Tasked with “leveraging interactive technologies to deliver care outside of traditional care settings — anytime, anywhere,” third-year informatics Ph.D. student Yao Du and second-year software engineering Ph.D. student Adriana Meza Soria rose to the challenge. Together, they entered the Sixth Annual Student Design Challenge (SDC), held at the 2018 Annual Symposium of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA), and were among the three finalists asked to give oral presentations. They ended up taking second place for their proposal, “Designing Conversational Agents to Support Home Exercises for Children Who Receive Speech and Language Therapy.”
“Alexa, Start Speech Therapy”
“The story behind this experience has been an exciting journey,” says Du, who has a clinical background as a speech language pathologist (SLP). Early in 2018, she was intrigued to learn from other doctoral students about the potential for conversational agents to help children with communication impairments. So, when she later met Meza Soria at a graduate writing class, she was fascinated by her software design knowledge. In spring, the two attended some local Amazon workshops on how to develop Alexa skills, which led to their collaboration on the AMIA proposal.
“I feel lucky about having the opportunity to participate in a project with a substantial social impact on a specific population of children,” says Meza Soria. Specifically, their software targets children aged 3-6 who have communication impairments. Leveraging Du’s SLP background and Meza Soria’s software engineering knowledge, they developed a conceptual design for an Alexa skill for Amazon Echo and the Echo Button. The novel voice-based intervention aims to help children at home through evidence-based therapy activities and multimodal feedback using auditory and tactile interactions.
“We were the only team who designed for children with disabilities, a vulnerable population that needs a collaborative care approach,” notes Du. She adds that their project received a lot of attention during the poster session, which occurred before the oral presentation for the final competition. “Several physicians and informaticists from Stanford Children’s Hospital, the University of Washington, UC Davis, the University of Pittsburgh and the Mayo Clinic not only gave us great feedback on issues such as interoperability across multiple contexts and data sharing and privacy, but they also shared their own user experiences and perspectives on these voice technologies as parents and health providers.”
Du and Meza Soria plan to continue developing their project, starting with integrating the feedback from this competition, obtaining an IRB protocol, and co-designing activities with children and their family members for future studies. They are also connecting with stakeholders of interest and hope to participate in internal UCI competitions to gain more support for this project.
Surprisingly Strong Finish
Du never imagined they would earn second place at AMIA. “Our design is only in its initial conceptual design phase, compared to the first-place team from Columbia University, which has been investigating its plan since 2017 [and already has] initial data from a pilot study.”
Meza Soria was similarly pleased with the overall result. “All works presented at SDC were amazing, so taking second for the competition makes me feel proud of myself, my team, our advisers [Katie Salen Tekinbaş and André van der Hoek] and my school.” She adds that “designing for the healthcare domain is a challenge,” but says the project presented “a fantastic opportunity to prove my competence as a software designer in a domain I had never explored before.”
Du, grateful for the support from Salen Tekinbaş and van der Hoek, as well as from Ph.D. students in both the Department of Informatics and School of Education, is ready to offer her own support. “I highly recommend this competition to students in ICS. With ICS being the only school of computing in the UC system, I am more than happy to share my experience to help future UCI teams participate in these competitions.”
— Shani Murray