Meet Smartbox, the company designing computers for disabled people
What are you looking for from your next tablet? A high-resolution screen? Decent battery life? A set of speakers that don’t make Netflix sound like it’s being broadcast from inside a biscuit tin?
The list of requirements from Smartbox’s customers is very different. They need truly all-day battery life – not the ten hours or so that many manufacturers deem long enough to market as a “day” – because their tablet is their primary means of communication. Regular tablet battery life would mean losing their voice at 4pm every afternoon.
And they don’t just need speakers that can make Stranger Things sound reasonable, they need speakers that make their voice heard across a crowded room or in the middle of a bustling train station.
Smartbox isn’t making a rival to the iPad. It’s making tablets, software and other products for people who rely on technology for much more than keeping up with Twitter and YouTube. This is genuinely life-changing technology.
Smartbox, like many great technology firms, was founded in a back bedroom. Managing director Paul Hawes had been working on assistive technology since the late 1970s, helping to create the first European deaf communicating terminall; this allowed the hard of hearing to type conversations over the phone for the first time. Hawes went on to work for the government on projects such as helping deaf people use email (long before the days of widespread internet access) and with a charity that adapted computers for people with disabilities.
Eventually, on Independence Day in July 2000, Hawes decided to break free. Having spent his evenings plugging away in the back bedroom on several assistive software packages, he left the charity to start his own business, Sensory Software. In 2006, Sensory Software morphed into Smartbox, a business focused not only on assistive software, but the hardware to go with it.
“We started as a family,” said Dougal Hawes, Paul’s son and the business development director at Smartbox. Mum Alison is a non-executive director and brother Barney is the technical director, meaning the immediate family fill four of the six board-level roles within the firm. “We started with a bit of software that ran on Windows and enabled disabled people without speech to communicate to a Windows computer.” Now the company designs and distributes its own hardware.
Smartbox provides equipment for people right across the disability spectrum. The company caters for those who are born with a disability and people who acquire one throughout their life, and both have very different needs. “If you’re born with a disability that means you can’t speak… you may well have an access issue as well,” Hawes explained. “You can’t use a touchscreen, you probably can’t use a mouse, so how are you going to operate the device? That’s one of the big things we solve.”
The problems aren’t only physical – people born with a speech disability aren’t gifted with literacy. “The solutions we develop have to enable people who aren’t literate to communicate, but also to develop their literacy so they end up being able to spell and do all the other things that involves later in their lives.”
At the other end of the spectrum, people such as Stephen Hawking with an acquired disability are already literate but have other needs. “He doesn’t need symbols to help him communicate, he doesn’t need to develop literacy, he just wants to be as efficient as possible,” said Hawes, stressing that Smartbox doesn’t actually provide the equipment for professor Hawking.
Taking charge of the tech
Hawes says the emergence of mainstream consumer tablets such as the iPad have helped enormously to improve the hardware for disabled people, too. “When we first started, there were tablet computers around, but they were typically very bulky, the touchscreens weren’t particularly good, they didn’t have great battery life, they weren’t particularly quick – there were a lot of challenges there,” he said.
“We’ve been able to use tablets a lot over the years to make a device. Now we’ve gone beyond that and make our own tablets that are all bespoke for the job.”
How does one of Smartbox’s products differ from a conventional iPad or Windows tablet? Amplification is a key feature. “An off-the-shelf tablet might sound loud when you’re in your bedroom, but take that into a school playground or busy street and you can’t hear it.”
Enhanced battery life is another must-have. “Our latest device has a 140-watt-hour battery, so it will work all day and often with a hot-swap [battery], so if someone is using it really intensively they can switch over,” Hawes said.
Additional hardware such as wheelchair mounting plates, eye-tracking devices (for those who can’t move their limbs) or switches are all supported on the latest Smartbox-designed devices. “It’s about being able to design for user need, rather than building around the technology that exists for a consumer market,” said Hawes of the advantages of taking production in-house. “That’s a huge difference and it’s obviously really valuable to our users that we’re able to make things exactly as they need them to work.”
Meeting needs rather than wants
Smartbox undertakes a lot of user testing to identify the precise needs of its customers. And it really boils down to needs, rather than craving the latest and greatest features from the general consumer market. “One of the key things for our users is they don’t buy the technology because they like technology, they get the technology because they absolutely need it,” said Hawes.
Some customers are nervous around the devices – often because they’ve not been exposed to technology in the same way toddlers are handed tablets these days – and that requires a different set of design considerations. “The sort of things we’ll see are people trying to put the power cable into the headphone socket,” Hawes explained. “Or they get a USB device and they just don’t know where to put it in the machine. So, we have colour-coded ports and cables.”
Everyday software also requires a rethink. “There may be people who’ve never used email before,” Hawes says of his customers. “If you put them in front of Gmail or Outlook it would be totally overwhelming and too difficult. So, we have to spend a lot of time on UI to make things as easy as possible.”
The device has to be truly multipurpose, too. Physically disabled people can’t easily switch between tablets, smartphones and other devices to perform different tasks. Hence the Smartbox devices will cover the full gamut of communications – from SMS messaging, to Twitter, to WhatsApp – as well as some more unusual functions for tablet computers. “They’ve got an infrared receiver and transmitter built in, so they can operate their television,” Hawes said. “There’s also a radio transmitter in there so they can operate different sockets and alarms. They might plug a lamp into the socket and turn their lights on, and the alarm [is there to provide] safety in the home, so they can alert people when they need help.”
If that all sounds very Alexa, Smartbox has got voice assistants covered, too. “We’ve got resources that will talk to Amazon Echo or Google Home,” he said. “You press one button on the screen and it will read the whole command out to your Echo and play music or whatever else. That sort of feature makes a huge difference to people.”
The company has expanded well beyond the family home since the start of the millennium. Smartbox now has 70 staff, about half of whom are based at the firm’s Great Malvern headquarters. There’s a development and marketing office in Bristol, a US office in Pittsburgh and “people dotted over the States”.
Worcestershire’s not exactly a hotbed of tech development, I rather patronisingly put to Hawes as the interview concludes. How hard does the company find it to recruit and retain staff? “We have absolutely incredible staff retention rates,” he fired back, instantly. “People don’t want to leave when they’re in this industry, it feels like a really special place to be because you get to work with the latest technology and you’re genuinely changing lives with it every day. It’s very motivating and that allows us to achieve great things with a relatively small team.”It’s not where you are, it’s what you know.