case study

Busting a Cap in the Status Quo

“Revolution is an idea which has found its bayonets”
- Napoleon Bonaparte

How my search for the right communication device for my disabled daughter led me to an upstart company that was rocking the boat with equal parts love and hate.

Crossing the Threshold

As I mentioned previously, my daughter has cerebral palsy and her condition limits the way she communicates. People always want to know if Ramona is smart and a question we get a lot is “how much does she understand?” I always tell people that we’re not sure just how smart she is, but that we assume she’s a genius, stuck in a broken body.

Many years ago, we started investigating what the disabled community calls “assistive technology.” It’s a formal name for computer-driven products that attempt to improve the lives of people with disabilities. We were looking for a way to help our daughter communicate in our language.

To provide a little context, probably most of you are familiar with Stephen Hawking and have likely heard his monotone, computer-spoken voice. The device he uses is an example of the kind of thing we were looking for.

So we started talking to other parents and therapists to get a consensus on what device was the best out there. We found a company that made a touchscreen product that was supposed to be the best.

It cost $6200.

Six thousand, two hundred dollars.


Anyone who lives in this world is more or less used to exorbitant prices for things. Every product is almost a one-off creation, customized to the specific disability of a fraction of the population. I guess we should be lucky any company wants to create products for such a fractional market.

Of course a communication device is a little broader in its appeal since the disabilities that hinder communication are legion. Still, for that much money, I expected a system that was at least moderately easy to use. What we got instead was the ninth circle of Hell.

Dante’s Inferno

I’ve redacted the name of this product, only because it’s been years since this version and maybe it’s gotten better.


Redaction disclaimer aside, I’ve never used a piece of technology worse than this device. I work in IT and have pretty low expectations of most products, but this was the first time I was actually driven to near madness by an inanimate object.

The Beast With Seven Horns

I actually have a difficult time expressing how bad the experience was, so I’ll give you a couple of examples that should do that for me.

For one thing, there was absolutely no consistency in the interface. On each screen, it seemed like the manner in which you saved or committed changes was completely different. It was as if the software was built by developers working from home offices in different countries and who never looked at each others’ work. It made the system labyrinthine and baffling.

Many times, these communication devices lack certain phrases needed for specific real-world situations. Because of this, the option of recording your voice was provided but was so broken that it was unusable. When you recorded your voice, it used so many system resources that it caused the system to slow to a crawl. So we usually opted to use the text-to-speech feature. This meant typing in everything you wanted to say, often in phonetic-style spelling, using a virtual keyboard on a screen that often didn’t register the finger taps. To make it worse, the screen required constant calibration.

When we WERE able to get it to “work,” the computer voice that was provided to our little girl was so cold and robotic, it widened the gap between her and others during casual encounters.

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition

I spent late nights pouring through the five(!) poorly-written manuals, trying to discover how to enable the simplest things. I spent hours of my life I’ll never get back, yelling at this thing as it stared blankly back at me. I’m sure I invoked curses on the developers at least once.

The manual on the bottom is 480 pages long

The pathetic thing is that probably most of the people who buy these products are the parents of kids with disabilities. We’re talking about families with major economic issues, not to mention all the emotional and physical crap that happens in their lives. If I’ve been working with technology for over a decade and I can’t figure it out, what hope do these poor folks have?

Well, we eventually got some demo units of other devices and while not as bad, that’s like saying that hot pokers in your eyes is better than being drawn and quartered. We’re still talking about the Spanish Inquisition.

Even more insulting, the therapists and other folks in this community can’t understand why the parents aren’t completely on board with these products. It’s like they’ve been conditioned that a crap sandwich really doesn’t taste THAT bad.

Hell Hath no Fury Like a Parent Pissed

So it was with skepticism that one day, my wife and I accepted an invitation to be part of a focus study on a product that was being developed by a new company. The guy running the meeting was actually the guy who was starting the company.

