Assistive Tech: Essential For Some, Useful For All

In this conversation, I spoke with Rich Purcell, who is a medical doctor and the founder of the assistive technology Caption.Ed, a company which keeps the user’s voice at the heart of their innovation.

Rich Purcell is the founder and director of Caption.Ed. When I came across Rich’s product, I was interested in talking to him because, in my book Inclusive Growth, there’s a whole chapter on cyber and how technology can help organisations deliver on diversity and inclusion. As well as all sorts of technologies and apps that can help, there’s also the need for assistive technology and making technology accessible. That accessibility is not only for the public, whether that be websites or apps, but also internally to be sure that your systems are accessible. That could be your career management system, learning management system, or intranet.

Rich’s product, Caption.Ed falls into the last category of assistive technology. I was keen to chat with him about what his product does and find out how it helps people in organisations and increases inclusivity.

Before finding out more about how Caption.Ed can make workplaces more inclusive for staff, I asked Rich to tell me a bit more about himself and his background.

‘My background is actually within healthcare. I’m a doctor by trade. I started to become interested in assistive technology back when I was at university, which is quite a while ago now. I’m very dyslexic, really dyslexic. When I went to university and I got to medical school, I was faced with the delights of medical vocabulary. Lots of long, not easy terminology. I struggled with it for several years until there was a slight break in the workload and I managed to consider a solution for the problems I was experiencing. A friend of mine said he was also experiencing the same problem. So, we collaborated to build a piece of software that would help us.

And it turned out it wasn’t just us struggling with the problem; lots of our peers wanted to use it too. Then our university wanted to use it. And then other universities, NHS Trusts, and other organisations wanted to adopt the technology we’d built. That’s where I became interested in assistive technology.

I went on to practice medicine in the NHS, but at the same time kind my interest in assistive technology grew up until 2018 when we were approached by a couple of UK universities who were asking for support with a particular problem surrounding captioning. They wanted some advice on how they might better support students. The problem they spelt out to us was one that was interesting and needed some real consideration. So, we spent two years collaborating with them to build what is Caption.Ed.

We launched that in August 2020. And since then, we’ve built a business around Caption.Ed and got the software out to lots and lots of people both in higher education but also in the workspace. Things have moved pretty quickly over the last 18 months. Now we’ve got a really broad user base using our products.’

I asked Rich to tell me a bit more about what Caption.Ed does? I know from our previous conversations that the company is keen to make sure to promote the voice of the user as well, in the way that Caption.Ed has been developed.

‘Caption.Ed is a piece of AI-driven captioning and note-taking software. It works by sitting on the user’s computer or mobile and allowing them to caption anything. It really is anything. It can be a Zoom call or a Microsoft Team’s call. It could be an in-person conversation, or meeting, or a lecture. It could be a YouTube video or podcast. It could be absolutely anything.

The idea is that the user gets highly accurate instant captions with just the click of a button. But we go a step further and allow the user to highlight key bits of information within those captions, add their own annotations on the fly and then save all that information to return back to later.

They can revisit previous captioning sessions, listen back to what was said, see a full transcript, review and amend their annotations, and then export all that information in a format that works for them. That’s what Caption.Ed is.

As you can imagine, it’s very useful for those people who need captions. That’s actually a lot of people. I know immediate thoughts might go to people who are deaf or have hearing loss, but evidence shows that lots of people get great benefits from captions. Netflix recently published an article that showed that over 80% of their media is viewed with captions. It’s good for productivity as well, and for people who maybe struggle with taking notes and minuting meetings and things like that. It’s not just for those who might have a disability that means that they struggle to take notes, but also just generally from a productivity perspective. Things like running HR meetings, interviews, research and all types of activities because you get fully transcribed and annotated transcripts afterwards.’

The product would definitely benefit me because I can’t use my hands, so I use speech-to-text software, Dragon Naturally Speaking. I dictate to my computer and control my computer too. The downside is that I can’t do that when I’m on a Zoom call because you get a conflict between the microphone and the audio and in face-to-face meetings as well. I would have to sit there and talk over people. But having AI that would automatically capture conversations and things like that would be hugely beneficial.

