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Something Special: Out and About the Users

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Ian Hamilton | 12:00 UK time, Friday, 21 October 2011

Young girl pointing at a prototype of Out and About

Children with a wide variety of backgrounds and impairments tested Out and About to help the team design it around the audience.

Something Special is an inclusive TV programme, appealing to all children whilst also being carefully designed with the abilities and developmental goals of disabled children in mind, in particular children with communication difficulties.

The TV team are restricted by the nature of the linear medium, but creating an online offering gave us a unique opportunity to go beyond this and reach the far ends of the disability spectrum.

We're in a bit of a unique position in the industry to be able to do this. Encouraging a young disabled child to practice a difficult but valuable life skill is not an easy task, but the reward of interacting with a much loved character like Mr Tumble provides tremendous motivation, giving us a great opportunity to use our brands for some really valuable public service work.

The Most Challenging Target Audience Possible

The challenge was to design activities that would be enjoyable and engaging for all Mr Tumble fans, but were just as enjoyable by and also developmentally valuable to very young children (2-6 years old) with profound and multiple special needs, including conditions such as low functioning autism and cerebral palsy.

So, we had clearly chosen the most challenging target audience possible. Where to start?

Good accessibility practice consists of three parts: expert review, user testing, and designing to standards. Do all three and they compliment each other perfectly.

Expert review and user testing were taken care of very well, we had an accessibility consultant on board throughout and a thorough phased testing plan.

For the third part of the equation we do already have standards & guidelines for game accessibility, but those just cover minimum requirements, they certainly don't help with catering for an autistic three year old. We needed to know more.

The answer was the same as for any other project. We spent time in special needs schools and speaking with parents, teachers and therapists, building up a good understanding of our audience and what barriers and opportunities there were. Once we had this we were ready to start in earnest, using three design principles: participatory design, user-centred design, and universally accessible game design.

Participatory design

This meant working directly with the audience as active participants in the design process.

To do this we held a workshop session bringing several disciplines from the BBC together with special needs teachers and speech and language therapists, and representatives from the Makaton charity, taking along our early concepts and prototypes and developing them further directly with the people who would be using them, gaining lots of invaluable input.

User centred design

As the team is obviously so hugely different to the disabled children that we’re providing for, a thorough phased testing plan was essential.

We based our recruitment profile on a primary audience of profound cognitive impairment, secondary audience of profound motor impairment, and tertiary audience of mild to no impairment. There’s a wide variance in children’s behaviour according to their surroundings and geographical location so it was essential to test from a variety of backgrounds and settings, ranging from a London school to a child’s home in a small village in Lancashire.

Testing often allowed us to glean vital information resulting in significant iterative changes as we went along, and testing early meant we had the time and money to implement them.

Screen allowing users to change balloon size and speed.


Universally accessible game design

UCD and to a lesser extent participatory design are relatively commonplace. Universally accessible game design however is something quite groundbreaking, and has to date only really existed in a few academic studies and small indie projects.

Needs are individual, having a single condition is actually uncommon so most disabled people have a unique combination of requirements.

UGD is the simple principle that by opening up access to your existing game mechanics people are then free to tailor precisely to those individual needs.

So by simply exposing a few variables such as speed of movement and input keys we’re able to cater for a huge range of individual needs, allowing full control over how the gameplay works, how the interface works and is displayed, and what input devices can be used and how they work, allowing children with even the lowest levels of motor or cognitive ability to still take part by cutting everything back to switch-accessible simple cause and effect interactions if needed.

Mr Tumble pulling a silly face


The result

The end product consists of a selection of games, videos and signs all wrapped up in a common container, to give us full control over the interface and allow even the most profoundly disabled children to browse independently, which is a really empowering thing.

The four games are designed with disabled children's developmental goals in mind, but also to be fun for all children. A great example is Tumble Faces, a very simple activity where each time you click on Mr Tumble's face, he pulls a different face and makes a silly noise at you.

Any four year old would find this great fun, but at the same time the level of motor and cognitive ability required open it up to a very wide audience, and it is also teaching skills that are very important for our primary audience - cause and effect, and distinguishing facial expressions.

We also have a bank of Mr Tumble and Justin video content, and a selection of Makaton signs.

Makaton uses signs, symbols and speech to help people communicate. Using signs and symbols can encourage early language development, particularly for children with communication difficulties. These are presented in the same format as the show, including the invitation to sign along – with the use of a webcam children are quite literally able to sign with Justin, seeing themselves on-screen as he gives the encouragement and praise.

The games, videos and signs are all available at the Something Special: Out and About web page.

Justin making a Makaton signs

The games help children learn Makaton signs, such as this one for bread.

What do the audience think?

Unfortunately due to child safety issues we're not able to directly share stories from our user testing, but we've had some really moving anecdotes of the difference that this work is making to the most profoundly disabled young children, from enjoyment and focus all the way through to practicing crucial life skills and enabling children to meaningfully communicate with their families for the first time. Meanwhile, Tom DuCroz of the TreeHouse school commented:

TreeHouse is a school for children with autism and we have a range of pupils who use Makaton as their main communication, or who are in the process of learning Makaton. One of the hurdles we have is teaching their friends, family or carers the signs they have learnt at school. For the first time we now have a website that we can direct them to where they can look up signs and learn new ones. This is really going to help families communicate better and help generalise the work we are doing at school to the home environment.

Our Speech and Language department is really keen to start using it – especially the webcam feature which allows a pupil to check and see if they are forming the sign correctly. The site is also great fun and ideal for our pupils who are just learning to access a computer – but all the pupils we have shown enjoyed it – particularly the balloon game!

It's a very nice example of accessibility at its best – showing how through some simple design principles and standard good practice of research and testing, we are able to use technology to genuinely change lives.

Ian Hamilton was Senior Designer and Acessibility Consultant during this project, but has since left the BBC. He has also written about the project on his own site.

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