Giving a Voice to Those Who Cannot Speak

Prentke-Roemich Company (PRC) is the leader in production of AAC (augmentative/alternative communication) devices. Their devices are used for communication by people who can’t speak. Most of their users live with autism, or cerebral palsy, or another condition that makes speech impossible.

PRC is a pioneer in their field - in fact, they’ve been helping their customers for 50 years. Specifically, they wanted us to update the design of their “toolbox” used by parents, teachers, and others. This is the part of the AAC device where crucial settings happen - like how a user interfaces with the AAC device (by touching touch, eye tracking, and other methods) what appears on different screens, or how long a user has to press a button before the press registers.

The Challenge

Most toolbox users are fully able-bodied people.  They are speech-language pathologists, teachers, parents, spouses and other caretakers who are in the lives of the AAC users. They are far from expert users. In fact, they spend only a few minutes a month with each device, and don't have time to learn a lot about how the devices work.  

It is essential that these toolbox users are able to figure out how to change the settings and customize the devices to meet the needs of the AAC users.  Many of the AAC users begin using the devices as young as 2 or 3 years old, which means that their needs and capabilities change quickly as their minds and bodies develop.


So how were we going to determine if our project was a success? The key focus for this project was to simplify the toolbox experience for caretakers and teachers so that they could better serve the users. If we could accomplish this, other outcomes would include: the reduction of customer support calls per day, the production designs that could be re-used in the software therefore furthering design consistency, and the improvement of the overall brand as the software would represent cutting edge modern technology.

The Process

First, we spoke to many different kinds of people at PRC: product owners, software developers, trainers, salespeople, executives, and others. These conversations gave us a rounded sense of what changes would really move the needle internally - to reduce support calls and, crucially, which kinds of design changes would be easiest and fastest for the in-house development team to build.

Then we spoke to real users, making sure we were hearing from those with different levels of experience - new users, existing users, very experienced users - and those with a variety of backgrounds (speech-language pathologists, teachers, parents, and others)

We took the insights we gathered from our rounds of interviews and used them as a roadmap. Throughout the project, we collaborated closely and regularly with the PRC team, co-designing with them in-person and working with their Ohio-based team on weekly changes as we moved quickly to create and validate our designs.