devoted, tenacious tutor, Anne Sullivan.

Helen Keller’s tutor, Anne Sullivan gave the world an historic breakthrough, offering a blind, deaf child the opportunity to understand the world through her sense of touch.

Their story is a study in world-changing interaction design.


Some of the greatest breakthroughs result from climactic insights. Others arise from bloodly-minded, tireless dedication. Doggedness. Helen and Anne needed both.

Day in and out. This is the story of a remarkable woman and the young girl who she would reveal as even more remarkable. Anne Sullivan would work doggedly and undaunted until her young charge connected symbol and sensation.

The brilliant connection made – feeling water on one palm while receiving the symbols for it on the other, has been dramatized as an act of seeming desperation. It was anything but – and produced a monumental breakthrough – a complex interaction combining two sensory experiences to construct a new language.


To the countless beneficiaries of this historic interaction, design strategy may seem secondary. But an examination of Sullivan’s disciplined methods and extreme perseverance indicates that a thoughtful design strategy informed—possibly even inspired—this iconic event.

If I was given a blank slate – is this the design I would recommend?

The biggest challenge then, is to challenge ourselves. Fearlessly.

Relentlessly question your goals, as you march down a logical hierarchy from the overall design strategy. Or, just as relevant, climb back up the ladder from the interaction to the overarching objective.


All too often, we discover that the strategic objective went unstated, the user was never fully understood, and the broader constituency was never considered.

Reach out and touch someone.

So ask why. Remember Helen and Anne. Remember Ali and Foreman. Remember silicon and papyrus. The lessons are as old as the alphabet and reveal greater insight at the edges of the bell curve.

Make better.

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