Rich pointed out that I had touched on why the voice of the user and why that’s so important in building great software. He continued, ‘I don’t think you can build great assistive tech without it. I have my own challenges and the software helps me overcome some of those. I can speak with confidence about what my difficulties are and how the software can better help me overcome them. But those might be totally different to someone else’s reasons for using the software.

I don’t have all those different experiences, so listening to the voice of our customers and making sure that we are developing the product in the best direction to suit our users’ needs is essential. The more people we can speak to, the more we can understand how the software can best help them and the better we can design the product to align with those requirements. Without the customer’s voice, there’s no future for the product.’

I know that this product was being built in the thick of the pandemic. I wondered how the pandemic affected Rich personally because of his medical background whilst also getting a business up and running at the same time?

‘We’d started working on the products in the lead-up to the pandemic. Then the pandemic struck right as we were gearing up and starting to put the finishing touches to it. It had varying effects on those in the business. I’d taken eighteen months or so out of clinical work, but as a medic, I went back. It felt like the thing I needed to do as it seemed like the apocalypse at the time.

It seemed like the sensible place to be and thing to be doing, but that was challenging because we had a growing business, a product launch on the horizon and four days of every week, I was on the wards, which was difficult. But we persevered and launched the product slightly later than planned in August 2020 which was still in the midst of the pandemic. I think the pandemic did do something to help promote our products. There was definitely a demand for them because a lot of people were online. A lot of people were experiencing issues with access to captions and just general accessibility for working and learning online.

There was a big demand for our products, and we managed to fill that demand. It also helped that I could speak to a lot of people quite quickly because everybody was behind their computers. I could have a conversation one morning in Aberdeen and then a conversation in Southampton in the afternoon. I could speak to a lot of people quite quickly, which was good. We saw that pay off dividends in the way that it grew the business and our user base.

The pandemic definitely had some challenges but also gave us some real opportunity. I think there was an increased awareness of assistive technology during the pandemic. People had to adapt quite quickly and were looking at using technology to help them adapt. In that sense, everybody had to use assistive technology to some degree. There was more awareness and budgets available for it.’

I know a lot of my clients had to move overnight from being office-based to home-based. They were thinking about some basic technology setup like making sure all of their staff had laptops who perhaps were not remote workers previously and there was definitely a lot more talk around assistive technology. We faced questions like how someone with a hearing impairment could participate in Zoom calls because they might have done face-to-face meetings before the pandemic where it was easier to do lip reading or use a sign language interpreter, but the way of working changed overnight for them too.

It sounds as if Caption.Ed is going from strength to strength. I asked Rich, ‘How do you see it expanding into the workplace?’

‘Good question. We only launched the product 18 months ago and initially, we had a lot of uptake in higher education because the whole sector moved to remote learning. There was a big demand for the software, and it was adopted by a large number of UK universities and overseas as well.

That was where we focused to start with and as the product grew and became more widely adopted, it started to be used more and more in the workplace as well. That’s where we are now and we’re starting to find that we’re getting lots of organisations to take on the software. A lot of the first inquiries came through things like the Access to Work scheme and workplace adjustments.

What we’ve found, which is interesting, is that often somebody gets the software through a workplace adjustment as a single user. Then we’ll get an email through from the head of the department or their manager asking, “What is this software, and can we use it more widely?’

That’s nice because that’s spreading from assistive technology through to productivity tools. We’re finding that quite regularly. We’ve been adopted by a number of large organisations from government bodies through to financial institutions.’

I like it when assistive technology goes mainstream. |The keyboard was designed for a blind countess to write love letters to her lover and now everyone uses a keyboard. When I was working at the BBC in user experience, in design, my boss was a guy called Jonathan Hassel. I’ve also interviewed him for my podcast. He now runs his own accessibility company auditing websites and helping companies embed accessibility into their organisation. I remember he worked on a project where they were looking at using 3D audio to teach blind children how to learn maths at school and then that technology was picked up by a games company. They developed a game for your iPhone where you could run away from zombies, but they realised that you can’t run and look at your iPhone at the same time. So, they were relying on sound. It was interesting how that sound 3D sound technology was then adopted by a mainstream games company.

I asked Rich, ‘How do you see your product evolving and being adopted?’

‘I feel that good assistive tech is essential for some but useful for all. That’s certainly what we’ve found with the software — there are people who cannot work or study without it. Then there are other people who just find it useful to help them be more efficient and effective.

