One of the busiest booths at ATiA in Orlando was showing a new AAC app called CoughDrop.
Developer Brian Whitmer explains its background and what he hopes to achieve

Augmentative communication tools are not new; using signs and symbols to support communication is a strategy that’s been around for thousands of years. The origins of today’s hardware and apps for supporting communicators with complex needs, however, started somewhere around the 1960s. These tools are an important and extremely valuable branch of assistive technology, and have impacted thousands of lives for the better.

They’re also an area in serious need of innovation and improvement. Many apps haven’t seen noticeable improvement in years and with the rapid pace of innovation in technology there are lots of ways a more modern AAC solution can help make interventions more successful. I’m a programmer by trade. My graduate research in Human-Computer Interaction left me pretty obsessive when it comes to the interfaces we use to interact with digital devices, and I love working to make them as straightforward as possible.

After college I started an educational technology company called Instructure. We built Canvas, a learning management system that showed people just how much of an impact good technology can have on learning. It’s made a huge difference for millions of learners, and I learned a bunch more about the enabling potential of technology.

I’m actually pretty new to the world of augmentative communication. Our oldest daughter has Rett Syndrome, and when we realised a few years ago just how much desire she had to communicate we scrambled to find the right solution.

Becca, Brian Whitmer’s oldest daughter

Becca, Brian Whitmer’s oldest daughter

I looked at all the apps and devices that were out there, and tried a bunch to see which worked the best. As a usability and technology expert I noticed a lot of places where I thought existing apps and devices could be improved. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just seeing things, so I started reaching out to speech therapists, assistive technology specialists, parents, etc to get their take on the current state of AAC.

As I met with over 30 specialists, parents and users across the country I would ask about their frustrations, what they wish was different, and how they thought things could improve. We’d talk for an hour or two and really try to dive in deep. I’d show some of my ideas on how to make better AAC apps and then work with them to tweak and improve those ideas. It quickly became clear that there was a strong desire from everyone for something better.


CoughDrop
What I heard repeated over and over is that the technology already out there, while life-changing for many, is still confusing and hard to use. It’s tough to find the right starting point, and modifying buttons and layouts is so complicated that many people are too intimidated to even try; they just use whatever comes pre-built and hope they don’t have to mess with it too much.

Plus, the systems don’t provide enough data to get a good idea of what’s working and what isn’t. Once you get something up and running things generally aren’t too bad as long as you don’t touch it too often, but the ongoing support process seemed to be mostly neglected from the technology side. It was an eye-opener for me to see just how dedicated and devoted everyone was to helping struggling communicators be heard.

As a parent it’s easy to feel isolated and alone, like you’re having to make everything up on the fly, so it was reassuring to find so many emotionally invested people who just wanted to help communicators succeed. I was pleased to find so many therapists that bite the bullet and spend hours personalising and programming boards in spite of some extremely tedious interfaces, or that manually export and analyse logs to get an idea of what’s working and what isn’t. All of these diligent folk had unique perspectives and insights to share, and all of them proved valuable to my project.

The end result of all the research and iteration is CoughDrop, a new communication solution that is native to today’s way of interacting, that picks up where others left off and provides new insights and opportunities for change. CoughDrop is a modern AAC app that works across devices, coordinates the full support team and provides insights on usage over time.

CoughDrop

CoughDrop

CoughDrop is native to the cloud and syncs any edits across devices so a therapist or parent can modify a board on their computer instead of having to take the communicator’s device away. You can also log in as the same user on multiple devices, so you can leave one device at school and another at home if you like and everything stays in sync.

The interface is simple and very flexible, and CoughDrop provides training resources to help should you ever get stuck. The app will run on a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone or even an unlocked dedicated device, so you can use the device that makes sense for you based on what you’re trying to accomplish.

In collaborating with all those specialists and families I tried to build something that could be adjusted based on the needs of the communicator and their support group and that would address everyone’s needs a little better.


Usability gaps
When designing CoughDrop I noticed what I thought were some serious usability gaps in AAC systems. I felt like it was much too hard to create or personalise a board, which meant people were leaving boards in a less-than-ideal state just to avoid fighting with them. I showed my ideas for a cleaner, easier editing interface that could run anywhere, and people were delighted.

Usage Report

Usage Report

They also shared some suggestions on how to tailor it more to the people who would be using it every day. People were really excited about the prospect of editing boards on a separate computer or laptop and auto-syncing them back to the communicator ’s device to save time and not have to take the communicator’s device away to program.

It also felt like there wasn’t enough focus on enabling and supporting the full team that surrounds the communicator and that technology could do a lot more to facilitate better insight and communication. Once a user has their boards set up it’s not clear how to continue to improve those boards over time or even to discover what the user’s communication was looking like over time.

Developing a consistent strategy for AAC implementation is hard enough but without consistent information that keeps everyone informed I’m surprised it doesn’t fail more often. I had no idea what reports and communication strategies people were wishing for, just that there wasn’t enough data available, so working with specialists was an enormous help in honing in on the right data and messaging options.

CoughDrop provides detailed reports and makes those reports available to therapists, teachers, parents and communicators along with a simple messaging interface to keep everyone informed and on the same page. In addition to being a slick AAC app, CoughDrop is also a board repository. Anyone can create communication boards and share them publicly. Or you can take someone else’s board, make changes and share it back to the community.

We track all the content licenses and encourage the use of Creative Commons licenses to make it easier to share and reuse without having to worry about intellectual property roadblocks. Hopefully the collection of useful, open resources will grow over time. We’re working closely with therapists to continue to release quality resources that anyone can use. CoughDrop is in beta right now and we’ve already been overwhelmed by all the positive support and enthusiasm around this project to improve AAC. The app is currently free for anyone to sign up and use. We’re more concerned with getting it right than making a quick buck, so the ‘fee’ for use is feedback.

If you decide to use it with a communicator please let us know what you like or don’t like, what you think should be done differently. We feel like we’re moving the needle in a big way, but it’d be a waste to stop after just one round of change for the better. After the beta period people can pay for CoughDrop either as a monthly subscription or pay a long-term fee, whichever makes more sense for them.

Our goal is to bring a more modern, approachable solution to AAC. There’s so much technology can do to help support struggling communicators, but without a consistent strategy and the tools to back it up and keep everyone informed we’re not going to be doing as well as we could. It’s time to take another step forward and see how AAC can become even better, enabling more meaningful communication and interactions for individuals. We hope you’ll help us keep looking for ways to improve.

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About Contributors

Brian Whitmer is a software developer and usability exper t from Salt Lake City, Utah. He is the father of four children, the oldest of whom has Rett Syndrome. After founding and establishing the educational technology company Instructure (Canvas) he has worked to improve assistive technology for struggling communicators like his daughter.

2 Comments

  1. Is this app still available for free trial? I would be interested to see if it would be a viable option for my nonspeaking AU students. Thank you!

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