Verbal Applications: Human-Based Product Development

September 6, 2013

2:45 pm

At what point does designing a product become less about the research and more about fulfilling the human need? For the three founders of Verbal Applications, this is precisely the issue they faced when developing their first product.

Verbal Applications is the startup behind Verbal Care, a platform that enables caregivers to communicate with patients suffering from communication disabilities. The Cloud platform utilizes a slew of tools, notably the Patient iPad App and the online Care Portal. Through the iPad app, nonverbal patients can more accurately convey their needs with large, picture-based buttons that speak when selected. On the caregiver side, all of the iPad requests are tracked and monitored through Verbal’s Care Portal.

“We don’t want to design for 20 percent of the people [with communication disabilities], but for 80 percent of people, and then for the 20 percent who are supporting you,” says Nick Dougherty, the company’s CEO.

While still students at Boston University’s College of Engineering, Dougherty, Eric Hsiao, and Gregory Zoeller teamed up on a senior project aimed at making an application that would enable stroke patients to communicate with caregivers. The idea was proposed by BU Professor Emeritus Theodore Morse after he himself went through this same ordeal. At its most basic level, the project should have been easy: observe patients, research technologies that would help them communicate, and create the app. “Within minutes of shadowing [at Massachusetts General Hospital], we realized that one app for one thing wasn’t going to work. We knew that we needed to help everyone suffering from communication issues.”

“Most [of the current technology available on the market for nonverbal patients] focuses a lot on the research to motivate their product [design]; Verbal Care is a product of human interaction rather than a product of research.”

For the guys at Verbal Applications, it became less about focusing on the research and more about the people: what product would best fulfill the needs of patients while, at the same time, was something simple that both patients and caregivers can figure out in “three seconds or less.” The guys spent a lot of time with caregivers, doctors, speech language pathologists, and patients to really understand the human needs. “We’ve burned our codebase to the ground three times now, but after coming face-to-face with people using [this current version of Verbal Care], we think we’ve reached a point where we know that [this current version] is what we’ll build on from now on.”

Commenting on the potential for Verbal Care to make a huge difference on the lives of nonverbal patients, Dougherty emphasizes, “for the people out there [suffering from these communication disorders]: have hope! Yeah, we’re a product that will help you, but if you don’t get yourself to therapy or reach out to family for support, then it’s pointless. We don’t want to sell a product; we want people to get better.”

Verbal Applications recently presented at last week’s Tech Cocktail Boston Mixer & Startup Showcase. The company recently announced that Verbal Care will now be available to consumers for free.

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Ronald Barba was the previous managing editor of Tech.Co. His primary story interests include industry trends, consumer-facing apps/products, the startup lifestyle, business ethics, diversity in tech, and what-is-this-bullsh*t things. Aside from writing about startups and entrepreneurship, Ronald is interested in 'Doctor Who', Murakami, 'The Mindy Project', and fried chicken. He is currently based in New York because he mistakenly studied philosophy in college and is now a "writer". Tweet @RonaldPBarba.

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