An array of assistive technology (AT) is available to provide academic support for students with learning disabilities, attention disorders, and other learning challenges. Although many individuals benefit from such products everyday, most are unaware of efforts taken by developers to ensure that products meet the needs of their consumers. Many AT developers and vendors are quite small companies, and most are led and staffed by people with a passion for improving the lives of individuals with disabilities. Consider them your partners in meeting AT needs. They are as interested in the performance of their products as those who buy and use them.
There are several ways that technology development companies seek input from consumers, including involving select users in beta testing, talking to customers at trade shows, and capturing information shared with tech support staff with company engineers. What you may not know is how much companies truly value and rely on consumer input. This Info Brief provides information about how to be an empowered consumer to help shape the future of AT development. So make your needs known - request demo or review copies of products, call tech support, talk to vendors at trade shows in your area, and volunteer to be a beta tester.
Requesting a Demo Copy: See for Yourself
Many companies will provide you with a demonstration or review copy of a software package or device - all you need to do is ask. Make sure you understand the terms of the review copy loan: if you keep the copy longer than allowed, you may be charged the full price.
Getting your hands on a demo or review copy allows you to try out the package in the setting in which it will be used by the student(s) who may be using it. See if it meets your needs: is it compatible with other software and devices that you use? Can you customize it? Is it user-friendly and intuitive? These kinds of questions are best answered from a hands-on experience. If you have access to a lot of students, let them try out the product and give you some feedback. Students often interact with technology in ways very different from the ways teachers and parents do.
If you are comparing products, request demo’s from as many companies as possible and compare the products in a computer lab or with a set of laptops. Grab some colleagues or other parents and have a review session. This approach helps to identify the features that are critical to the success of the product for the student or situation in advance of starting to explore the software. Create a review sheet so that each product can be rated on your top five to ten requirements. You can also use all or parts of the review sheets shared on the TechMatrix (see Resources section below) to guide the process.
Calling Tech Support: Be Specific and Ask for What You Need
If a demo copy doesn’t work as you had anticipated, don’t give up! Call the company and ask if there are features that you may have overlooked in the demo. Be specific. If you thought the tool would be compatible with voice recognition software, for example, and it is not, know the type and version of the voice recognition software you are using when you call. Chances are, there may be a fix or a tweak that can be done to meet your needs. If the product cannot do what you had anticipated, ask the tech support staff if there is a new version coming out or whether a fix or “patch” is planned.
If you are using a full product and experience problems, do not hesitate to call tech support. They are there to ensure the product meets customer expectations. Often the person on the phone can talk you through a fix or finding a feature to improve the performance of the product. Companies benefit from their tech support calls by mining those conversations for ways to improve the product, the user experience out of the box, and to understand how customers are using products. You may be surprised at the kinds of questions they would like to ask you when you call. They may want to know the specific disability of the user, how that impacts their technology use, and what other products the user relies on. This information can help developers shape the next version of their product.
Another way to access information on products is company knowledge bases. Larger companies may maintain a “frequently asked questions” database on their websites that collects questions and answers about product features and performance tweaks. Search these knowledge bases for answers to your implementation questions. Contribute your question or solution to improve the experience of others.
Attending a Trade Show: Talk Directly to the Company
You may want to consider attending a trade show on assistive and learning technologies. Company booths are often staffed by people with a very deep knowledge of the products. A walk through an exhibit hall may offer you the opportunity to speak directly to designers, engineers, and CEOs of companies whose products you use or would like to try. Bring your student or child, if possible, developers would like to speak directly with consumers who use their products. They also want to know about implementation challenges and solutions that they could share with others. Have you adapted a product to meet a need or used it with other applications? Do you have a unique solution? Share your expertise with the people who can make those solutions more widely available! See the Resources section below for a calendar of such shows.
Being a Beta Tester: What is Involved?
AT developers engage in a series of steps before releasing their products to the general market including conducting needs analyses with consumers, developing prototypes, and conducting a series of alpha tests in testing facilities. Before an AT product is released for sale, there is a good chance that it has also undergone a beta test. These tests are conducted on a beta version of their product, an officially released version that includes most of the product’s functionality, but not in final form. Beta tests help developers identify strengths and weaknesses of the product, ideally from the same population of individuals that will be using the device.
You can become involved in beta testing through a number of channels: submitting your name through a recruitment link on a company’s web site, participating in beta test at a trade show demonstration booth, or by contacting the company tech help directly. Prospective beta testers will likely be asked to complete a profile to help developers determine if the volunteer would serve as an appropriate beta tester.
As a beta tester, you will be expected to spend a certain amount of time exploring a piece of hardware or software and providing feedback on issues such as functionality, effectiveness, and ease of use. The developer will be especially interested in any technical problems you may encounter with the device, along with suggestions on improving the product. If the developer is interested in understanding how a product is used in a real-life setting, she may ask to visit your location to observe the device being used. Provide feedback that is as specific as possible. Your learning and feedback will benefit the larger community of users.
Being a beta tester has several benefits, including offering an insight into the latest and most advanced AT and the satisfaction of knowing that your feedback will shape the development of the device. However, it is important to be aware of any restrictions for product use set forth by the product’s developer. If software that is being tested requires one to use his or her own data, information may be lost once the testing period has expired. Developers may also ask you to agree to a confidentiality statement in an effort to protect their ideas from being shared with others. Unauthorized use or distribution of beta products could result in unexpected (and unwanted) consequences. It is also important to realize that AT products being tested could contain bugs. Not only could these bugs interfere with the functionality of a device (which you would report to the manufacture), they could also cause damage to your operating system or other problems with you computer.
Below are resources that may help you evaluate products or find trade shows in your area. Stop dreaming about how to make a product you rely on better, speak up! Take the next step to becoming an empowered consumer and find a way to provide feedback to the company. You may get hooked on getting involved!
The Techmatrix is the place to go to search for educational software, compare products against universal design and accessibility features, and to link directly to company homepages.
The Techmatrix Professional Development Toolkit Review Protocols can help you organize a review by multiple colleagues. Use the forms as they are or select the components and features that are most important in your situation and create your own form.
Find a trade show in your area by searching the Events Calendar at The National Center on Technology and Innovation . Direct links are provided to the events so that you can check fees and exhibit hall participant lists.
If you are interested in understanding developers and engineers’ motivations and backgrounds, you may want to check out the Innovator Profiles at The National Center for Technology Innovation . You may recognize some company names!