Whilst there’s so much out there for educative purposes, there is a huge deficit for those with special educational needs. Tobias & Tobias have been working with the Beatrice Tate School (BTS) to fulfil a need for a safe digital social space for those with severe learning difficulties.
BTS had a starting point – the original MyPlace was created by the teachers as an effective teaching tool for the students. As part of their acclaimed curriculum in ICT (Information and Communications Technology) and Personal Development, teachers at BTS created a ‘social network’ which allowed the students to collect music, videos, photos, and ‘friends’ in a cleverly-constructed PowerPoint file.
However, the teachers wanted to rebuild the existing programme as a web app. The children needed to feel that it belonged to them, but that they could be supported when they needed it.
In the user’s shoes
We started by observing what the children wanted to do on the web, without any guidance from an app. The main areas of interest were watching videos (especially music videos) and sharing photos of their favourite celebrities, animals and topics.
They wanted to be able to find their friends online, and potentially share those things with them. Big, bright shapes and colours were attractive, and a combination of touch screen and mouse use was employed. Remarkably, whilst there is plenty of hardware for those with learning difficulties, that’s as far as it goes. We were shocked that this area of web development is so behind the curve.
Social network creation
This project created a unique set of challenges: how do we put ourselves in the shoes of the user? The students’ ability to communicate, interact and use a computer vary wildly. Most of our team had very little experience of severe disability. We have a unique challenge here; a lot of assumptions that a designer might pull from personal experience are not relevant.
How do you design an app or tool for someone who can’t read? How do you design a tool for someone who doesn’t have the motor skills to operate a keyboard or mouse? The goals for the design remain the same: to educate and delight, but the challenges are very different.
We went back to the drawing board. Rather than trying to build in smooth transitions, complex interactions and multiple functions, we set about creating four recognisable page types that fulfilled the students’ needs:
- Profile page
- Friends page
- Video page
- Photo page
Within the profile page, you can post text, images and links to your friends. There is also a painting app – allowing you to draw pictures, save them and post them to walls. In all honesty, the painting app has taken a lot longer to complete than it should have done as we keep playing with it as we’re working on it.
We released v1 to BTS in 2012, as a web-based version of their existing service. As the children were used to the interface from the Powerpoint service, they understood how to use it themselves.
Simply by being web-based, the interface is smoother and more predictable for the children – functionality is locked down to the intended purpose rather than including a lot of meaningless and frustrating ‘wrong’ clicks.
This version has been live for two school years and has become a key part of the school social network.
Providing a link to peers, whilst the students are at BTS and after they leave is an area that the school is keen to improve for the students.
Since MyPlace has been introduced, the students are more engaged, some are using the app independently to manage their own social network profile, and they are hitting their performance targets by using MyPlace.
The students currently only use MyPlace at school, but it would be great to develop it so that they can use it at home, and the bigger picture would be to have it implemented at other schools so that all students can make new friends.
The children are so keen to be connected, and clearly enjoy lessons where they are using the web. Being able to provide an app that is not just modified for the use of children with severe learning difficulties, but is built purposely for them has been a pleasure, and an education. Our project with BTS is on-going, and we can’t wait to launch v2 as soon as possible. Watch this space!