Dustin's Words
The Dustin's Words device

Dustin's Words

An Open-Source AAC Platform

My Role

  • Founder Of Company
  • UX Designer
  • Prototype
  • User Testing
  • Ideation
  • Interaction Design


Dustin's Words Logo


Dustin's Words Logo

Product Background

Dustin's Words is a for-good open source company I founded in where my friends and I build custom accessibility devices for families in need. We release all our designs and code open source and working to build Dustin's Words out as a more refined and consumer ready product that we can give to families in need for free and continue to make their lives easier by continually iterating the device. It was all inspired by my Dustin. Dustin is my 30 year old autistic brother. He was born with little to no oxygen in his body and had 2 open heart transplants in the first 10 years of his life. Growing up, I always said that if a Magic Genie ever granted me 3 wishes, I’d only need one. Help my brother be ‘normal’. I’ve come to realize that there is no such thing as normal and in fact, he is more normal than I am. But at least I could help him mildly communicate what he wants/needs. Help make his life a little less stressful. This device is the solution to this internal struggle I’ve been having and the life my brother has lived with for 30 years.

Dustin’s favorite past time is laying down and watching TV in his room. He loves it. This takes up close to 50% of his day and while he has developed a language that him and my mom understand slightly, it takes much effort and time to get his thoughts out into actions or words. In designing this experience for him I learned much more about him then I had known. This device had to be simple to use, not intimidating at the sight of it, iconographic language and a similar textile to what he is used to in his everyday life.

The first polished prototype of Dustin's Words

Dustin's Words v1 Design

Living on his wall, he will be able to hit one of the buttons and send a text message to that actions dictated recipient. The choice to use arcade buttons in the design was due to their large size which minimize errors and incorrect button hits. Also, they are a familiar textile to him. Playing video games everyday, it’s something he’s comfortable with which is really important in someone who is autistic. The metallic surface is smooth to his touch and the all white external shell is soft on his eyes. The iconography language is very similar to the graphics he was shown in school and the everyday objects/feelings associated with them. A universal language you could say.

The electronics ripped out of the device and exposed

On-going Testing + Iteration

We' ve been back to Richmond from LA, and we had a blast observing Dustin use his more new and improved prototype device. He helped key us in on what we are doing right, what we can improve and also bringing functionality and features ideas to our heads that we had not previous thought of. It’s always super insightful to see someone use your product and see their successes and struggles.

We've also been trying to test the device with others that have different complications in life that affects their verbal ability. A few families in LA have been really helpful in providing us with insights and different perspective on how we could improve the functionality and utility of Dustin's Words.

Device set-up user flow

As we looked through the current competitive landscape and discussed it with parents, caregivers, teachers and physicians, we found a niche in where we could fit. We found that our device comes way under the beginning prices of most on the current market and have less dependencies. Also, with Dustin's Words having the ability to send SMS messages, we can say that ours is the only AAC device on the market that allows this form of long distance communication and we are actively working to improve and add features everyday.

Competetive analysis chart

Thinking about every step of the process for every user and how we can make this product well rounded and to ultimately serve every person involved in the device owner's life. We are creating ways for the caregivers, teachers, parents and physician to become more aware and understanding of what the child is in need of or feeling. Making the device easy to set up is also a use case in which we've concepting and created many flows for.

Caregiver user flow chart

A wall full of awesomeness is what we have in the photo below. We have been trying to document our entire design process. We feel like transparency in our design process is imperative to meet our goal of attracting others in the community to help where they can. An inexpensive solution for nonverbal inexpensive communication is not going to be built by people in an office, but by many passionate people all over the world who have a vested interest in helping the people they love. This is why we plan to be an open source everything we do.

This transparency can help us refine the Dustin’s Words device quicker. We can quickly gather input from really smart people and perspective from actual users/caregivers. More to come on our rapid design process to come.

Wall of process and thinking

v2 Functionality Additions

We’ve been wearing this MakerBot out over the last few months in preparation for the product launch on Indiegogo in a few weeks. Day and night this little guy has been pumping out design after design as we continue to rapidly iterate on the design.

The last month has been really exciting, as we’ve been working closely with and added a new member to the team that specializes in product/industrial design. Emmanuel has been a huge asset to us in thinking about Dustin’s Words as an actual scaleable product. We will be posting some design explorations of his in the coming days and we are all really excited with the directions.

Device 3D printed parts laied on table

We have been testing out some new button styles for the next version of Dustin’s Words. Currently, we are using analog arcade buttons with manual cut and inserted icon paper. While this has tested well and worked great as a low-fi means of communication, we’d really like to make Dustin’s Words more. Our big goal is for caregivers to have the ability to swap out icons as they need through a web app and the digital button displays also give us the ability to open the device up to two way communication, not just one.

What we have pictured above is an exploration we have been taking which mashed an LED display and cherry switch keyboard keys. We’ve combined these 2 with a 3D printed enclosure. As we looked for off the shelf solutions, we didn’t find anything that fit our visions. We still want the tactile feedback to remain, while introducing the digital element. Thus, we started to experiment.

Custom LCD push buttons
Custom LCD push buttons with our spcially designed icons

Product Design

The last month has been really exciting, as we’ve been working closely with and added a new member to the team that specializes in product/industrial design. Emmanuel has been a huge asset to us in thinking about Dustin’s Words as an actual scaleable product. We will be posting some design explorations of his in the coming days and we are all really excited with the directions.

The first 3D printed version of design product sketches by Emmanuel, our product designer Newer 3D printed version of design
Fritzing PCB design

First round of our manufactured PCB prototypes are in and they look great. We ordered this first round through a really cool shop in Portland, OSH Park, and how they create batch PCB printing is by taking a few board designs from a lot of different people. This keeps high quality and inexpensive PCB manufacturing here in the USA.

Fritzing PCB schematic

We are still looking at different PCB layouts and how to optimize the design and structure of the device but knowing the connections are all proper is a great step forward. More on the design front too, as we have recently parented with a designer out of Cinco Design Studio in Portland who will be bringing expertise to the product design process.

The final 3D render of Dustin's Words

Press Coverage

As I began to write freelance for Smashing Magazine I wanted to make this my first published article. One because it was so close to my heart and second because I think the application of basic User-Centered Design principles could really shed some light on the subject for beginners in a way they could relate too.

In December 2014 I spoke at the Accessibility Camp in LA held at Belkin’s HQ. I had so much fun learning about accessibility best practices in web and application design as well as got to share my story and take on designing for the disabled. After, I was asked to attend the next camp and speak up in San Francisco at Linkedin HQ which was really exciting.

Smashing Magazine Article Screenshot Me speaking at an accessibility confrence

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