Communication Considerations


As I waded through countless iPad communication apps in our search for the app to purchase for my daughter, Kyra, I found it easiest to make a list of the features we absolutely had to have, and compare each app to the list, tossing out those that didn’t measure up.  Finally, I narrowed the list to GoTalkNOW, TalkTablet, and TapSpeak Choice.  In the end, GoTalkNOW had all our required features at the best price. 

Depending on the needs of the user, your “must-have” feature list might be very different from ours.  My daughter Kyra has very limited functional movement, and nearly non-existent fine-motor control. She cannot grip a pencil or stylus (or any other object, for that matter) for any functional purpose, nor can she isolate finger movements.  She uses wrist splints and a glove with one finger cut off to provide enough support and finger isolation to be able to activate an iPad button.  However, Kyra has impressive visual and sequential memory, so navigating through several communication pages to get to the button she wants is not an issue.  In contrast, a user with a higher level of dexterity and fine-motor accuracy will likely have a different set of “must-have” features. Please use your own user’s strengths and needs as your guide as you create your own feature list and evaluate apps.

If an app’s description in the Apple App Store doesn’t give you enough information, go to the app support web site, or search for it in YouTube. Most mainstream communication apps have online manuals and video demonstrations that you can review.

Also, communication apps are being written and enhanced all the time, and you may find apps other than GoTalkNOW, TapSpeak Choice, and TalkTablet that now fit all of the considerations I list here.

·         Button position – If your user has limited dexterity or a strong visual memory, the ability to place a button in a specific location on a page may be important.

My daughter Kyra has very good visual memory, so keeping certain buttons in a specific place on a page is very important.  Because of her limited dexterity, it is also important that we can have “blank” spaces between buttons to improve her accuracy.  GoTalkNOW has specific page layouts, and lets you place any button in any space, while leaving other button spaces blank.  This is not the case with some other communication apps.
·         Static pages vs. page scrolling – Do you want to be able to “grow” a page as you add buttons, using iPad scrolling to see additional buttons that do not fit on the screen (like scrolling through pictures on your camera roll) or do you want a static page layout with a set number of buttons that are always visible on the screen?

While it would often be nice to have more buttons on a page, for example, so all “clothing” items can be on a single page, Kyra does not have the fine motor control necessary to distinguish among “scrolling”, “swiping”, and “pressing”, so pages that scroll become frustrating moving targets for her.  Instead, she navigates through layers of pages to get to the button she wants. For example, Kyra has three pages of “clothing”, so we use the lower-right button of each page to go to the next “clothing” page.  If she had better dexterity, I may have chosen an app that allowed “scrolling.”

·         Page navigation – How do you want to get from one page in your communication book to the next?

In most simple communication apps, you either program a button to go to a specific page (or “category”), or the app has built-in “home” and/or “previous” and “back”  buttons that navigate pages one-by-one.  However, higher-end apps have several options for going from one page of buttons to the next.  In GoTalkNOW, you can easily turn any page navigation option on and off for any user.  Swiping – This feature lets the user “swipe” the edge of a page to go to the next page or the previous page in a book, much like using an e-reader. (The ability to turn this feature off for Kyra was very important to use).  Jump button – This feature adds a small “Jump to page” button to the bottom of the screen.  You press the button to pop up a list of all the pages in the book, then choose the page you want to go to. (We turned this button on for Kyra’s “school” communication book; her teachers use it to quickly get to specific class-related pages for her. However, it’s turned off for her “home” book.) Next / Back buttons – This feature adds small “next” and “back” arrows to the bottom of the screen, which let you go to the next or previous page in a book (similar to the Swiping feature, but with buttons.) Home button – This feature adds a small “home” button to the bottom of the page that takes you to the first page of your book.  Jump activity – This feature lets you program any button on your page to go to any other page.  Most often, we use this as an “after action”, so that the button will speak a message first, then jump to a page.  Core words - This feature adds a small “Core Words” button to the bottom of the screen.  You press the button to pop up a list of up to four core words that you want the user to have access to all the time.  (Kyra’s core words are “Yes”, “No”, and “I need help”.  While she isn’t able to accurately activate the small button yet, her teachers and I know to activate it when she is in distress so she can quickly let us know what is wrong.)

·         Gesture control settings – Does your user have limited fine-motor control? If so, gesture controls may be an important factor.   For users with good fine-motor control, gesture settings aren’t usually an issue.

