Simplifying settings so that communication is effortless.

2/2016 - 3/2017

Prentke Romich Company
AAC Device Settings

The Prentke Romich Company creates devices for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), aiding those who are unable to communicate verbally. Although PRC’s language system has been largely successful for the past 50 years, the device’s outdated software settings (aka the "Toolbox") are inefficient for current users, and extremely difficult for new users.

Our job was to simplify the settings so that speech language pathologists (SLPs), caregivers, and those ultimately using the device to communicate, could spend less time making adjustments and more time focusing on communication.

UX Designer (Contract)

Christine Whittle
Josh Turk

Assistive Technology


An effective language system with outdated software settings

Users of AAC (the ends users of the device who use it to communicate) may include those with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, aphasia, ALS, Rett syndrome, and those with a range of cognitive and physical abilities that affect verbal communication.

While PRC's devices are successful in teaching language and aiding in communication, the software settings were difficult to use, and hadn't been updated much over the company's history.

As PRC has learned, those that use the device settings the most are largely not the users of AAC. Rather, it’s their support team, which includes parents, caregivers, speech language pathologists (therapists), occupational therapists, physical therapists, and teachers. While we certainly had to keep accessibility issues in mind for users with physical deficits, we decided we would first optimize the settings based on the therapist/caregiver needs.

Those that need to use device settings the most are largely not the users of AAC. Rather, it’s their support team—parents, caregivers, teachers, and therapists.


Understanding PRC's Toolbox and the AAC landscape

After the kick-off meeting, Christine and I conducted stakeholder interviews to understand the history of the project, identify obstacles, and most importantly, determine the expectations and the goals. We also met with several PRC sales reps and got trained on the devices.

To get a better understanding of the current landscape and standards across AAC devices, I examined PRC's main competitors. It was clear that the other apps looked better, but we felt there was an opportunity to better organize the functions and make the unique settings of PRC's devices more discoverable.


Interviewing speech therapists and caregivers

While it was obvious the toolbox needed a facelift, we wanted to get more insight into how SLPs and caregivers were using it—what their needs, motivations and behaviors were and what they liked and disliked about PRC's device settings. We conducted interviews ovet the phone; we also visited a special needs school and attended a language conference.

Because of the design of the current settings, communication opportunities were lost.

13 of 14
didn't understand more than half of the settings.

13 of 14
rarely went into the Toolbox after the initial device set-up.

14 of 14
said it was difficult to train others on the Toolbox.

"By the time you figure out what you need to do [in the settings], the moment to teach the word is gone, and the child has moved on to something else."


Building consensus and understanding through collaboration and participation

After presenting our research findings, we met with the stakeholders, and, as a group, we determined the guiding design principles, the main user groups, pains & gains, use cases, and a foundational information architecture. We also had the team participate in rounds of "Crazy 8's," which not only gave us subject matter insights into the design, but also helped make sure that stakeholders felt that their ideas were heard.


Putting it all together

With our initial research conducted, product principles in place, and stakeholders comfortable with the direction, we were now ready to begin working on the design.

Red Route Analysis

Using red route analysis, we first identified which settings the most users used the most.

Initial Information Architecture

Based on the user research and subject matter expert insights, we organized menu items into logical buckets. There were several iterations as we checked in with stakeholders and got a deeper understanding of all of the functions.

Working around the keyguard

A keyguard is an optional plastic plate that sits on top of the device screen. It helps users with unsteady hands find the keys they want to touch by providing a physical separation of the keys on the interface. PRC told us that about 40-50% of users have keyguards on their devices.

(1) Language Screen with Keyguard

(2) Main Toolbox Screen with Keyguard

(3) Second Level Menu with Keyguard

(4) Keyguard Flipped Up

PRC's devices have multiple grid sizes (the images above show an example of a 45-key grid). As you can see, the designs of the language screen (1) and the top-level menu for the Toolbox (2), were optimized to accommodate any of PRC's grid sizes (16, 28, 32, 64, 96, 128). However, the deeper level menus in the Toolbox (3) were not. Therefore, the keyguard has to be lifted by the caregive or therapist to access the buttons (4). This requires some effort, since the keyguard is snapped firmly into place.

The video below shows the steps a caregiver or therapist would have to take to change one setting on a device that has a keyguard.

While we couldn't account for every grid size for the Toolbox, we felt we could at least make it easier for the more commonly used settings to be accessible without lifting the keyguard.

The space above the language keys, where the AAC user's sentences are displayed (aka the "text message area"), is not utilized when in the Toolbox menus. We thought we could use that space for shortcuts or a "Quick Menu."

Looking at our red route analysis, we prioritized features in the "Quick Menu," surfacing only the most used items there as shortcuts.


Having a Quick Menu for shortcuts (such as "Volume" and "Adding a Key") would give caregivers/therapists easy access to settings they use frequently. We also gave them the ability to customize their shortcuts, since we found that everyone uses the settings slightly differently.

For the rest of the screens, I relied on familiar patterns from current touch devices, since all users we spoke to used smartphones on a daily basis.


Testing early and often

After getting approvals from stakeholders, we did two rounds of usability testing to not only ensure the design was headed in the right direction, but to answer questions that the team was unsure about.

UI Design

Working closely with our UI designer, Josh, we established a style guide that PRC's development team could follow to ensure consistency throughout all screens.