Discovery: Learning about the issues around autism and how they affect families

Each member of our team only had limited exposure to autism and the effects that diagnosis has on families. With our constraint of time and previous knowledge, we left the more direct device-related aspects to the team at Gaia, and we focused on the user interface side and learning about what the families deal with on a day-to-day basis. After our kick-off meeting with the client and early research to gather a baseline, we came up with the following hypotheses:

  • To prevent meltdowns in the future, parents/people with ASD need a mobile tool to understand what caused the meltdown in the first place.
  • PAL will improve the life of a person with ASD by providing a digital and tangible product to track, prevent, and understand the meltdown.

I felt at this point; these definitions were going to work to keep us on track without narrowing in too far on a small feature set. It gave us a framework to search for competitors as well as direction while learning about a disorder that has a vast range of severity and treatment.


With this framework in mind, we took to looking at the market to see where Gaia’s PAL fit into the marketplace, and where there were opportunities.


Initially, my teammates looked more into wearable space. Fun & Function, Squease Wear, and Pressure Vest were all creating wearable products that used weight and/or air compression to attempt to comfort a person in a stressful situation. Unfortunately, these products are relatively bulky and require various levels of supervision. They also offer no link to any digital products used to track biometrics. In turn, a parent or caretaker would have to find one of these products separately if they want to monitor the long-term usage of these wearables.

Fun & Function

Pressure Vest

Squeeze Vest

Digital Products:

While my teammates looked at the wearables, I took a deep dive into the digital world of autism management. Digging up apps that are aiming at the same user as Gaia was was a challenge, but after searching through many lists trying to find applicable analogs, I found a handful. They generally targeted one of the possible two audiences: The caretaker, or the person with autism. Here is an example of each:

SmartSteps guiding the user through a stressful situation

Achieving a positive result from process. But if you press (1) “Did This Help?”...

...it kicks the user out of the app (2) to this confusing webform

SmartSteps is for a person with autism directly. When they find themselves in a stressful situation, it strives to ask the right questions to get them out of said situation. Being that this is for high-stress moments, the trap of sending the person to an overwhelming survey page outside the app right after the case could trigger another episode instead of letting them cool down.

TantrumTracker’s manual entry form for a “tantrum”

There are multiple views. Here is the list view of a child’s tantrums...

...And here is the calendar, demonstrating the volume of inputting the artaker has  to do

TantrumTracker is an app for caretakers of children with autism, ADHD and ADD to track the outbursts that mark their lives. Being able to keep this tracking in one place can be used to find patterns in behavior that can be used to reinforce good behaviors and remove triggers. The app is entirely manual which puts a significant burden on the caretaker to fill out these forms during high-stress situations.


What I did find was heartbreaking. A ton of complex apps that are not well thought out for their use cases. Parent-facing apps featured extensive interaction requirements and a high learning curve. Apps aimed at children and adults with autism had many traps that could turn a meltdown into a full-on crisis. At any point in these apps, the user could fall into broken paths or worse, facing something wholly new and overwhelming. In our research, we found that sudden change is a massive trigger of meltdowns and these apps often used inconsistent styles and even kick the user out to a mobile website with an entirely different look mid-usage.

There is a massive hole for automation of any sort. I found time and time again tracking apps full of complex forms asking for manual input of complex data. While in our research we saw that parents of children with autism would go out of their way to educate themselves on the ins and outs of parenting these children, they had little time to mess with an app that forces them to manually input significant amounts of data.

One other thing we were considering was how a digital or physical product empowers their lives. From the very start, the name TantrumTracker, this particular one does not. Choosing the right language can make a huge difference in how someone experiences a product as we found out while conducting user interviews.

© 2018 Rob Jurewicz