UX/Mobile App
Gaia Wearables

3 Weeks

Team Role:
UX Designer
Three person team


Gaia is a company spun up by a team of students at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Headed by Brent Chase, whose younger brother was diagnosed with autism at a young age, they share a passion for coming up with creative digital and physical solutions to problems that families with children with autism have faced for years. After finishing their capstone project, they took this idea further by winning a series of grants, most recently invited to present their product at SXSW. They presented our team with a new emotion-moderating vest called PAL. It is a device that reads biometric data from the person wearing it, and if sensed from this data that they were about to reach a meltdown level, it would contract around them simulating the feeling of a hug.

The Gaia team had created a few mock-ups of a mobile app to give a visual interface to users to read the data reported from the vest, but they came to us to use research and design thinking methods to look into what their users would need and want from this product.

Example video of the prototype vest in action.

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.

Wearables:  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?”... 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.


User Interviews

We then conducted exploratory interviews with eight potential users and subject matter experts to try and find answers to many questions. Our overall goal was gaining first-hand accounts of how our users deal with day to day life when taking care of a child with autism. To obtain a better understanding of how people currently prevent and deal with meltdowns, but then also to find out about any techniques or technology they use to track the child’s behavior, habits, schedule, etc., and whether PAL combined with a mobile app would solve any of their needs or frustrations.

Busy schedules
  • Parents didn’t have much time to fill out complicated reports to keep a record of outbursts. Thus, they don’t keep detailed records.
  • Manually entering tracking data is too much for parents and aides due to their busy lifestyle which makes it difficult to share information between all parties who care for the child.

Dropping support
  • There are mandatory services until graduation from high school, but afterward, it can become a considerable challenge and burden on the parents to continue.
Trigger causes
  • Meltdown triggers revolve around three main areas: sensory issues, difficulty when presented with something new, and the individual’s rigidity in thought and behavior.
  • Examples of transition issues include:
        • Handoff to a caregiver
        • Last minute schedule changes
        • New Services

Independence building
  • Decision-making skills are generally weak and can only improve with practice.
  • Over time these skills can be improved enough for many children to live independently.
  • Their scheduling must be visual and not just verbally communicated to increase decision making skill.

Coming into the project our team realized the scope of ages and degrees on the spectrum was very wide and it probably wouldn’t be likely we would use a one-size-fits-all solution. With our set of data, as a group, we looked at the situation and decided to focus on “parents of 18-24-year-old young adults with autism”. By concentrating on those children who have the most significant chance of becoming independent adults, we believe that we had an opportunity to create a high level of impact with the data we had. Parents need tools for the child to start to live a separate life, and for the parent to have peace of mind that their child is okay. In the future, there are many angles Gaia will need to address on including parents, younger children, older children, and the differences along the spectrum.

Definition: The problem to solve

As our team all agreed that this was shining through the data we had gathered, it allowed us to move on to problem definition. We could start to consider how to translate this into bite-sized pieces for ourselves and our clients to move forward. To communicate our plan, we looked at our audience, their pains, and all we learned so far to create a single problem statement.

Parents of teenagers with autism who hope their children can gain some independence need a mobile app that helps parents manage their daily lives and communication with their children and those involved in their care. With this tool, they hope to identify patterns related to their stress levels that can lead them towards a more independent life.

We felt with this combination of wearable technology, automatic digital management, and communication tools; we would be able to accelerate the process of gaining independence. To help us stay on track with those goals we built design principles to guide us in mapping our next phases of design work.

Create Consistency
There should be a regularity to the product interactions, so it doesn’t create surprises

A Calm Voice
Used during times of stress, its design should promote a feeling of calm and increase the sense of being in control

Low Learning Curve
Should be usable by a broad set of users as they will have drastically different needs and backgrounds

Remain Focused
The technology should not reach too far and fall into the background during everyday life. We don’t want it to be a constant task.

We identified that these tools should help automate the manual tracking activities that parents are not able to keep up with. In turn, our principles are keeping in mind specifically that we don’t want them to have to spend significant time within the product and that people are using it with different levels of technical knowledge, so it can’t be overly complicated to see necessary information. We want it to feel like a safety blanket of reassurance during life changes for the parent and child.

When presenting the data to our clients, but it was apparent they were looking and expecting a younger target audience from us. With the client's hard science background, we were able to show them how the data was supporting our decisions. Each target audience eventually needs attention anyway, so to maximize the value Gaia got out of our UX team's work, we would work on the areas where we had the most data. Being able to point out that going in the direction they were expecting, we would be basing our work on the same assumptions we came in with and not based on the new data and insights we provided Gaia was successful.

Creating divergent concepts

Upon conducting many ideation techniques including 6-8-5 sketching, braindumps, word maps, and more, we each worked out concepts that featured different ways for management of children with autism's emotional well being in hopes of being able to loosen the reins over an extended period. We looked at these three different angles and sketched out multiple ideas to test within them to validate a final path.

  • Parent and child-facing
  • Using scheduling to slowly feed a child more decision making power and allow them to gain their independence in a controlled manner.
  • Allowing children to see a simplified version of their data generated so they can self-regulate when they feel scared or anxious.

Community and Planning
  • Parent-facing
  • Giving different levels of control to parents to learn patterns by giving them all the raw data they could look at the spikes and lows over time to determine what the causes were for meltdowns.
  • Give ways to share this data with the teams of people involved in the care of their children.

  • Parent-facing
  • Showing the data in contextual ways instead of displaying the unfiltered data.
  • Gives ways to send reports to the people involved in the care of their child quickly and efficiently to cut down on miscommunication.

Unlike the last project with Private Flight Club, where the primary task was always about purchasing a flight, we had more room to figure out what type of product would be most useful for caretakers. With our data that we had gathered so far, there was considerable variance in ideas which would require testing more versions within each concept. While we worked on the overall ideas together as a team, we broke out the individual concepts to the person who was most embedded in each angle of the research. I worked on self-regulation because I was digging into different direct and non-direct competitors that feature visual calendars and scheduling. I worked swiftly to devise designs that would communicate quickly and visually without overpowering or distracting the user.

Test results

We put these concepts in front of users to determine their usefulness and desirability. Knowing the limited amount of time, we needed to tighten in on a specific area that would be of most value to our potential users. Because of that same time crunch, for this round of testing, I thought to print out all the slides so we could physically draw on them in different colors which brought a whole new way to synthesize visually by drawing with different colors on one set of drawings to quickly start to identify patterns. It spoke to my visual side in ways the affinity diagram usually doesn’t as it is entirely contextual with the concept as it sits. We found a couple of results that helped us focus our attention and solve some lingering questions:

Product prioritization
Users talked to are already using an iCal/Google Calendar solution and found it to be something they could teach. This new insight pushed us away from the last of our child-facing sides of the app we had considered and allowed us to focus strictly on the caretakers. 

Synthesized data
The thing caretakers didn’t have access to currently was the data automation being output from PAL The only problem is, testers didn’t know what to do with much of this information and wanted it in more consumable chunks. 

Parents wanted more options than merely initiating the compression hug on their child’s vest. These included personalizing the length, frequency, repeatability of the compression of the vest depending on their child’s needs over time.

“What even is skin conductivity?” 
– Most Testers

When presented with raw data, every tester asked this question when referring to not knowing what to do with this raw data.

© 2022 Rob Jurewicz