NCTI Innovator Profile
Meet Martin McKay
Profile Written by: Eric Morrison
Description of technology
TextHelp Systems makes a variety of software products, notably Read and Write Gold, which supports reading and the creation and editing of text for persons with literacy and learning difficulties.
Got involved in accessible technology issues through
Martin indicates he “has always been interested in it.” When he was 12 years old, his father had a stroke that caused a loss of mobility and speech. Martin used flash cards to teach him how to speak. Immediately upon leaving college, Martin began interviewing people with learning difficulties and started his company.
At the beginning stages of forming TextHelp, Martin drove to the north of Scotland to a university to test his early products and get feedback from individuals with dyslexia, rising at 4 a.m. and not returning home until late evening. Now a primary method of needs assessment is a “feature request page” on the Internet that field staff from various markets use to enter feedback from users. Two advisory groups, one in the U.K, and one in the U.S., also provide direction about two times per year after reviewing and testing new iterations. The company also uses a Learning Disabilities Specialist for periodic reviews.
Seeing the world in new ways
TextHelp System’s focus on built-in measurements on outcomes, directly reflecting changes in user abilities, is highly innovative. For example, Read and Write Gold has components that allow users and teachers to:
- view statistics on the type of phonetic errors made;
- compare the frequency and types of words accessed in the dictionary, and;
- see changes in spelling error patterns over time.
On design principles
TextHelp Systems utilizes a rigorous engineering process represented by a guiding flow-chart with many complex components. The heart of the process is a “functional specifications” document that is several hundred pages long that goes into the detail, data structures, and user interface. Martin describes a total “immersion” in issues and needs at the outset that has led to the development of a sense within the company of how to design for their intended users. When new designers come on board, they go through a rigorous “LD Orientation” to “brainwash” them to a specific subset of human factors (not trained in engineering schools) that must be built into an interface, such as an absolute minimum of clicks to perform tasks. Another principle is being “unobtrusive…we don’t want to be perceived as a piece of assistive technology.“
Martin tends to talk about users in terms of direct connections between aspects of users’ experiential difficulties and matching technological solutions and his company’s deep desire to help. Speech enabling is seen as a fundamental method for overcoming many textual difficulties. Focusing on the fact that Read and Write helps users perform tasks in other applications, he says, “Our software is a tool that makes other software easier to use so it is an enabler” for users.
On training and users
Martin does not want “software sitting unopened on the shelf.” For that reason, training is a fundamental part of design and is incorporated in several ways, such as:
- Embedding training right into their interfaces, such as spelling and speech video tours that are available right out of the corresponding menus on the screen
- Remote Web-X training available for dial-in on a regular basis
- Advanced technical support that allows technicians to link through their website to see the user’s screen, and even take control if needed.
On the market
TextHelp Systems believes that participation in Microsoft’s Gold Partner program is essential to market success given the application-support nature of their products. They submit all software for independent testing by Microsoft, adding “about $20,000 to the cost of release,” but reaping cost-benefit returns in very low incidence of technical support issues. TextHelp System’s primary strategy for orienting to the market is to offer two product levels, one core product at a lower cost without royalty-bearing features, and another with other features for consumers for whom budget is less an issue.
Cost is a fundamental focus for Martin – “We feel quite passionate about this because people who have got learning disabilities tend to earn less…they don’t go to the Ivy League schools and they don’t get the $400,000 a year jobs. One of the things that we try to do is develop products that are affordable.“
On challenges, information exchange, and research
Martin believes government should take a greater role for funding access technologies, especially for public activities and citizenship. He sees distance learning needs growing and a need for colleges to provide technology for access. Within TextHelp systems, he hopes to reduce the time required to obtain feedback on design needs coming from usability design needs. Currently it takes approximately 18 months to implement feedback from usability tests.
On new horizons
A population shift toward a growing senior citizen population is viewed as a major trend that needs to be addressed. Martin expects greater vision difficulties in the population due to causes like macular degeneration and other conditions like motion, dexterity, and tremor problems. He anticipates the growing trend toward technology convergence to include assistive technology, even seeing it placed in “cable T.V. boxes sometime soon.“
Success indicators – Making a difference
Success indicators are now coming from the built-in logs of efficacy data on individual users as well as formal studies that show elevations in reading age and abilities. Martin cites that “there are clearly some cognitive changes” from a “positive feedback mechanism that goes on there.” Martin has a high opinion of his users, many of whom are very successful professionals, and talks about “bridging a little gap for them and the knowledge gets in there.” Martin is especially moved by “fantastic emails that show an ‘unquantifiable’ benefit.” For example, he received one about a father whose daughter is a U.S. Marine experiencing conflict. She emailed him daily, but he could not read them until his wife put Read and Write on the computer. The results were tearful and emotional as he was able to communicate with her for the first time.
Provacative views & quotes
To build TextHelp Systems, Martin talks about the challenges of having to work harder since they are not an American company. Speaking of the process, he says, “If it were a human thing, it would be like an obsessive compulsion and it would certainly be a disorder!” That obsession leads to an intense focus on quality assurance and building customer requests into usable features.
Martin is perpetually intrigued by avant-garde research, such as that coming from Queens University in Belfast that indicates many dyslexic adults continue to have fetal reflexes that usually switch off shortly after birth. Interventions result in a decline of dyslexic “symptoms.“