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An app that provides personalized literacy therapy for deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) children.

Photo of Christopher Han
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Written by

Name or Organization

Christopher Han


Innovating in Los Angeles with the intention of impacting the lives of deaf and hard of hearing children across America.

What is your stage of development?

  • New Innovator, with less than one year of experience in ECD


  • University

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

Describe your submission in one clear sentence

Because DHH educational therapy is really complex, unique to each child, and temporally sensitive, the community around the child (therapists, parents, and teachers) can become segmented in its approach and outlook regarding therapy design; Cycles is a mobile app that aligns the goals and methodology of the child’s community to bolster a personalized, interactive therapy experience for the student.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

This app will improve the efficiency and personalization of educational therapy for DHH students. Cycles is not a stand-alone solution, but seeks to be a supporting player within the child’s therapy community. It is moldable to the needs of each stakeholder and serves as a communication channel for the entire team to remain on the same page. It also extends the community around the child, by empowering interactive designers, illustrators/animators, and therapists to all contribute to the collective improvement of DHH literacy development.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Product: A new or enhanced physical product that creates value for end beneficiaries.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

Cycles is an app built to provide personalized literacy therapy for DHH students. Because each child’s needs are unique and temporally changing, the app is flexible, giving control over its educational design to educational therapists, the experts of each child’s literacy needs. Therapists will be able to curate the vocabulary, sentence structure, and interactivity of the app to create a customized educational activity for each child. After therapy sessions, parents need to practice concepts at home. This can be a challenge for parents who may not have much experience conducting literacy-developing activities, so the parent-facing side of the app aims to simplify the process and enable parents to comfortably extend the therapy to the home. The app will sync the activity assigned to the child at the clinic with the activity the parent can conduct at home. Additionally, there will be a set of guiding notes from the therapist attached to each activity. If anything is unclear in these notes, the parent can notify the therapist and ask questions on specific notes they find unclear. As the child grows older, school teachers will be added into the child’s learning community. These teachers may not be experts in educating DHH students in literacy development, so the teacher-side of the app aims to align the goals of therapists and teachers. It provides a place to collaborate over educational design and discuss topics that are holistically relevant to the child’s education.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

Literacy development apps have rigid curriculum designs, which prohibits them from adjusting to the needs of each student. Therapists can create these personalized therapy designs, but it can be a challenge for parents to extend the clinic to the home, as they may not have the materials, language skills, or the experience to feel comfortable overseeing practice. Also, a child’s teachers could have conflicting methodology with therapists, thereby confusing parents and children alike.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

Currently, I am designing prototypes of the app with the help of the therapists and specialists at the USC Caruso Family Center for Early Childhood Communication. Because the app faces four different users with unique needs – therapists, parents, teachers, and the children – the main functionality of the app is tied to the stakeholder using it in the moment. This leads to 4 unique contexts that each have a unique set of modules needed to populate the screen. I decided to develop the designs of the therapist context first. This is because the core customizability of the app is tied to the therapist context, and I have spent the most time with therapists throughout the design process. After developing the therapist context to a high fidelity prototype, I plan to put the parent, teacher, and child contexts through the a similar design pipeline, while simultaneously testing the therapist context with my partners at the USC Caruso Family Center. This prototyping phase is extremely essential to the success of the app, and I plan to work on this until the beginning of May. As the prototypes grow in fidelity, I will enter a branding phase. I will need to develop the app’s vibe and make decisions regarding its micro interactions and color scheme. This will not only aid in the product development of Cycles, but these decisions will influence the way I can market the app. There are two entities that are essential to market this product to during the prototyping phase: DHH education programs and illustrators/animators/interactive designers. The first is essential for finding user pools to test the market viability/opportunity and product effectiveness. The second is essential in generating content that will be used by the app. Because the app is so variable, the graphic content needs to be sourced from a large database of assets. I plan to develop an open-source collection of illustrations and animation data that will be donated by various artists around the world. Obviously this will require quite a marketing push, but this cannot be made without the functionality of the app set in stone first.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

The children are the primary beneficiaries of this idea. Everyone’s goal in the community is for these DHH children to have as much opportunity as possible despite their sensory deficits, so this app was designed to benefit them most. The plan is to provide them the most superior educational experience by benefiting the other parties involved. For therapists, this app gives them full control. Other apps are rigid in design, so therapists have to put together a hodgepodge of resources that may only partially bring about the educational design they have envisioned. Because this tool can flex in whatever way they see fit, therapists can actualize the educational designs they have for the children. For parents, the goals is for them to not feel overwhelmed. The app will provide strategies for practice sessions and new ways of communicating from the child’s therapists. Also, the app will report the child’s mastery of concepts, so the parent will have a metric to assess the progress of therapy. This allows parents and therapists to discuss goals and set collective expectations. For teachers, the gap between themselves and therapists will be diminished. By keeping both parties updated on subject material, the amount of conflicting methodology will decrease. this collaboration benefits the overall educational goals of both parties. I have spent time interacting with therapists, children, and parents at an early childhood communication center at USC. More mentioned in HCD section.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

