Welcome to CommBoards

An AAC app for children with limited verbal expression abilities

The Story

CommBoards enables children and people of all ages with limited expressive abilities to express themselves by tapping on a picture or a symbol. The tap is followed by the word being read aloud which in turn encourages oral speech and helps express thoughts and feelings.

We were approached by a father of a child with limited verbal communication skills, with a request to create an AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) app for Android, which would be available in Hebrew, amongst other languages.

From our market research it was evident that there were no AAC apps on the Google Play that had Hebrew and were highly customisable to fit the needs of his child, and the only apps available on the market were for iPad and quite pricey. We worked with the father in order to understand the constraints children with limited verbal communication skills faced, and created CommBoards, an app that is constantly evolving and improving, in order to fit its user’s needs.

The Challenges

When creating CommBoards, we had three main goals in mind:

  1. To support mobile devices with lower resolutions and sizes, as well as tablets.
    The goal was to allow people to install the app on their personal phones, as opposed to requiring them to purchase a dedicated device – thus saving them money. A parent could install the app on their phone and have it on them wherever they go with their child.This decision made it necessary that the design be scaleable and highly adaptive. We decided on a landscape mode rather than a portrait mode in order to allow for more cells to appear per-row as well as keep the sentence created in one line.Using Google Analytics, we see clearly that there are more users on mobile than on tablet, supporting our decision.
  2. To make the app accessible price-wise to people around the world.
    Many children with Autism worldwide are left undiagnosed, leaving the parents without support from the state and without being provided with a designated AAC device for their child. In addition to making an app that could run on most Android OSs and on smaller resolutions, we decided to price the app in a way that would be affordable for everyone while still receiving ROI for our work.
  3. The third goal was being able to support several languages – we started from English and Hebrew, then added Spanish and Russian, followed by Mandarin Chinese. Creating a multi-language app, we had to be especially aware to the spacial limitations of lower resolution and lower size devices, and handle the design and development accordingly.

The above goals created a complex challenge, we knew. With many things to keep in mind when designing and developing the app, and with the desire to create an app that would be user-centered and affected directly by the feedback from our users, we started the work.

Onboarding

The app has many functionalities – adding new categories and cells, editing existing cells, adding images and sounds, etc. and so it had to have an onboarding experience that would make the parents feel they understand the product and can safely offer it to their children. To ensure soft landing, we added tooltips upon first use of the app, as well as links to YouTube videos with walkthroughs of the central features.

For Parents

The app arrived with many pre-defined options – categories, sub categories, and cells. The admin area allows the customization of all of the above, and addition of new material. The admin area is accessible through the main screen of the app, and in order for the child to not accidentally press on the button and gain access to the admin, we added a dialogue with a mathematical question and several possible solutions. Tapping on the wrong answer would close the dialogue, tapping on the correct one would lead to the admin screen.

Changes for the Admin Screen access dialogue

The solution of presenting the user with three answers did not work well because there was still a chance of 1/3 that the child might accidentally press on the correct answer and get access to the admin screen. We received feedback from one user whose child accidentally reset the app and erased all cells.

The first solution was to change the answer from closed selection to an open text input field. This solved the issue since the child would now have to intentionally solve a mathematical problem to access the admin. However, this solution was not good enough as well because even though the mathematical problems were relatively easy to solve, we couldn’t be sure that all our users were math-savvy. And so having the math question would present them with friction.

The final solution was to remove the mathematical question and present a number made out of four digits which the user would have to input into a text field. With this solution we’ve removed the cognitive friction while keeping the admin screen safe for adults’ use only.

For Children

When creating CommBoards, it was important to always keep in mind who our target audience was. Children on the autistic spectrum could have less control over their hands and gestures, and in order to make the app truly accessible and easy to use, I decided on a bright colour palette, large vector images, and large buttons. During the wire-framing phase, I spoke with the father who has originally contacted us a lot and sent him prototypes to give to the child, to test the interaction.

Image Bank Redesign

CommBoards allows users to create new cells and categories and customise them with pictures and sounds. We presented our users with three ways to add images:

  1. Add from Gallery
  2. Take photo via camera
  3. Choose from a pre-defined image bank with images included by us in the app

We added analytics in order to see which option was used most, while the initial design of the selection was a pop up (as seen on the image on the left, below), with the three options and the image bank shown inside a horizontally scrollable view. The reason why we decided to show the images like this as opposed to leading the user to a new screen was because our thesis was that a user would rather add live images than use illustrations, and use images from their own world (such as food and toys) rather than generic images.

We had to rethink this thesis as we learned with the help of Google Analytics that more than 30% of our users chose to use images from our image bank.

This led me to rethink the design and to move the image bank to a new screen. We also added many more images to the bank to give the user more options to choose from. While adding the images, we’ve also added filters at the top of the screen so the user could quickly find the image they were looking for in a specific category rather than scrolling and searching for it. The image on the left is the current design of the image bank, and since this change, we see that this option selection rose from 30% to 40%.

The Color Palette

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More Screens

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