Thirteen years ago, a severe stroke left my mom paralyzed on her right side and with aphasia, a challenging disability that significantly limited her ability to express herself with written and spoken language.
In the years that followed, the social media revolution unfolded with the advent of dozens of new ways of connecting and communicating with each other. With keyboards nearly impossible for her to use, she was shut out of the party. So we began a mother-son collaboration with the aim of making messaging easier for her.
The result of this multi-year journey is Tapgram, the easiest way to share simple social messages. By using one of three customizable “tapboards” – one for feelings, places, or people – mom is just two taps away from composing a message and sending it by email or posting it on Facebook or on her own Tapgram feed. No keyboard required. We designed it so that the tappable areas are larger and easier to manage than typical interfaces.
Customization was important so that people could set up their own boards any way they want, by changing the pictures or the labels. For example, the icon for “restaurant” can be “Joe’s Diner” or even switched to a picture of the diner – or Joe himself.
It was important for communication to be two way. So in the Tapgram feed, users can easily send a picture reply to messages such as a flower, happy face, wink, or even their own picture.
With autoposting turned on, her friends can also see her Tapgrams while on Facebook. When they “like” her posts, mom can see that in her own Tapgram feed, making this the first two-way accessibility bridge to Facebook. Based on user interest, we also added photo sharing.
We launched Tapgram about four months ago and have hundreds of users including stroke survivors, people with autism, and the elderly. The platform has been embraced by people in unexpected ways including, for example, a tech savvy special needs teacher who puts Tapgram on their classroom smartboard so that her students tap out messages to their family and friends.
Along the way, we explored other solutions for assistive messaging such as an arduino-based solution, which we called Iconicate. With two dials, mom could set a feeling as well as its magnitude, then send an email with the press of a button.
For our next effort we toyed with gestural messaging, partly because I was so intrigued by the assistive potential of the Microsoft Kinect. In this system, mom would wave her hand across a set of icons to compose a message, which could be emailed to others.
The more we shared our experiments, the more it became clear that other people could benefit from simple messaging systems like these. With the ubiquity of tablets and smartphones, a web-based solution like Tapgram became the most impactful way for us to make a tool available to others.
Our mother-son R&D department is still open as we are constantly making tweaks and changes to Tapgram as well as dreaming about new ways to make messaging more accessible for all.