There are approximately 4 to 5 thousand DHH children under the age of 3 in Los Angeles. I hope to impact these children first, since I am based in the area. The impact of my app is dependent on the contributions of a great amount of people, but as it comes together, the goal remains to raise the literacy level of DHH students. As the app begins to take traction in Los Angeles, I hope to impact the 15 thousand DHH children in the state of California. It is a bit early for me to dream of reaching the entire nation's DHH children, but I would love to impact as many of the 3 million DHH children in America.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

A major roadblock for low-income children could be the limited English abilities of their parents or guardians. It can be challenging for parents/guardians who speak English as a second or third language to conduct practice sessions at home. They may not comprehensively understand the instruction of therapists or feel comfortable training their child in a language they only partially understand. This is the very reason “cycle notes” were designed into the app. The collaborative nature of the feature allows parents/guardians to ask questions throughout the week on particular notes the therapist has communicated. If anything is unclear, therapists are only a message away to clarify a technique. Additionally, for caretakers who are uncomfortable with English, the notes will have a built-in language translation ability. Now, the language barrier between therapist and parents/guardians can be demolished. Additionally, Cycles’s business model is designed to provide the greatest amount of accessibility. The plan is to sell subscriptions to educational therapy clinics and schools. These entities will have more allotted income for official education apps such as Cycles. As clinics and schools pay for the entire service, the parent-side of the app will be free. Many of these clinics already serve low-income children, such as the one I have conducted most of my research at, so accessibility should not be a problem regarding this app.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (1500 characters)

My approach to design for the entire community is unique in literacy education apps for special populations. Many other apps are narrowly focussed, where they just provide activities for the child to work on individually. This isn’t a solid foundation for literacy development because a progressive support structure is needed from parents, teachers, and therapists to help the child master a skill enough to interact with it individually. Cycles respects the expertise of the stakeholders instead of trying to replace them. Educational therapists are experts in curriculum design for DHH students; parents spend the most time throughout the week with their young children and know them best; and teachers are prominent sources of education in a child’s early development. Instead of trying replace or improve each of these parties, this app leverages the collective expertise of the community to create a collaborative, unified therapy strategy. Beyond emergent literacy development, I hope that my product can be a gateway into changing the approach of interactive media in ECD apps. It was a natural tendency for me to think that gamifying a pre-existing therapy technique would disrupt this space. However, as I began to understand developmental education on a deeper level, it became clear to me that replacing humans from the equation would eliminate a great deal of resources and knowledge that could be leveraged.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

The main barrier to scaling will be on-boarding various clinics to join the app. It will be challenging to prove effectiveness of the app early on, and many clinics may not feel comfortable on-boarding until substantial evidence can be shown. I will be relying on my partnerships with early childhood communication clinics in Los Angeles to help publicize the app through therapist networks and publications. This market is definitely not the largest, as there are only about 3 million DHH students in the entire country; however, there is market opportunity to extend the applications of this app beyond DHH students, as the concept of communal therapy is applicable to other special populations that struggle with literacy. In order to reach a place where this app can remain sustainable, a larger team is definitely needed, and I am especially looking for help on the technological side as of now.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

The current team is just me, and Cycles will not be complete with that. However, I am in the process of finding teammates and do think it will be feasible to produce an MVP to provide more concrete pitches. Capital stream is quite limited at the moment, and the sustainability of this project would be heavily depended on financial support during the early stages. Technically, this app needs a lot to come together. It is modular to an open-source library, so building that technicality into the app will be a challenge. However, I do think it is possible, but it will just need the right team to help put it all together.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (1500 characters)

The business model is a subscription plan for a fixed number of seats and an additional fee for any seats beyond that number. These subscriptions would be issued to clinics, and they would manage which students are on the app. This is really to be aligned with the spirit of the app. The goal is to be accessible to all students, so I do not want the parents to have to pay for the app on their own. I expect clinics to have additional capital to spend on learning tools compared to individual families. It doesn't make sense for a parent to get this app without being in contact with a therapist, so that is why I plan to sell directly to clinics and schools.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (1500 characters)

