Empowering Through Design: A Q&A with Esther Duran
We are honored to have Esther Duran, Design and Innovation Director of the Scott-Morgan Foundation, offer insights into the foundation’s human-centered approach to innovative design for people with disabilities. Esther has dedicated her career to elevating disabled voices to transform functional devices into empowering, dignity-enhancing platforms.
In this thoughtful Q&A, Esther gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the foundation’s design philosophy rooted in compassion and care. She highlights novel concepts like the circular keyboard optimized for eye gaze, stressing the importance of minimizing fatigue through thoughtful layouts. Esther also reflects on key learnings from working directly alongside end-users, gaining clarity from lived experiences instead of assumptions.
Q: You mention the design team's ethos is deeply rooted in empathy and compassion.
Can you expand more on your human-centered design philosophy? What core values
guide your approach?
Esther: Our human-centered design philosophy stems from a place of deep care, empathy, and compassion. We believe only by seeing the full humanity and dignity in every person we can design a solution that will solve the challenges they encounter. The process starts there—first honoring each individual's unique personality, goals, challenges, and experiences. This grounds and guides every design choice aiming to empower, not isolate. We lead with care, listen intently, and let that shape creative
technical solutions tailored to enhance lives.
Q: One of the exciting innovations showcased is a circular keyboard optimized for eye gaze technology. Can you walk us through the process and research behind conceiving this novel concept?
Esther: The circular keyboard concept came from stepping into Dr. Peter Scott–Morgan’s shoes using eye-tracking technology. Standard rectangular keyboards expect two-handed use, inefficient for eye movements. We started fresh, researching eye fatigue and patterns. This led us to test circular layouts minimizing eye travel. Letter placement felt arbitrary, so we designed the keyboard with three layers, centralized based on letter frequency. The most common letters lie in the middle, less common ones around the periphery. This reduces eye movements and maximizes speed - critical for eye-gazing tech. Centered layouts based on word prediction algorithms further boosted efficiency. The ease and speed difference was startling, a case of form following compassionate function.
Q: What unique insights did you gain from working directly alongside individuals with severe disabilities to understand their needs and goals? How does this differ from more traditional design processes?
Esther: Spending meaningful time with individuals like Erin gives so much clarity and conviction around why we do this work. We get to know her first as a multifaceted person—her context, challenges, and abilities. This gives incredible insight into the human impacts of each design choice—what delights, what causes strain or excess effort. We arrived with no presumptions because we were determined to build solutions optimized for Erin’s distinct needs. We also considered not just Erin’s needs but those around her, especially her caretakers. Any type of solution we design needs to have a positive ripple effect from the primary to the secondary user.
Q: What advice or words of inspiration would you offer for young people interested in human-centered design and innovative assistive technology? How can the next generation carry this mission forward?
Esther: Lead with empathy, compassion, and care. Immerse yourself in the communities you aim to serve. Move past assumptions by listening and understanding others lived realities. Let that guide your vision. Design to uplift dignity, autonomy, and self-expression—the essence of being human. Creative solutions will come if you approach problems from this place of honor. This work transforms lives when done respectfully. Believe it or not, there are numerous people out there with the same principles and aspirations to help and support people with extreme disabilities. Join forces with them!
Q: Can you share any behind-the-scenes insights or "lightbulb" moments from the research and design process with Erin Taylor? When did you realize certain assistive solutions could converge powerfully?
Esther: Early conversations with Erin highlighted intriguing possibilities, but we realized the full potential when capabilities converged. We kept expanding on how one solution could connect to others. So many separate innovations transformed into a platform ecosystem far greater than the sum of parts. We leaned into that collaborative spirit, reminding ourselves that a person’s humanity always comes first.
Q: Assistive technology often focuses on function over form and experience. Do you think that the tide is shifting?
Esther: Previously, assistive technology centered pure engineering, not human-centric design. Solutions without end users at the helm lack empathy, failing to meet all needs. As we enter the digital era, people expect intuitive interfaces - not clinical, segregated designs just because they have disabilities. When we don't focus on their full humanity and dignity first, we isolate them further.
Q: What do you look for in an intern or someone early in their career who wants to design assistive technology?
Esther: Passion and empathy above all. Knowledge can be gained with time, but I always look for people with passion, drive, and empathy to improve this world. We can gain knowledge as we grow in our careers, but we always carry passion and empathy with us. I look for those who carry that innate compassion - who see the full dignity in each person regardless of physical ability. Technical skills matter less than mindset rooted in uplifting humanity.