National Center for Technology Innovation

Pic-A-Word Transforms the iPad with AAC

Scott Renner
Scott Renner
Auburn University
Margaret Flores
Auburn University
Foster Phillips
PUSH Product Design

Developers and researchers continue to explore emerging, standard platforms, especially those with the greatest portability and flexibility, for assistive technology applications.  A collaborative venture between Auburn University and PUSH Product Design used an NCTI Tech in the Works award to fuel an initial investigation of AAC (augmentative alternative communication) interventions specifically on the Apple iPad device combined with newly developed “Pic-A-Word” software and specialized podcasts.  Margaret explains the history simply:

We wanted to develop a program that would be similar to what students use with the picture exchange system (a traditional method using laminated picture cards to indicate a request or utterance), but on the iPad.  We felt this could be the beginning of investigating a cheaper platform for school districts and parents.  We talked about what we do with standard Picture Cards, and simply asked Foster, ‘So what can you develop for us on the iPad?’

Foster is an Auburn alumni, offering an immediate motivating connection, and in the vein of many collaborations highlighted by NCTI, previous relationships had already been established through smaller projects that led up to the current one. 

iPad as Communication Device


Pic-a-Word App
for the iPad

Scott explains that the goals of the project were to produce data showing such a combination could be effective in targeting both social and communication skill development, as well as to determine design elements that would be necessary for a powerful, evolving alternative to traditional stand-alone AAC devices or non-technical teaching methods.

The system employs picture-based icons as screen “buttons” to actuate utterances in a genuine, recorded voice of a child, intended to make communication naturalistic and relatable for young children.  The team scrutinized the best way to pictorially represent multi-word utterances conceptually with the clearest, most representative images on the screen. 

Social Stories


Story Board App
for the iPad

Pic-A-Word includes a “StoryBoard” feature with specific story-based social scenarios designed to build awareness and capacity for children with autism or developmental disabilities, replicating what a teacher might traditionally do using voice and a velcro story board, to move students toward increasingly mature and normative behavior patterns in social settings.  The team emphasizes this feature is directly rooted in research demonstrating that narratives are effective prospective interventions, and it was hoped that technology could successfully deploy story-telling methodology.

Testing of the technology was conducted in authentic setting in which young subjects had genuine needs for communication – a summer camp for children with communication disorders. 

A Practical Approach to Collaboration

The project took into account not only the linguistic pragmatics suggested above, but the logistical pragmatics of bringing together both the knowledge of the target populations together with critical technical experience and know-how.  Thus, virtually the entire award funds were expended for compensating Jeff and other personnel at PUSH, allowing them to bring their company resources to bear, as Jeff explains, “Predominantly on coding hours and development, including figuring out logic in the flows of the software, the interface design, and even setting up the photographs.”  Their experiential capital was of high value, as he illustrates,

We had had some experience in the past with a more of a text-based speaking device on the iPhone.  However, it was totally text, no pictures. I refer to it as the ‘businessmen’s special’ – very plain.  In this case it was nice to be able to beautify it and bring in the pictures.  The iPad lends itself to that very easily because it has a screen with a lot of ‘real estate’ there.  We could make something that was super specific to what the researchers needed

Working with the iPad App

 Pic-a-Word to Communicate

That is precisely what Auburn brought to the table – conceptual inputs for the technology and scientifically-based observation and research, which was highly collegial, as Scott explains,

PUSH was very good about communicating and updating us where they were as far as product development.  We worked very well as a team, with Margaret and I having the roles of coming up with the various pictures and social stories we wanted, then having PUSH develop the applications.  Foster was very much involved with the observation of Pic-A-Word and made many changes to the original application.

Development on the Fly

Feedback from teachers, who were essential project contributors, indicated that the number of initial icons could be overwhelming for some subjects, who had “A hard time not touching two icons at the same time,” as Scott reports. 

New screens were developed that helped constrain the number of choices for phrases, and which changed the spacing on the interface for greater clarity.  Foster indicates that the way the iPad accepts input also became a teaching factor, adding, “On the iPad touching the screen with a fingernail doesn’t do anything like it does on other devices (the kids had used).  So there was a little bit of a learning curve.”  This underscored the critical need for the human and training components when deploying any technology for effective use.

The team, which included doctoral students from Auburn, also observed motor skill challenges among some users that led to improvements in avoiding accidental activations of on-screen icons.

Structured, efficient communications leading to responsive design were ensured through the use of a web-based communication system, as Scott recommends for other prospective collaborators:

Setting up a page on Basecamp for us to review everything was very effective and let us provide feedback in a very timely manner.  That allowed us to move quickly.  I would advise others contemplating working together to set up a good communication tool like this so that all parties involved can be aware of the stages the development and research is in.  With the timelines you have on projects like this you have to make sure you stay on task and focused.  I think we did a great job at this.

Margaret expresses great satisfaction in the process as well, especially the notion that research observations were translated so fluidly into tangible design elements:

One of the project victories was just that ongoing communication between our students and Foster and his team – the application changed because of everyone’s feedback – that made a real impression on the teachers, as well.   Like wow – they’re listening to us!  This is really making an impact on something that might be on the market some day. I think that was really neat.

Precisely mirroring that sensibility from the other side of the enterprise/research divide, Foster is keen to assert that the collaboration offered a strong sense of success via a welcomed portal into more intimate connections with users than the programming lab usually affords, adding,

We don’t typically have such awesome academic research behind most of the stuff that we do because we’re working for a business, and it’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to finish this part design by next month!’  We do research but it’s not necessarily so scientific – we have an (iterative) process that works but I don’t ever feel like it’s validated by a scientist.  It was pretty cool to know that what we were doing was helping real research happen.

A Viable Platform

Working with the iPad App

Pic-a-Word to Communicate

As a researcher, Margaret explains outcomes absolutely consistent with the targeted inquiry in the project, careful to avoid overstating generalizations:

The project showed the iPad wasn’t a detriment to anyone’s communication, which either stayed the same or increased!  This is just initial, but shows this may be more practical, easier, or more affordable for classrooms and didn’t seem to interfere with anyone’s communication.

This was an important validation for the team, indicating that technology of this type can be added as a cost effective way of replicating and extending traditional methods without adding technology-induced complexity or anxiety for the intended populations, especially after design adjustments were made.

There were indications of positive “social validity data” in that teachers and some students showed definitive preferences for the iPad-based communication support of Pic-A-Word.  Seeming to underscore this with a definitive communicative gesture, one child actually tossed the traditional laminated card alternatives into the trash during a session.

Looking Into the Future

With this initial confirmation of concept in place, all parties ambitiously envision a more fully developed application for the iPad.  Scott voices this for the team, with a continuing accent on practical needs:

It was very exciting to see the children utilize the applications on the iPads, and we would like to see the Pic-A-Word application expanded so that individuals could take pictures and add their own audio.  They should be able to build pages that meet their communication needs.  It will take additional funding to make this happen, so we are looking at opportunities to secure more to be able to expand it.

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One response to “Pic-A-Word Transforms the iPad with AAC”

16 08 2013
Gamm (03:21:29) :

I wish you a lot of success with this worthy effort. Any business can benefit from the advantages of keeping new technology and new products simple and usable. Usability is one of the most important innovation drivers nowadays, cudos to Steve Jobs who lead much of this. Innovators with a focus on special need users have a lot to show to other innovators to help them understand usability requirements and potentials.

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