Quick Talk: The Autism Communication Experiment

Eric Ries is releasing a new book called “The Lean Startup”.  He was interviewed by  Adam Penenberg of Fast Company.  You can find the interview here.

The article initially left me underwhelmed, but then it turned to the subject of breaking rules and taking risks.

Its funny but at IMVU we thought we were releasing something buggy that no one would use. This was after trying to release something perfect. We have all been taught to do our best work, because you never get a second chance to make a first impression. But if you don’t know who your customer is you don’t know what quality is. We didn’t really know what our customers would want. So we used product launches as an experiment to find out.

Ries is talking about his evolution from conventional to unconventional developer.  Becoming someone willing to take risks.  These words reminded me of our endeavor to create, build, and release our Quick Talk app.  We took a risk creating this software.

  1. We wanted to help functionally non-verbal kids with autism
  2. We wanted to give them a communication tool
  3. We wanted the software to be mobile, simple, and flexible
  4. We wanted the software to be cheap
  5. We wanted to launch our first app on Android
These five goals were all high risk for the reasons that follow:
  1. I learned a quick lesson, when trying to convince top software developers in the heart of Silicon Valley to work on Quick Talk.  They do not work on autism communication software for the functionally non-verbal.  It simply doesn’t pay the bills.  
  2. Quality mobile, simple, and flexible software isn’t cheap to make.
  3. The Apple iOS owns the autism and education markets.
Despite these risks we decided to build the software.  Creating a “we” wasn’t easy, but good fortune provided me with a team of developers willing to work on Quick Talk.  It couldn’t be the top priority, but would definitely be our consuming passion.  We decided to start on an Android version immediately, leaving the iOS version for a later date.

Starting on Android was the right decision, because compared to the iOS it had a better chance of being mobile, simple, flexible, and cheap (additionally there have been 6 billion downloads for Android market..check story here.)

Once completed we sought the input of the same parents, kids, and therapists who gave us our initial ideas.   They were positive, but seeing the software gave them even more ideas, and provided us with some valuable critiques.

My wife’s initial response was most valuable.  She said, “I like it, but where are the pictures”.   Her point was spot on.  While I was excited about our ability to make this software mobile, simple, and flexible–her one question had exposed a weakness in functionality.  It assumed literacy.  While this wasn’t our intent, it was the result.  What to do?

Should we release our software, and risk rejection because it lacked pictures? We decided we could handle critique, failure or rejection, but not the idea of even one verbally challenged child or adult waiting for a tool that could help them.

This decision reminded me of how Eric Ries described the feelings which come when we take risks.

It becomes a rigorous process, and the sooner you find out what your customers think and want the sooner you can pivot toward an ultimately successful company. If you get a negative result to your experiment–let’s say you learn that people can’t stand your product–you can pivot to a new strategy. Of course you need a high pain threshold.

We released the software, and quickly discovered it was helping people.  At the same time, my wife’s initial observation about the necessity of pictures was reiterated by more than a few.

Fortunately for us, we had listened to my wife and others, so this update is in the pipeline.  It will contain some cool picture capabilities, as well as audio recording.

The other lessons we have learned have been equally as helpful.  They were unexpected but cool…very worthwhile…invaluable.

  1. Functionally non-verbal is a term we adopted from experts.  We discovered parents were not using this term to describe their kids. Since their children have some form of verbal communication, they considered them to be verbally challenged.  This is the term we have decided to adopt.
  2. The parents, teachers and therapist using Quick Talk, are not only using it to give their children a voice.  They are also using it to help them develop language.  This has increased the urgent desire for picture capability.
  3. While the general autism population receives a great deal of attention, the verbally challenged autism population is under served.
  4. Those within the autism community, and specifically those effected by verbal challenges are not easily reached.   No one place exists, where you can easily make tools like ours available to families.
  5. The Quick Talk app placed us in a niche called Alternative Augmentative Communication (AAC)/Assitive Technology (AT). This is a vibrant and growing area, but remains in its infancy.  There appears to be a great deal of room for discovery in this space.
  6. We discovered we are an Education and Technology company, which has widened our vision of what we can do.  Why not develop tools for both typical and special needs kids?
  7. Apple owns the education and even autism phone and tablet market.  The majority of schools, therapist, and parents see the Android market as a second option.  This is both a challenge and opportunity for Google and its partners.   The challenge is to develop a clear vision for the education market, which really means investing in Education & Technology companies.
  8. Special needs families need more disruptive forces in their part of the technology market.   Prices need to be driven lower.  Choices need to be expanded, by including insurance coverage for consumer tablets and mobile devices (not only products provided by companies who serve the disability communities).