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I can’t quite put my finger on it!... why we need a new alphabet board

By Lyndon Owen, Managing Director, E2 Limited, United Kingdom

Firstly let me tell you how we design: There is a big misconception in the world of product development, and that is “more functionality means ‘better’ ”. This mentality is generally driven by the marketing men and not by the needs of the users. It is also over complicates the product and, of course, justifies a higher price. Whereas a good product is one which does the job well, and design elegance is the result of what unnecessary features we can take out. To state our design philosophy more concisely “be clever, be simple”.

Having a reputation for this approach, we were contacted early this year by the Speech and Language Therapy (SLT) department of Frenchay Hospital, Bristol, part of the UK’s National Health Services (NHS). They invited us to enter into a joint collaborative venture to develop a new alphabet board for literate people who were unable to speak and had tremor problems. This may be due to a variety of conditions such as strokes, swallowing difficulties, trachetoeiomes, MND, SLS, MS, CP, cancers and many motor control problems, or just “just jittery” hands.

The great advantage of working with the NHS is that they are needs driven, and the products they require comes from direct experience of therapists on floor. What they had identified was a problem and were looking for a professional solution in form of commercial product.

FABThe problem is this: Printed paper alphabet charts tend not to be durable, they slip about, they pick up dirt, people get messy, they get lost, don't work in the shower, and above all, people are not very accurate when they point at letters. Add to this a tremor condition, such a Parkinson's, and the task of isolating a single letter by pointing at it becomes an extremely difficult task. What was needed was solution which addressed all of these problems in the simplest possible way. The result in the FAB (Frenchay Alphabet Board).

The design requirement for the device were defined as:

  1. Positive finger location
    This is achieved by providing a smooth recessed depression over each for the letters available. A shaking finger stays in this depression because there is a little ridge all around the edge, thus limiting involuntary movement.
  2. Non-slip
    non-slipThe non-slip property is major advantage for the tremor user. Positive finger location is of little us if the chart slides around with your shaking hand. To overcome this, the FAB had a high grip neoprene rubber based (much like a mouse mat but with a stronger bond).
  3. Spill proof
    It‘s a fact of life that people spill coffee, drop food and pick up dirt. The use of a single continouse plastic injection moulded finger guide which i bonded to the closed neopresene base ensures that no ingress of dirt is possible.
  4. Washable, hygienic design
    A health service requirement was that the alphabet board could be washed in soap and water. Choice of materials has achieved this, but we extended the design to tolerate 1000ppm chlorine solutions and to be resistant to alcohol wipes.
  5. Anti-microbial keyboard
    Not being content to rely on the cleaning regime alone, we have loaded the clear plastic moulding with a nanoparticile silver compound which is antimicrobial. This makes the product inherently hospital MRSA, E.Coli, Salmonella, Listeria – this is not a coating what can wear off, but an residual property of the material.
  6. Choices of layouts
    Some people are used to the standard keyboard “QWERTY” system whilst others prefer a matrix type of layout which lists the letters of the alphabet in order. In considering these layouts the matrix has been designed so that the vowels are listed down the left hand side. Either style has space bar, a question mark, a full stop, and a positive and genitive symbol. We have also provided an up and down symbols which can be used a “more and less”, “louder, quieter”. “up, down”.

  7. Choice of sizes
    Alphabet boards are generally used in two different environments and as a result two different sizes were designed. “Table Top” is for use in a day centre, on hospital wards, libraries, hospices and places were the board can be placed a fixed surface such as tables and desks. “Pocket size” is a smaller portable unit which can be easily carried in a handbag. One emerging use of the pocket size alphabet board is as a backup to much higher technology devices. If you us a Lightwriter, Dynovox, PRC, eye tracker or similar system, FAB offers an emergency solution to communication if your batteries go flat or you have a breakdown. Pocket size FAB is much more discrete, yet still offers the positive finger location.
  8. Languages
    fabFAB is designed to be rapidly adapted to any language. Already is available in English, Spanish, German, French, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, and any character set can b e supplied on request (Spanish keyboards illustrated).

To conclude, an alphabet board should be simple and fulfil all its design constraints without compromising the end user. FAB is a good example of this. Whilst the underlying decisions are complex, they should be invisible to the user.

Anyone unable to speak but has some hand movement, regardless of the extend of the tremor, can communicate more accurately, conveniently and with increase hygiene due to the rigourous application of design simplicity.

About the Author

Lyndon Owen is the managing director of E2L Limited; an electronic product design company any based in Monmouth, South Wales, United Kingdom. He has studied at Sheffield, Wolverhampton and Southampton universities in the UK and since 1984 has been involved with several small, high technology, start up companies. His current venture, E2L Limited was founded in 1998 in order to address product design in a radical new way. The company is nationally recognised in Wales as “Ambassadors for Innovations” and their unique approach to product development ensures simplicity and effective solutions to a wide variety of problems. The company has a worldwide distribution network including in the USA.

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