How Might We solve the communication problems of people suffering from Motor Neuron Disease and make their everyday tasks more accessible?
Create a non-traditional interface and explore how familiar screen-based heuristics can be extended into new modes of interaction and technology.
People suffering from Motor Neuron Disease often have to sacrifice their communication abilities and have to rely on inefficient and poorly designed interaction technologies. Great technologies come with a hefty price tag that only a few can afford. Product User Experience in this area needs exploration and enhancement.
An innovative set of applications that can be used by a regular set of mouse and keyboard, touch, a trackball, and even an eye-tracking system. Users can go about selecting what they want to say, and the system will announce it via the speakers. Moreover, a host of accompanying applications makes everyday tasks more accessible.
The challenge was to use radical technology to solve a common communication problem from the real world. After some brainstorming, I found out that one of the most overlooked areas with a communication problem is design for accessible applications, and to be specific, I found it to be people with Motor Neuron Disease.
Motor neuron diseases are a group of conditions that cause the nerves in the spine and brain to lose function over time. They are a rare but severe form of neurodegenerative disease.
-Medical News Today
Every two people per 100,000 are diagnosed with ALS.
Usually leads to death within 3-5 years.
Less than 5% survive for more than ten years.
It can only be diagnosed clinically.
People diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease do not have a long time, and in the absence of a cure to this day means that their situation is not improving. Given that they have about 3-5 years to live, spending thousands on technology is a lot of money.
Loss of motor functions such as the ability to move body parts, speak, eat, sometimes over time, and sometimes all at once, leading to an inability to do everyday tasks.
Lots of communication issues due to loss of motor functions leading to an intense level of frustration and sometimes depression at initial stages.
Medical equipment usually costs a fortune and can put even a well-maintained family under debt.
Communication assistant devices are hard to learn since the patients cannot use their hands fully or partially.
I asked on Reddit ALS forums about the communication problems of people with ALS, and here are a couple of quotes snippets from the responses I got.
We ended up using a letter board like you see in breaking bad. It was very tedious and terrible.
- beardedjack (Reddit/r/ALS)
My father had a trach put in right away so that was a problem. Then he used a stylus to point letter on a card. Towards the end, his hand had curled inwards so he had hard time holding the stylus. At the same time his hands were shaking a lot.
- syzygymoon (Reddit/r/ALS)
To begin with, I looked into what kind of technologies hospitals and people are currently using with their patients and family members who have MND. Currently, hospitals and caretakers are using hardware boards with essential words written on them or computers with specialized hardware and software. A study from the University of Los Angeles shows that these technologies have a low satisfaction level. One reason is that it takes too much time to form sentences using these methods.
Most of them suffer from the inability to be used by the patient himself out of the box.
Figures do not always represent the mental model of the activity.
Interface elements look very unprofessional.
Some of the solutions are very expensive.
Most of the experiences stand nowhere on usability standards.
Extremely painstaking to form full-length sentences and continuous conversations.
Be low cost.
Be digital and something they can access quickly.
Be usable by the patient as soon as it is turned on.
Provide usability according to the level of mobility of the patient.
Based on my research, I found out that a digital interface would be best suited for the current situation. I started with simplifying the first step of the journey to using a device to communicate: Feeling of the Identity and Onboarding. So I sketched out an idea that looks and behaves very friendly.
I created a mid-fi prototype and tested it against metrics, but it was not an easy task. In the absence of real users, I had to suffice with people who do not have ALS. I did a pilot test to identify the constraints that I would have to put for the usability test.
Two people for each session (one user and one friend).
Only the user was allowed to use the prototype.
Speaking was not allowed for the user.
Only one finger was allowed to use on the trackpad.
Gestures were not allowed to interact with the friend.
An accompanying friend was given the task to ask follow-up questions for continued conversation.
4 out of 5 participants said that the prototype is easy to use.
4 out of 5 participants said they would use this prototype.
5 out of 5 participants clicked on the correct category for the first two scenarios.
More accessible design.
Participants found it impossible to create conversations using predefined messages.
None of the participants were unable to express pain easily.
Testing with real patients.
Based on the learnings and feedback from mid-fi prototype testing, I started redesigning the entire product experience while still keeping the same essence of how it works. In this pursuit, I decided that communication is just one aspect of how they interact with the world; many other aspects help them get information from the world. That is why I decided to create an overarching system of which CommunicationAssist would be a vital part.
The first thing was to design the identity of the product to make it feel very friendly to the user and still convey the message about what the user can achieve out of the product. So, I started with redesigning the logo. The loading screen perfectly visualizes how Assistive technology is now evolved to become smarter by using better UX and Artificial Intelligence. It starts with delight to the users’ eyes!
Another reason why many of the current solutions fail is that they neglect the second part of the interaction environment: the caretaker as a user. The goal was to make it usable by not just one mode of interaction but multiple. That’s why all the interface elements are big enough to be easily seen from a distance and big enough to be touched.
Taking on the feedback from the usability study, I made the categories more prominent, a significant improvement over any other technology. Using real-world imagery is much easier to understand than using icons. As soon as the user opens CommunicationAssist, it provides information about what the user can achieve out of it, and in the further screens, it allows the user to learn how to use the application.View Interactive Prototype
Why repeat a snippet of a message when the only change is a word? Composite messages ease the burden by allowing the user to quickly and easily select the word from available options. Plus, the AI automatically recognizes and adds options for the user when creating one with date, time, or activities.
The app allows the users to have a bunch of Quick Select messages which stay there no matter which app the user is currently using. Moreover, the Emergency button helps to quickly notify the caretakers when the user feels something is wrong.
The app also allows the users to notify their caretakers if they are having any pain in their bodies. It reduces the immense amount of back-and-forth questioning with the user to find out where they are having the pain in their bodies.
A simulated test never gives the real-world results of a system’s performance.
“Radical is not just new; it is also platform-independent. Giving a choice to consumers, what they want, how they want.”
- Yogesh Singh
Let’s catch up for Coffee! Here’s my email: firstname.lastname@example.org