This app was designed through extensive time with the target user base. I observed therapy sessions at the USC Caruso Family Center and developed the following design principles: 1. Engage the student 2. Personalize Therapy 3. Design for the community 4. Inspire Hope The first 2 focus on the child. I observed students who were excited about their therapy sessions and others who hated the experience. It was clear that a major element that led to this difference was whether or not the therapy session mattered to the child. There are many elements that play into this, but I see personalized therapy as an opportunity for more engaging therapy. Designing for young children has been the most challenging aspect of this project, but attempting to understand their motivations and needs has been the most rewarding part of this project. The third focuses on people around the child. The community can’t be neglected in this design; they all play vital roles in the life of the child. Instead of trying to create something to replace these humans, I had the mindset of empowering and unifying them as a team. This app is fueled by each individual’s expertise and is designed to foster human communication for the greatest results. The final principle addresses emotions. Beyond the literacy needs of the child, there are emotional needs that need to be addressed for the family. I want my app to inspire hope, so that families do not feel limited by the challenges that come with DHH learning.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

I am a student at the University of Southern California’s Iovine and Young Academy, where I study arts, technology, and the business of innovation. My dream is to work with interdisciplinary design teams to create solutions for underserved populations, while constantly being challenged to empathize with new cultures and tell their stories through new mediums. But this is a new development. At the beginning of college, I focussed my studies primarily on visual storytelling through animation. My dream was to work on movies or boutique art installations. Aesthetic was everything to me, and I just wanted to make cool stuff and tell cool stories. However, unable to find an animation gig during the summer of my sophomore year, I worked at a USC cancer research lab. At the time I was not interested in designing solutions for cancer patients, and honestly found it extremely boring. I was a very bad employee. A few months later, I reflected on my time at the lab and realized that I hadn’t treated my time there with the proper respect. People live their lives with this enigmatic disease, and I botched an opportunity to create a solution that could change their outlook on life; that was a powerful realization for me. So as I began to think of what I wanted to do after college, I couldn’t get this question out of my mind: how could I spend creative power on beauty projects, when there were opportunities to serve people who struggled to find hope? Fast forward to my senior year. My senior project was to create something disruptive. I was unsure of what to do until I found myself in a meeting with DHH experts at the USC Caruso Family Center. I heard stories and stats that ignited a new passion inside of me. I couldn’t believe that the average DHH student graduates high school with a 4th grade literacy. As a student of storytelling, it was hard for me to see some kids who couldn’t read, hear, or understand stories. As a child, stories took me places I couldn’t go; they expanded my imagination of what was possible and helped me see things from others’ perspectives; they taught me the lessons that I would never learn on my own. Stories were a source of joy, and they opened a way for me to dream big. My hope is that even though these DHH kids deal with huge day-to-day challenges, by developing literacy skills, one day, stories can be a source of hope for them. I tell people that I am a designer now. My primary tools are a bunch of graphic design and animation software, pens and paper, and my brain. I still do a lot of animation work and dabble in aesthetically based side projects, but my primary dream is to be a designer for underserved populations. This community of therapists, parents, and DHH children has inspired to realize that dream. Every time I leave the clinic, I am emotionally moved. I’m either smiling big over a wonderful, successful design or rubbing my temples, trying to dissect the problems in my design. This is a binary that I enjoy very much.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (500 characters)

No. While I do have a supporting team of therapists and audiologists who have helped me design for the intended user base, I do not have a development team to build the app. I suspect that I will need two developer entities here: 1. A mobile dev team to build the app and the framework that will drive the app’s modularity 2. An interactive design/dev team to develop the modular learning activities that will best engage the child

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

As mentioned above, a development team would be a tremendous help. The scope of this app is quite large, so I suspect that a few minds will be needed to organize the technological ramifications of the app. Cycles implements large data bases, natural language processing, interactive media, and important security/privacy elements. As I onboard a team of developers, I also plan to consult industry experts in each of these fields to make sure that the team is approaching the technology with best practices. Beyond the building of the app, another team member will be needed to find partnerships with schools and clinics to test and distribute the product. These partnerships are essential for building credibility in the space from all stakeholders. I have been primarily designing and testing my app with a single clinic here in Los Angeles, but many more will be needed to test the market viability/opportunity and product design over the coming months. Advice as to which clinics would be open to early adoption of the app are much welcomed, as I am not an expert of the various reputations of clinics across the country. Further, the legal ramifications of this product are quite extensive. It deals with private information regarding each child, and it references a database of open-sourced assets. I am not an expert in either of these issues, so a business lawyer would be incredibly helpful to navigate those waters. Finally, I designed this app for DHH children, but it has become clear to me that many of the challenges this community faces are similar to those of other communities that struggle with literacy development. I hope to collaborate with experts in designing educational apps for other special populations, so that I can expand the reach of the app to even more students.

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Tamara Kaldor

I think you need to some research into early childhood literacy and technology. There is quite a bit published that translates well to children with hearing loss. In addition, do some research and user interviews with DLL families.