An Imperfect Journey to Speech Learning (for Deaf Children)
By Caroline Tjung
Communication Designer, Research Assistant
Swinburne University of Technology
No one is perfect. No human is perfect. I, as a designer, however, always strive to deliver the perfect solution for each design problem I en-counter. Design is a powerful problem-solving tool that serves as a tangible solution—yet intangible at the same time—which raises the question: is there perfection in design? Or does the word imperfection represent the design process better?
The journey of imperfection has definitely impacted my design process as a communication designer. For my PhD, I researched how to develop a technology-based speech learning app using a co-design method with parents of young children. As part of the design process, I undertook iterative co-design sessions with the end-users. This allowed me to iteratively improve the design each time and (fingers crossed) meet the so-called perfect design outcome or solution. However, throughout the design process, I came to the realisation that design can also be imperfectly splendid: it depends on your perspective. From what I see, the room to grow is an amazing opportunity to fruitfully bring imperfection into the result of what we produce as designers.
In developing my app, the design process was inherently imperfect from the start (not necessarily in a bad way), partly because I was co-designing with parents and young children, the majority of whom were not linguistics experts. And let’s face it, even when I involved speech pathologists in the study, our language itself is fluid and often imprecise or imperfect. There is no perfect method of teaching, just as there is no perfect method of learning, yet we still strive to deliver the best imperfect methods possible to teach and learn language. Learning to speak or understand a language is also a dynamic process and imperfect, and I am talking from personal experience as English is not my first language. All these considerations of imperfection brought considerable challenges to developing a single speech learning app.
The speech learning app might be seen as a temporary solution, or a quick partial solution, to solve part of the bigger problem of helping young children with deafness, hearing issues or speech delays to learn to speak, but the insights and imperfections that came up through the design process were as important as the app itself. Despite the imperfection, and because of it, the app is helpful now and has the potential to be improved with further research. Designers and non-designers should start seeing the imperfection of the design process as an opportunity full of potential to be fruitfully developed.
Let’s look back to why I started the speech learning app project as my PhD project. I wanted to undertake a PhD that contributed to the community. Initially, I considered an awareness project on disposable water bottle consumption in Melbourne. Even though there are many existing campaigns promoting the environmental benefits of reusable water bottles, people continue buy disposable water bottles. However, the existing campaigns promoting the use of reusable water bottles are not failing, despite their imperfection, instead they lead to further research to uncover new insights into the end-user behaviour. This would have been a very interesting topic for my PhD and would have met my criteria for a positive contribution to the community, however, during my initial research phase I came across an interesting story about children in Australia who are born deaf and this story led me to take my PhD topic in a totally different direction.
There are endless examples, but the main point is that design—whether we would like to admit it or not—is imperfect (not in a bad way) and, as designers, we should start to embrace Imperfection as a positive contribution to enhance the design process. This is what I find so interesting about the iterative design process: testing outcomes with the end-users, getting their comments and feed-back, iterating again and again until their needs and preferences are met…but the door for further iterations in the future is never closed. Think of all the highly successful companies that have changed their logos or completely rebranded, despite their success. Design is imperfectly splendid in that it can always be tweaked and readjusted to better serve the present.
A month after my PhD started, developing a technology-based speech learning app, one of my supervisors told me an incredibly relevant story about one of the lecturers at the university, which gave my PhD focus and direction. To respect her anonymity, we will call her Mary Smith. Mary was born deaf and has a daughter who was born deaf, too. On finding out her daughter was deaf, Mary took a year off work to be with her and work closely on the development of her speech, including speech therapy sessions. Mary wanted her daughter to be able to communicate with her peers with spoken language, in addition to sign language.
After a full year of speech therapy sessions, her daughter was able to speak, just like any other child without a hearing deficit. With the number of babies who are born deaf in Australia every year, the need for speech therapy increases and, sadly, not all parents can afford to take a year off work to assist their child’s development the same way Mary did. In cases where both parents needed to work, it became a hurdle to understand and learn how to best help their child. This motivated Mary to initiate a research project to develop an app that would assist these parents to help and work with their young children who were born deaf.
Inspired by this story, I was compelled to work on the research project that Mary initiated, independently, for my PhD. When I started my research, I found out that there are approximately 500 babies born deaf every year in Australia. Through my research, I uncovered a very valuable insight: those who needed speech therapy were not only deaf children, but also many other young children who experience speech delays or speech difficulties. Ironically, in my third PhD year, I found out that my nephew had speech delays that required the intervention of a speech pathologist. The realisation that speech delays are commonly experienced by children without hearing difficulties led me to expand my audience to a larger range—all young children with speech difficulties, whether they are born deaf, hearing children, or children with speech delays. I discovered that there is a long waitlist for these children to access speech therapy sessions in Australia: there are simply not enough speech pathologists to meet the demand. I learned there were often instances where parents needed to wait for up to a year just to get their young children professionally diagnosed. One of the major consequences of such a long waitlist is that, by the time they are diagnosed, they may be missing the optimum age of 18 months to three years old for young children to develop their speech. This further justifies the need for a speech learning app to help parents while they are waiting for a professional diagnosis—there are also benefits for the speech pathologists themselves, too.
