Designing planning apps for autism
In the past few years, the number of planning apps on the market has rocketed. These apps with a variety of approaches and focus, target a great diversity of users. One special group of users that is challenged daily in their planning skills are people with autism, and the number of time management apps targeting them is rising. Understanding this group of users should be key at in the design process of any products targeting them. Aside from the basic functionality of planning apps and a well-designed user interface (UI), there is the question of the moment of use.
This article is about lessons learned in designing autism friendly planning apps targeting not only the right user but also the right moment of use.
During my Master’s thesis on designing a planner UI for children with autism, I came across an interesting model on anxiety. The book “Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments” by Myles and Southwick, explains “the rage cycle”. In short; the rage cycle has three stages: the rumbling stage, the rage stage, and the recovery stage. These stages can be variable in length and the cycle could start with different triggers. Some of these triggers are emotional, sensory, physical or caused by unexpected changes or events.
It is important to understand that the person cannot learn new skills during this cycle. But there is a chance for learning at the end of the cycle. During the cycle, a variety of already learned techniques can be useful in different stages. This impacts the design of assistive technology products to target the right moment of use of these products.
Note that one of the techniques used to defuse the rumbling stage is promoting the routine. This is one moment in the cycle that planning apps could target. During the rage stage, as the model suggests, the person could benefit from a time-out or already learned plan of action.
If defusing the stress fails, calming techniques and again promoting the routine are useful during the recovery stage. So there are at least two moments during “the rage cycle” or stress cycle that planning apps could target.
This model helps us to understand two thing: the moments of use of planning apps, and the possible combinations of assistive technologies.
One suggestion that I want to make for a design model during the rumbling stage is a combination of a planing app with a stress detector. Taking initiative, generally and in this case to defuse stress, is an added challenge when it comes to autism.
In this design model, a stress detector would trigger the planning app to promote the schedule of the user. If this would not result in a declined stress level, the stress detector could trigger a cooling down routine. During this stage assistive speech technology or sound reminders could be an added benefit. Having a visual and auditive reminder of the current activity, duration and what follows might help the user to regain focus.
The earlier mentioned planner UI for children with autism has an interface option to turn the schedule into a story teller. This way the user could benefit from visual and auditive feedback to focus back on the current activity. Such planning apps should have the ability to integrate pictures, symbols and audio messages. Another benefit of a strong visual UI is providing a solution for the abstract concept of “time”, that users with autism may find challenging.
Another design model which I would suggest for the recovery stage, is a combination of a planning app and cooling down techniques. There are many apps available that promote relaxation such as breathing exercises and playing soothing music. But the true challenge for the design of such planning apps in this stage, would be to take into account the time needed to cool down. The planning app should be able to shift the schedule when time-out occurs and suggest evaluation of the remaining activities of the day. If the user has to cancel some activities because of the shifting, the app should suggest proper steps to cancel them.
To help the user with autism not to get far into this cycle of stress, it is important to understand how stress builds up.
Last year, an Applied Psychology student conducted interviews on using two planning apps for students with autism. The interviews were part of the research I was conducting on digital products for education and autism. Five students participated in these interviews from three different schools.
The results of the interviews, indicate that the students used these apps in the build up to stress or after stress occurred. Before the stress, the apps were considered as a prevention tool, a checklist or review tool. After the stress, they were considered by the students as a tool to regain focus. This matches the expected moments of use according to the “rage cycle” model mentioned earlier.
As for what I consider a well designed UI; three of the best time-management apps I have used so far, are Calendars 5, Cal and Sunrise. These are good examples of a well designed UI to learn from in designing planning apps for autism. Cal offers a minimal and calm interface showing current and coming up activities. As for planning apps targeting students, I would recommend iStudiez Pro. Although it is not designed for autism, it covers planning schoolwork well in a friendly designed UI.
If you have experience as a designer for autism related products, or as a user, I would love to read your notes on this subject.