GoTalkNOW, along with other higher-end communication apps, provide for gesture control settings that let you cater to the user’s fine motor skills. For example, you choose whether to activate a button when the user first presses it, or when the user’s finger lifts off the button, and whether to ignore button activations that occur within a short time span.  For example, because Kyra tends to slide her hand across the screen, and keep her hand in place after activating a button, her books are set to activate when the button is released, and to ignore activations that occur within 1.5 seconds of each other. 

·         Switch-scanning option – While we don’t use scanning right now (Kyra is too impatient to wait for a scan, and her timing is too imprecise), I wanted to have it available as an option for possible future switch or even eye scan control.

·         Button activities – What do you need the communication app to do?  If all you need are buttons that speak messages, you can likely get what you needs with a very simple, inexpensive app.  Even so, consider whether you want to use recorded messages, a computerized text-to-speech voice, or both. In addition, if you need the app to do more than talk, consider spending a bit more to get a lot more.

Kyra’s favorite things to do with her old Vanguard II communication device (besides asking for her favorite foods) was play MP3 songs and turn on the TV.  When we were researching communication apps for her iPad, I wanted one that would let her do these things without having to exit the app.  GoTalkNOW buttons can be programmed to trigger several activities: They can play a recorded message, speak text, jump to a page, play music, and play a video.  In addition, Attainment Company is beta-testing button activities that will open a web page and activate a Switchamajig control button, which allows the user to activate environmental devices, such as a TV, blender, CD-player, or light switch, all of which would help make my Kyra more independent.

·         Single-function vs multi-function buttons – What do you want a button to do? Again, if all you need are buttons that speak messages, a simple, inexpensive (or even free) app will do just fine.  But if your user has more extensive conversational needs, consider an app that allows you to program several functions into one press of a button.

Pressing one GoTalkNOW button can trigger several activities.  For example, you can use the button’s Auditory Prompt to speak an initial message, then speak another message when the button is pressed again, then use the After Action feature to jump to a specific page in your book when the message is completed.  We use the After Action feature a lot.  For example, Kyra has an “I feel…” button on her Social Chat page.  When she presses the button, the device says “I feel…” and the After Action opens her Feelings page.  She then chooses a button to say something like “Great!”.  The After Action feature then automatically returns her to the Social Chat page so she can continue chatting with friends.

·         Sentence building – If your user can construct sentences from individual buttons, an app that supports a sentence bar is worth considering.  A sentence bar works by putting the user’s choices into a bar at the top of the screen.  When the sentence is complete, the user presses the sentence bar to speak the entire sequence. 

While I think this is a cool idea, Kyra’s poor fine motor skills make activating a sentence bar extremely difficult, so we looked for an app that didn’t take up valuable screen space with a sentence bar. With GoTalkNOW, the sentence-building feature is a page-by-page option that we turn off for Kyra’s pages (at least for now).

·         Picture options – What type of pictures do you want to use on your buttons? Consider whether you want to use photos stored on your iPad, search for pictures on the Internet, use an internal picture library that comes with the app, and/or a standardized graphic set (i.e. Mayer-Johnson PCS or SymbolStix graphics). If your user is already using a specific picture set, or if a certain picture set is used at school, or if your user responds best to familiar photographs, this might be an important consideration for you.

GoTalkNOW can use iPad pictures, Internet search, an internal picture library, and   SymbolStix (as an optional purchase).  My Kyra learns and recognizes symbols and single words quickly, so this was not an issue for us.  But, I like having lots of options to choose from!

·         Single-source output – What happens to your user’s ability to communicate when your iPad malfunctions, or is lost or stolen?  One of our top must-have features is a way to print a paper copy of Kyra’s communication books.

While it’s not as easy to interpret her needs with a paper book, it’s far better than nothing.  GoTalkNOW communication books can be saved as PDF files that we can print at any time.

·         Backup / restore / share –We work hard to fine-tune Kyra’s communication app, so the ability to back up and restore that work to another iPad is extremely important to us.  As a perk, GoTalkNOW can also share communication books with other GoTalkNOW users.

Now, do you have your must-have feature list ready?  Then get set… and go find that perfect communication app. (For a list of communication apps to compare against your must-have features, try http://www.aactechconnect.com/freetools/?products&category=94 .)