Developing Apps for Special Needs: A Growing Niche

As the app ecosystem continues to grow at an astonishing pace, one of the emerging niches is apps developed especially with special needs populations in mind. That classification could include kids and adults with mental disabilities, elderly people, and people with special physical needs.

Apps in this category seem to come from two different originations: either a parent/teacher/professional who has developed an app stemming from their own unique, intimate experience with someone, or a developer/developer team who creates an app based on the same situation, but with more of a professional spin to the app creation. There are a lot of apps coming out in this space, especially targeted towards special needs kids, and it’s exciting to see the ongoing releases that are making differences in people’s lives.

Human computer interface

One of the more intriguing innovations in this space isn’t an app (yet), but a human computer interface that has the potential to revolutionize the lives of people struggling with physical disabilities. Brown University researchers have created a wireless, rechargeable, implantable, long-term brain-computer interface:

“Brown’s wireless BCI, fashioned out of hermetically sealed titanium, looks a lot like a pacemaker. (See: Brain pacemaker helps treat Alzheimer’s disease.) Inside there’s a li-ion battery, an inductive (wireless) charging loop, a chip that digitizes the signals from your brain, and an antenna for transmitting those neural spikes to a nearby computer. The BCI is connected to a small chip with 100 electrodes protruding from it, which, in this study, was embedded in the somatosensory cortex or motor cortex. These 100 electrodes produce a lot of data, which the BCI transmits at 24Mbps over the 3.2 and 3.8GHz bands to a receiver that is one meter away.”

The power consumption of this device is very low – just 100 milliwatts – which is especially promising for when this device eventually finds its way to human usage. This group, BrainGate, is actively working on human computer interface applications such as the one described above, along with a robotic arm with which paralyzed patients can actually feed themselves, as seen in the video below:

“He’s part of the community”

Kids with unique communication issues are also benefiting from the use of apps directed towards special needs, especially those with autism. For many autistic people, human communication is very difficult, if not impossible, and this can be devastating not only for them, but for their family and friends who attempt to interact with them. Apps designed for touchscreens like those on a tablet, smartphone, or Ultrabook™ are finding a whole new audience in autistic populations, giving them the ability to express themselves in new and meaningful ways.

The predictability of an app – the same reaction will happen every time this action happens – is a huge advantage of using apps to communicate, along with the tactile input of a touchscreen. The television show “60 Minutes” talked to therapist Tammy Taylor about using a tablet as part of her communication therapy with a young student:

“His therapist Tammy Taylor will never forget the first time she put the iPad into his hands: what had been bottled up inside him began to pour out.

Tammy Taylor: It just blew me away that he could actually tell me his brother had a goatee and was bald.

Stahl: He's completely communicating.

Taylor: Absolutely. He's part of the community. I mean, communication is the essence of being human. And here he is, communicating fully now.” – “Apps for Autism: Communicating on the iPad

One size doesn’t fit all

While there are many people who would greatly benefit from an app that addresses certain needs, it’s safe to say that no one app or development approach is going to fit the unique needs of everyone who downloads that particular application. One small developer studio, Grembe, has built their business around building apps for children for special needs, and addresses this very point in an interview with the people behind World Usability Day:

“It is very complicated to say one technology helps one need, as there is never one solution to any given problem. This also means there is no "ideal point" possible, as a child’s need is a moving target that changes almost hourly. What we like about the changes we are seeing is that game changers like the iPad force innovation and changes in the traditional special needs marketplace.”  - “iOS Apps Help Children with Special Needs Communicate and Learn

That’s certainly not to say that apps that approach a problem one way aren’t more useful than another; just that it’s smart for developers who are creating for this population to stay on top of the latest research, with a finger on the pulse of what is currently evolving in the knowledge of whichever special needs population they may be targeting with their app.

Basic usability guidelines for special needs populations

An entire book could be written about usability in regards to special needs users, but these basic guidelines for apps that are developed for senior citizens from are comprehensive enough to get us started:

• Use minimalist design to prevent cognitive overload in elderly population
• Provide large icons that are easy to interpret for function and interaction logic.
• Avoid the use of irrelevant information on the screen.
• Since color discrimination ability declines with age, designers should maximize contrast and avoid use of excessively bright colors.
• Clear instructions on how to use the app (preferably text based) should be provided, including help screens which should be prominently displayed.
• Use a simple navigation structure (such as back, forward buttons, or Menu buttons).
• Provide only those features in an app that the elderly user will need to accomplish the task.
• Provide feedback when an action is taken. This may include a subtle animation or sound when a button on screen is pressed, or a color change on a menu item when it is selected.
• Limit the use of multi-touch gestures (swipes) within the app.
• Provide a sense of accomplishment when certain tasks are completed. This promotes self-efficacy.

 A growing need

As more and more research shows the efficacy of tablets, apps, and touch in regards to special needs populations, the need for more apps for this demographic will grow. If you’re a developer, what would your “dream app” look like for a special needs child who was struggling with dyslexia? How about an elderly man dealing with memory loss? Or a young adult who needed help communicating in basic, meaningful ways with her caregiver? Share your thoughts in the comments below.




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