I found that with the first piece of software that I ever built, medical spell-checking software, which was essential for me. Because I’m very dyslexic and I was struggling, I built that. A survey of the whole of the medical school at Bristol University found that 97% of my peers also found it difficult and would find it useful. That’s kind of the classic example. Spell check is generally built for people who are dyslexic. Now I don’t know anybody who doesn’t benefit from a spell-checker. So, essential for some, but useful for all, I think. That’s certainly what we’re seeing.

The challenge for us is making sure that we’re assistive tech first. Making sure we don’t just make decisions for the mass market and that we listen to our users and honing those very specific use cases. One of the big things for us is we’re self-funded, which means that we have the freedom to do that. We have the freedom to sweat the small stuff and really listen to our customers rather than answering to other people’s incentives or requirements. We’re able to focus on what we want and what we think is best for our customers and our product, rather than those sometimes conflicting interests.’

I think it’s important to home in on that assistive market because one of the benefits of accessibility is that it can be a real source of innovation. It’s one of the upsides of thinking about accessibility first and getting it embedded into any products that are being developed. I must admit when I first looked at Caption.Ed, I wondered how similar it was to other products out there. I’ve used Otter.ai in the past, for example, which integrates with Zoom. I asked Rich how his product differs from those other solutions on the market?

‘A key thing is that we’ve come from assistive tech first perspective and put those use cases at the forefront of what we’re doing. With captions what makes them useful are two key things. One is accuracy. So, making sure the words that appear on screen represent the words that are spoken. To make sure we’re as accurate as possible, we do a few things. We refined for different accents, for different languages, and for different subject matters. For instance, with my background in the medical profession, if I’m talking about complicated medical terminology, I want to make sure that it’s represented in the captions and we can refine the captions specifically for that use case.

Accuracy is a big one. And one that’s often overlooked from a captioning perspective, is speed. If you’re using captions, then you may be unable to, for instance, hear anything meaning you’re reading the captions, but often you may be filling in blanks using the captions and it’s hard to fill in a blank if there’s too much lag because you miss something in the audio and there’s no text there to help you fill that blank. So, lagging speed is a big thing for us.

Then there’s security. We’re used by lots of big organisations and we have all our data hosted in the UK. We make sure we’re secure and able to meet both GDPR and the InfoSec requirements of large organisations.

Finally, we do things slightly differently with the way we’ve focused on accessibility first in our products. The way the app is built is to be as easy to use as possible. You can customise it all. From colour to letter sizes to positioning the text on the screen and working with anything and everything from Zoom to podcasts, to in-person conversations. So, we put accessibility first in the products.

Rich was also keen to stress that Caption.Ed is WCAG compliant — which is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines — the globally accepted standards around digital accessibility.

I think accuracy is really important too. I was on a panel event recently where they had automatic transcription and whenever I referred to one of the other panellists, their name came up as cupcake on the captions. Their name was not cupcake so it was embarrassing because every time I said their name, the caption would be, ‘What does cupcake think about this?’

To wrap up my conversation with Rich, I asked him the question that I ask everybody when they come on this podcast, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘Classically inclusive growth often deals with an economic perspective. I’m focusing on the idea that whilst economic growth is important. it’s not necessarily enough to generate lasting improvements to societal welfare. For me, it’s applying that to our business, Caption.Ed, and the idea that purely monetary success for the business can’t be our aim if we want to be fulfilled and successful. As a business, we want to be profitable, of course we do, but that isn’t synonymous with being successful. To be truly successful, we need to think more holistically and have that holistic target to strive for.

For me, it means building a diverse team of individuals who find fulfilment in their work and what they do. We’re all working towards shared goals for the company, but the company’s also helping them move towards their personal goals. We want to continue to build our products which are ultimately designed to make the world more accessible. We also want to continue to increase the amount we listen to our customers and the degree to which we can put their voice into our products and ultimately better align products to their needs.

In that way, we’d be growing towards a more successful business both internally as an organisation and then externally with our products. I think that’s what inclusive growth means for me.’

To find out more about Caption.Ed get in touch through the website. Rich is happy to answer any questions and set up demonstrations and trials of the product.

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Toby Mildon

Toby Mildon

Diversity & Inclusion Architect. I like psychology, tech, ideas, design and food (esp. curry). Live with SMA.