This was a group project that was completed for a two-day hackathon hosted at the Microsoft Reactor in London. The goal of the event was to design assistive technology for children on the autism spectrum. My team’s brief was to design a technology solution that could help autistic children focus their attention. The team consisted of 5 developers, a machine learning specialist, a researcher (day 1), and me (the designer).
Children with autism may find it hard to switch attention between different stimuli or demands. Currently, there are two types of solutions available: analog (illustrated print schedules, paper countdowns, etc.) and digital (tablet & smartphone apps). Analog solutions are often setting specific and require significant time to create and operate. Although digital solutions on the market are more flexible and less time consuming, they require hardware that can be expensive, fragile, and potentially distracting for a young child.
The goal was to design a research-backed technology aimed at helping autistic primary school children switch attention from one activity to the next.
When reading the background information provided by tallstick (the host), our team learned that many autistic children have trouble planning, concentrating on uninteresting tasks, and breaking away from engaging tasks. After reading this fact, we decided to create a solution that could help a child with autism transition to a less desirable task.
Next, the researcher and I reviewed academic papers relating to attention and executive function in young children on the autism spectrum. In addition, we talked with a teacher of autistic children to see how she dealt with task switching in the classroom (hand-drawn visual schedule).
Low Fidelity Wireframes
High Fidelity Mockup
When looking for task switching aides that are currently in use, we uncovered solutions (paper story board and digital apps) that displayed pictures in chronological order to help children imagine the next step in their schedule.
For the paper story board, the amount of information included was limited to the size of the paper and changes were difficult to make once the schedule was drawn. Since pieces of paper can not provide real-time alerts, an adult is needed to provide guidance. Apps, on the other hand, could provide real-time feedback, lots of space, and an easy way to make changes. However, parents may not want their young children to have costly, fragile, and potentially distracting smart phones or tablets with them at all times.
Ideation began with a team brainstorming session. Our goal for this session was to come up with a solution that integrated research findings and addressed the limitations of current technologies. The result was an idea for an affordable single-purpose wearable device that helped children move from one task to the next. Unlike an tablet or smart phone, the device would have a small footprint and would not have additional features that may distract children.
Next, I worked with our team’s researcher to create a storyboard for a specific use scenario. For demonstration purposes, we focused on one specific interaction that showed transition from an engaging task (computer class) to a less desirable task (lunch in an overstimulating cafeteria). While storyboarding, we explored the way children would interact with the device before, during, and after switching tasks.
Once the storyboard was complete, the researcher and I presented it to the rest of the team. After the team approved, we focused on refining three aspects of the interaction: attracting attention for notifications (buzzing, lights, animation, etc.), presenting vital information on a small screen (task picture and/or words, time remaining), and navigating the device (swipe, tap).
Our solution had two interfaces: the child view (on the device) and the parent/teacher view (on a pc/tablet/smart phone). The machine learning specialist and I created initial mockups for the child view. The designs explored different ways to display vital information on the small screen. Mockups displaying the countdown process before a task switch were created in Adobe XD.
Research revealed that some autistic children are over-sensitive to touch and may not be comfortable wearing a watch on their wrist. To address this issue, our team proposed that the device should be a small screen that could be placed in either a wrist watch, a nurse’s watch, or a stand-alone toy. Each option varied in the level of physical contact involved: Wrist watch (high contact), nurse’s watch (medium contact), and the stand alone toy (low contact).
Research also found that autistic children often develop highly-focused interests. To make the devices attractive to young autistic children, we proposed that form factors come in several variations relating to common interests (trains, cartoon characters, dinosaurs, etc.).
At the end of the two-day Hackathon, our team presented our research, design ideas, and prototypes to a panel from Microsoft and tallstick (the event host). Prototypes created by the developers included a web-based parent dashboard, a wearable that lit up and buzzed according to a defined schedule, and a galvanic skin response sensor. A summary of the presentation can be found at tallstick.co/events.
If this project were to continue, further research would be needed to refine the countdown and notification process. This could include both academic research and interviews with parents and teachers of autistic children. Once this was complete, prototypes of the screen could be made and tested with actual users.
Context could help autistic children switch tasks without requiring a tablet or smartphone. The device’s small form factor and limited features would make it simple to use in the classroom, at home, or even on the playground. Parents and teachers could lower time spent on transitions while not worrying about trusting a young child with a pricy and potentially fragile device.