Tuesday, January 28, 2014

HelpTalk on GARI: the story of creating an accessibility app

Applications have opened a new dimension in mobile accessibility. Whether it is apps that are genuinely accessible to everyone or specifically designed accessibility apps that respond to the specific needs of a certain user group. As interesting as it is to learn about the multiple functions that they can add to mobile telecommunication devices, it is instructive to learn about the motivation that pushed the developers to create them. HelpTalk, one of the great accessibility apps already listed in GARI, has shared their story with us:

How did you get the idea to develop HelpTalk?

Mónica Rebelo:
 The idea for HelpTalk came up when one of the members of our team, who is a nurse at the intensive care unit of our local hospital, was discussing how difficult it was to communicate with ventilated patients. When she explained how they managed to minimize those difficulties by asking the patients to point to charts with symbols representing the most basic human needs, we realized that using a mobile app we could accomplish a lot more. We could create an app that would actually speak for the patients.

What has been the most challenging aspect of developing HelpTalk?

Mónica Rebelo: The first version of HelpTalk, which served as a proof of concept, included a set of fixed actions that represented the most basic needs a patient in an intensive care unit might need to express.
As we were developing it, but mostly after a public release, we realized that the app would be helpful in a lot of other scenarios: aphasia, muteness, autism, tracheostomized, different language, small children, etc.
Although we were very excited to see so many possible uses for the app, we soon figured that it would be impossible to create a single set of actions that would address everyone's needs. That was when we decided that the most powerful way we could overcome this was by empowering our users and letting them create and share their own sets of actions. 

How did you ensure that the app meets the requirements of your target audience?

Mónica Rebelo: With HelpTalk 2.0, we aimed to empower our users and letting each one decide which set of actions better represented their communication needs.
To that end we not only updated the app but also the web site www.helptalk.mobi.
On the web site, users can register and create multiple profiles, which are a hierarchy of actions and symbols in a certain language. Then, on the device, they can download these profiles and switch between them easily so that they can have a profile for every communication scenario they can think of.
By allowing users to share their profiles with others or clone and improve other public profiles, our goal was to create a community around the app, where users can help each other and share their experiences.
At the moment there are currently 30 public profiles and a lot more private profiles, in 12 different languages.

Did you base yourself on a scientific concept in developing HelpTalk? Did you work with experts from communication science for example?

Mónica Rebelo: One of the members of our team is a nurse at our local hospital's intensive care unit and is very experienced in the subject having participated in studies and multiple conferences about it. Her experience and research were invaluable to the project.

What are the next steps for you in regards to developing accessibility apps?

Mónica Rebelo: The experience of developing HelpTalk made us all very aware of the importance of accessibility and how technology can have a significant impact on improving the lives of those suffering from a disability.
Although we are currently very focused on promoting and improving HelpTalk, we're ready to create other apps if we find an area where we can make a positive contribution.

Are there already broadly accepted app developer guidelines that you would recommend app developers to follow? 

Mónica Rebelo: For Android, which is the platform where HelpTalk is available at the moment, we would definitely recommend reading the developer guidelines for accessibility:
In a broader way, we think that a good first step is to just take people with disabilities into consideration while planning or developing an app. If a developer does that, the most crucial obstacles will be easy to spot and then it will just be a matter of researching what methods are available to overcome them.

If you want to know which devices support HelpTalk, have a look at HelpTalk in the GARI app section: http://www.gari.info/findapps-detail.cfm?appid=39

If you are interested in uploading your accessible app on the GARI database, have a look here: http://www.gari.info/developers.cfm