Case Study

Because we all want to be heard.

Services Engaged

Product Delivery
Data & AI
Spatial Computing

It Began With One Of Our Own.

When former WillowTree designer Matt Kubota’s partner Ana was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, we knew we had to help.

The rare autoimmune disorder left Ana temporarily paralyzed and unable to speak. Ana and her caregivers looked to augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. But they soon discovered the available options were expensive, bulky, rudimentary, or outdated. While Ana recovered, she painstakingly communicated by blinking as caregivers pointed to letters on an alphabet poster.

Matt knew he and the WillowTree team could create a better experience for Ana and other AAC users: stroke and trauma survivors, people with MS or ALS, non-verbal individuals with autism, intubated hospital patients, and many more. That vision became the Vocable AAC app, a revolutionary augmentative and alternative communication tool, now AI-enabled with the integration of ChatGPT.

It started on a WillowTree-wide Innovation Day and eventually became Vocable — a free, conversational AI mobile platform allowing non-verbal users to communicate via subtle head movements and text-to-speech.

Download on the Apple App Store
Get it on Google Play

Winner | Experimental & Innovation Best Practices

Honoree | Accessible Technology

Nominee | Best Use of Voice Technology

Honoree | Accessible Technology

Techquity Case Study Award 2024


approximate cost of hi-tech speech generating devices


U.S. adults experienced difficulty speaking in the past year

1 in 12

children between ages 3–17 are affected by voice, speech, language, or swallowing disorders

1 in 3

stroke survivors experience difficulty speaking, reading, or writing

A more Natural language experience

We Believe in the Power of Voice

We believe shared language lies at the root of every relationship. Language connects every parent and child, every caregiver and patient, every programmer and piece of technology, creating something greater than ourselves: community.

“Vocable is making a major difference in the ALS community. I have seen people break into tears when using your app.”

Tom Meadows
Founder, Steve’s Way
Spatial Computing

Tracking Eye Movements

Paralyzed users like Ana, who can’t tap a screen, needed an innovative way to manipulate an AAC device, and the power of the WillowTree community proved itself to Matt and the Vocable development team repeatedly. In the product’s first iteration — “Eye Lasers” — users experienced significant shakiness when trying to control the cursors that tracked their eye and head movements.

The robotics expertise of WillowTree senior software engineer Chris Stroud unlocked the solution, providing a more stable, precise experience when manipulating elements of any size and on any device. With subtle head movements, users could now control a cursor to type letters or select custom phrases from personalized categories.

Conversational AI meets generative ai

Personalized Pattern Detection

The integration of OpenAI's ChatGPT allows the app to retain conversational context, enhance predictive pattern detection, and bolster semantic understanding of a caregiver’s speech, offering a faster, smoother, and more natural conversational experience for today’s AAC users. It's an ideal use case for conversational + generative AI.

Activating Listening Mode

Vocable is a good listener, too. Through Listening Mode, Vocable understands caregiver speech and context, offering users AI-generated responses that carry the conversation forward. Users or caregivers can quickly and easily activate Listening Mode by tapping the mic icon or saying, “Hey, Vocable.”

“ChatGPT is a conversational interface, it's literally made for this. It understands an entire conversation's history, providing better AI-generated responses for the non-verbal user to select."

Andrew Carter
WillowTree Principal Practice Advisor

UX and Accessibility Considerations

If users have to spend so much of their day interacting with the Vocable app, it’s gotta look good, too, right? Based on feedback from research partners like the assistive technology teams at Duke University and speech-language pathologists, WillowTree’s design team identified ways to accomplish exactly that.

Guiding our design work was the principle that high contrast can be so much more than black and white. That’s why Vocable incorporates the strongest ADA compliance through elements like a compelling high-contrast palette and large typography, promising a consistent and aesthetically pleasing experience across devices. Because what’s accessible should also be enjoyable.

“When so few hospitals have available technology for the communication-vulnerable, it's exciting that a platform like Vocable exists. Vocable is easy to access and most importantly free."

Dr. John M. Costello
MA, Boston Children’s Hospital
a growing community

Serving Users Around the World

Vocable is global. With the help of the localization management platform Crowdin, Vocable became a multilingual product that can serve people speaking more than a dozen different languages around the world.

The Next Iteration

It’s open-source, too. So any engineer like Chris, designer like Matt, or product architect like Kylie can contribute to Vocable — anytime, anywhere.

Download the code here: iOS | Android

“WillowTree believes voice is the future. Vocable is the most powerful voice product we could ever create... I’ve worked at WillowTree for more than seven years and this is by far one of the most impactful projects I’ve been on, by any means — and I worked in healthcare IT prior to WillowTree.”

Kylie Kalik
WillowTree Product Architect Director

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