Richard Ellenson was a former ad executive and a long-time veteran of Madison Avenue. He had the connections and know-how to put together a team of companies including Frog Design and Nickelodeon to help build and even sponsor the new device. More importantly, he had passion. He hated the existing technology as much or more than we did and he was determined to make it happen. You see, Richard had also spent too many late nights trying to get the same device to work. His son, who also has cerebral palsy was at the age where he desperately needed to be able to communicate.

After meeting with Richard, I was cautiously optimistic that we would actually see a product as good as the prototype he showed us.

Real artists ship

Over a year later, we found out the product had been launched. It was called the “Tango” and was not only everything we saw in the prototype, but so much more.

Here’s a demo of what it’s like to use the Tango.

The voice they chose for the menus not only sounded like a little kid but the device had another trick up its sleeve. If an adult needed to record a phrase for their child, the Tango provides a built-in way of “pitching-up” the recording so it sounds more like a child.

There’s a camera with a flash so the person using it can take pictures of stuff they like. And the battery life on the thing is killer.

Size comparison – 11lbs vs. 1lb

The list of great features is long, but the best thing about it isn’t the feature list. The Tango is impossibly small and light and easy to use. We still haven’t ever cracked open the manual and frankly, I have no idea where the manual even is.

Wait, did we even GET a manual?

And here’s a comparison for you–when my daughter requires specific phrases for a day’s events, my wife is able to configure the Tango while sitting at stoplights on the way to drop her off at school.

Even more importantly, Ramona loves using it.

To further help illustrate how big of a deal the Tango was and is, consider Apple’s iPhone. The leapfrog from the ghetto world of smartphones to the iPhone was huge. If you have an iPhone, you know what I’m talking about.

The jump from the old world of adaptive technology to the Tango was an even bigger deal.

All You Need is Love and/or Hate

So what separates the Tango from everything that preceded it? What about the iPhone?


Richard’s love of his son and his hatred of the existing technology drove his passion to create a device that was a couple of orders of magnitude better than anything else out there.

Currently, I’m using a Windows Mobile phone (don’t ask) and I can easily say it’s the second worst piece of software I’ve ever used. Second only to that first communication device Ramona had.

I remember reading somewhere that Steve Jobs and the iPhone team was sick of using crappy phones. Their hatred of what was out there drove their passion to make something that didn’t suck. In fact, in the keynote address where Mr. Jobs introduced the iPhone, he said the following regarding the market at the time: “I hope you never really know how incredible this is… it’s bad out there. This is a revolution of the first order.”

Are either of these devices perfect? No, far from it (I’m holding out for the new Palm Pre myself). But they’re so much better that they make you forget how bad it was before. And it’s so obvious the first time you use them that you wonder why it took so long to get it.

Historic Precedent

Companies are constantly talking about innovation. They all claim to be innovative and the word “revolutionary” is thrown around like a piece of junk mail.

If you look back at history, it becomes clear that most, if not all real revolutions were born out of passion. The American and French revolutions happened because the people were sick of the status quo. They wanted something better. And they were so passionate about it, they were willing to give their lives.

If people really want to create innovative and revolutionary products or services or even cultural changes, they better get some real, honest-to-goodness passion behind it.

Otherwise, is it even worth doing?


Alan Kay once said that “People who are really serious about software, should make their own hardware.”

Many people who aren’t familiar with adaptive technology look at this device and think the price tag is too high for what it does. Just check out the comments on this Engadget article to see what I mean.

Here’s a personal favorite of mine:

“Absurd. You could probably pack the entire feature set into a $130 Nintendo DS. Of course, you can’t bill a Nintendo DS to Medicaid. Let’s hope they get NO orders.”

The thing they don’t understand is how non-trivial it is to create a device like this. The Tango is a replacement for someone’s VOICE. The research and development alone is almost prohibitively expensive, not to mention developing a whole new speech system and making the hardware work with switches and other devices already used in the community.

Oh, and if you think making the battery life last for a whole day of speaking is simple–it’s not.

posted by Rob Foster on Monday, Apr 27, 2009
tagged with status, quo, cap, beast, tango