Brian Whitmer : CoughDrop AAC


So as you are all aware – I do a big line in AAC and like to keep my eye out for anything innovative that it turning up in the area. With that in mind I’m bringing you this post by Brian Whitmer, who is, on this very day, launching CoughDrop, an online AAC solution, which, so far, has had a much more sensible relationship with things like open licensing, and accessible code than most, if not all, the big manufactures.  I’ll let Brian tell you his story in this own words,  and I’ll certainly be watching CoughDrop with great interest.

I’m a programmer by trade. My graduate research was in Human-Computer Interaction – I studied the interfaces we use to interact with digital devices, and how to make them as straightforward as possible. Since college I’ve worked building software to improve education, still with a heavy emphasis on simple, intuitive interfaces.


I’m actually pretty new to the world of AAC. Our oldest daughter has Rett Syndrome, and it wasn’t until the last few years that we realized just how much desire she had to communicate. Things really took off for her in 2013, and we scrambled to find anything we could to enable her. But looking at the interfaces for different communication devices and apps made me notice a lot of usability problems.


The effort it took to tweak a board in most systems really surprised me. I kept thinking, “well if they’d just change it like this it’d be twice as easy”. I also started to notice some interesting opportunities for new functionality. I could see why no one had thought of them before, but coming from educational technology I could also see how they had a lot of potential. It finally got to the point where, as a usability and technology person, I felt like someone should come in with a fresh perspective and try out ideas some of these new ideas.


So I got to work :-). I wrote down my ideas, then did a ton of research and met with as many experts as I could. I asked a lot of probably-obvious-to-everyone-but-me questions, showed my ideas, asked people for theirs, and together we iterated on a hypothetical project until it started to take shape. It’s been a ton of fun and I’m sure I’ve learned way more than anyone else, but that’s basically what I’ve been doing for the past year. So far over 30 therapists, AT specialists, parents and AAC users have helped in designing this new web-based AAC app called CoughDrop.


When designing CoughDrop I had some strong feelings about the usability gaps in AAC systems. I felt like it was much too hard to create or personalize a board, which meant people were leaving boards in a less-than-ideal state. When I showed my ideas for a cleaner, easier editing interface that could run anywhere and then sync to the communicator’s device, I got a lot of positive feedback and some suggestions on how to tailor it more to the people who would be using it every day. People were really excited about the prospect of editing boards on a separate computer or laptop and auto-syncing them back to the communicator’s device.


I also felt like there wasn’t enough focus on enabling and supporting the full team that surrounds the communicator, and that technology could do a lot more to facilitate better insight and communication. I had no idea what reports and communication strategies people were using or wanted to use, so working with everyone there has been an enormous help in honing in on the right data and messaging options.


CoughDrop can be more than just an AAC app though; it’s also a board repository. Anyone can create communication boards and share them publicly. Hopefully that will help fewer people have to start from scratch when someone has already done the work. We track the license of all images and sounds used on the board, as well as the board itself, to automatically handle proper attribution. The default symbol set for CoughDrop is made of Creative Commons and public domain images, so sharing and reuse don’t have as many roadblocks. We’ll keep gathering feedback on these ideas and grow the collections over time.


Right now we’re just starting our open (and free!) beta, with an initial non-beta release planned sometime next year. At that point people can pay a long-term fee or a monthly subscription for CoughDrop, whichever makes more sense for them. In the mean time anyone can sign up and try it free during the beta (at least until January). The plan is to release the codebase as open source after the beta period, when hopefully things will have stabilized a bit more on the development side.


We definitely have more ideas in the works, but we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. First we want to get enough people using the system to make sure we’re still on the right track, and then we’ll keep pulling in more fresh ideas. Anyone that wants to sign up is welcome to. We’d love any feedback, negative or positive, so we can (hopefully) all work together to make AAC easier to use and more effective.

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