As a result of these findings, I included parents, childcare workers and speech pathologists in my iterative co-design study, as the end-users and experts, to test the prototype. I also had the opportunity to present my prototype to Mary in the last phase of my iterative co-design session, and she thought it was brilliant and had great potential to be developed further. Even though the end-product was developed for the target audience of young children, ideally between the ages of 18 months to three years, it was necessary to co-design with the parents, childcare workers, and speech pathologists, because of the very limited potential for feedback from the children themselves. Also, considering parents are the main caregivers and decision makers for the children in this age bracket, I decided to invite the parents as the end-users in the co-design sessions, along with childcare workers who interact with young children at this age every day, plus speech pathologists who are the linguistic experts. In developing this app further, I would like to work on the development with more speech pathologists and have a range of parents with their young children test the prototypes.
Currently, speech therapy sessions involve hands-on and paper-based materials, where the parents and their children have face-to-face sessions with the speech pathologists. Parents are also given homework to be done with their children, between the scheduled speech therapy sessions. Linking back to the previous consideration, where both parents are working and cannot take reduce their work commitments, finding time to do the homework can be difficult. Mary mentioned that when she first initiated speech therapy with her daughter, there were many other parents who came with their children. But by the end of a year, her daughter was the only one who was able to speak fluently: the other parents did not have time to consistently do the homework with their children due to the hours they worked. It was with this consideration in mind that I decided it was important to include childcare workers in the study, as they interact with young children on a daily basis while their parents are working.
A technology-based speech learning app, as opposed to paper-based, is much more time efficient and goes a long way to address the problem of parents not being able to spend the time required to assist their child’s development between speech pathology sessions. Because of the efficiency of delivering the material by the app, there is the potential for face-to-face speech pathology sessions to cover the same work in a shorter amount of time, allowing the speech pathologists to see more children every day. Helping to reduce long waitlists would be a very beneficial outcome, indeed.
My PhD study aimed to explore how to develop a technology-based speech learning app, using a co-design method with parents of young children, where the goal was to prompt young children to speak. While we know designers have traditionally relied on their creative intuition to solve problems, more recently designers have trialed a variety of end-user methods to include their audience in the design process. Co-design is one of these methods. I used an iterative co-design method with fourteen parents of young children, two child-care workers, two speech pathologists and Mary as the expert reviewer. The study focused on the needs and preferences of parents as the main caregivers and decision makers for their young children aged from eighteen months to three years old. The co-design sessions enabled me to gain insights from the participants to apply to the design iterations and repeat the process until the prototype met the needs and preferences of the end-users. There was time in between each co-design phase to make the changes based on the feedback and test again to see if the changes fully resolved issues or if further iteration was needed. The iterative co-design study resulted in eight essential elements required to develop a speech learning app for this age group of children.
The first element was the animation. The visual illustrations and simple animations needed to be well designed with vibrant col-ours to attract young children. Animation played a significant role in expressing the characters, with movement used to gain the young children’s attention. This was of the utmost importance to hold their attention without distraction while using the app. The motion graphics also provide visual rewards to motivate the end-users to keep progressing in the speech learning process. The second element was device itself. Being able to use technology meant that many features were able to be used that are simply not possible with paper-based material. This includes things like voice recognition, voice over and animation graphics. Although most parents want to limit the amount of time their children are spending in front of screens, I found that parents approved of this app because it is being used for educational purposes. Parents in this study agreed that the practicality of the technology-based material had the potential to be used anywhere at any time and they appreciated this flexibility. The third element was the navigation through the app. The app not only needed to be well designed but needed to be easy to use and navigate through. The user interface was clear and simple to facilitate easy navigation in the speech app. The fourth element was sound. Background music was found to be distracting when children are learning to speak. Sound effects, however, are employed throughout the app to give the end-users a sense of achievement. The fifth element was interaction. The app needed to be responsive to imitate face-to-face interaction. The action/reaction is important to provide two-way communication to support young children’s speech learning. The sixth element was the end-user: the young children and their parents, as the main caregivers and decision makers, and the participants in this study. The seventh element was the storyline. A story-line has been developed to keep the end-user engaged with the app and mimic bedtime reading and learning-by-playing systems. The final element was the visual. The existing paper-based materials currently used during speech therapy sessions is badly drawn, according to the parents. In some cases, parents were expected to make their own drawings in the homework. In this study, the app is beautifully designed with consideration given to all the design elements including colour, layout, typeface, illustration. Visual rewards can also be used to motivate young children when they are able to speak, by responding to prompts on the app.
Iterative co-design process reduced the tendency for me, as a designer, to design the app based on my point of view, instinct, or intuition. It pushed me to involve the end-users in constructing my app design, rather than relegating them to being merely passive end-users. There could have been a question of credibility regarding the co-design parents’ linguistic and design knowledge (which made the design process imperfect) but having them—the main caregivers for their children—enhanced the study because they are the end-users. The imperfection itself played a part in developing an app that best works to prompt young children to speak.
The imperfection in the design process led to the solution of the speech app prototype, which is not only beautifully designed, but also functional.