iOS Apps Help Children with Special Needs Communicate and Learn

written by Melissa Leach (Research Associate at Bentley Design and Usability Center) and Diego Mendes (UX Researcher at Bentley Design and Usability Center)

Grembe is a small mobile application developer that builds applications for children with special needs for iPhone, iPad, iOS and Android. They currently offer two applications: iCommunicate which allows parents and educators to design visual schedules, storyboards, communication boards, routines, flash cards, choice boards, speech cards among other things; and iReward, which is a positive reinforcement chart for the iPhone/iPod.

Grembe was founded by a husband and wife team after facing challenges in behavior management with their own child with special communication needs. They had the idea of creating an innovative application to help families in behavior management, allowing for more accessible communication and understanding between children and their parents, educators and caregivers.

We recently had the opportunity to interview Jeffery Johnson, co-founder and software engineer at Grembe Apps.

How did the business grow and who benefits from Grembe's applications?

When we originally put it out it was something that helped our son. Then a lot of people reached out to us. They'd say "This app is great!" and people started spreading the word. Suddenly we were hearing from professors in speech and language, medical specialists etc… saying "I’ve been using it for speech, echoing a word or phrases they have trouble with." This was not our original intention, but we realized it could be used by children who had trouble understanding transitions. If you add a visual or audio element to the transition, that helps a lot. Grembe's applications benefits anyone who need visual support to help with language, transitions, and communication.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for children with special needs and their parents as it relates to education and technology?

Parents will always be their child's best advocate. To make choices in technology they rely on professionals to evaluate and trial devices. With the iPad exploding onto the scene, it is hard for professionals and parents to keep up with the hottest thing. There has also been an exponential growth in the number of special needs apps, so making choices on apps is also difficult. Another challenge is the relationship with health insurance companies which currently won't cover the cost of an application. They may cover really expensive, traditional devices, but not an application. There is a push for this to change from parents and professionals, and we believe it will change. It is just a matter of time.

How can technology/design be used to help children with special needs? How far are we from an ideal point? Are you optimistic about the changes you are seeing?

It is very complicated to say one technology helps one need, as there is never one solution to any given problem. This also means there is no "ideal point" possible, as a child’s need is a moving target that changes almost hourly. What we like about the changes we are seeing is that game changers like the iPad force innovation and changes in the traditional special needs marketplace.

Can you speak more about the fact that a person's need is a moving target that changes constantly and how that impacts your work as a UX designer?

It doesn't impact me as much as it impacts the caregiver. The iPad may work for something on Thursday but not on Friday. One technique may not work every time. We never say our app solves anything. It is really a tool to help at a certain time. It will never solve one need all the time.

Are there principles of Design and Usability that you have learned/employed at Grembe that you think should be applied to design and usability in other areas?

What we have learned about design and usability is that it is important to listen to those who use your product. They are used to thinking outside the box, and have provided us with suggestions and feedback that has led to our products becoming more robust. And learning how something works well in one app, leads you to think how can it can be used somewhere else.

And how do you listen to your user? How do you do user testing with the population you are designing for?

The population is so diverse and different that it becomes too much of a challenge to do use cases and studies. It is a huge challenge to get feedback from a development and a usability standpoint. Our user population is comprised of professional speech therapists, teachers, and parents and the children. They are very different and use our tools differently. I am a software engineer so I am used to the development process It is the age old development challenge: we can’t solve everyone's problem or issue with one feature. We try to keep it simple, to stick to the core of what it can do. It is easier to split and say "make a different app to serve that need." We first got the core done and we received so much great feedback in the app online or at conferences that we developed it further. That led into tracking improvements and prioritizing them for future implementations.

Want to learn more about Grembe apps?

Visit their website, www.grembe.com.

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