Reaction Pad

A life-changing app designed to help a tetraplegic man communicate with his family again, with Ruby Steel and Ross Atkin.

Graham’s Story

Two years ago Graham, a man in his 50’s, suffered a stroke and as a result he is almost completely paralysed and unable to speak. Since his stroke Graham, his wife Zoe and their children have faced a daily battle, adapting to new and often painstaking ways of communication.

Graham’s condition allows him a small amount of motion in his left hand and he has used this to communicate with his family via the controls on a playstation or painstakingly typing out words letter by letter on an iPad. The action of typing can be so strenuous that he may only manage 1 word a day.

Graham and his family desperately needed a way to improve their communication.

The Big Life Fix

The Big Life Fix is a brand new TV series, bringing together top designers and engineers to help people like Graham, whose lives have been affected by circumstances beyond their control. It aired on BBC Two on 14th December 2016.

Supporting Ruby Steel, a human-centred designer at Smart Design, Mettle set about helping her improve Graham’s communication with his family as a means of enhancing all their lives.

Understanding Graham’s needs

A big part of this challenge was understanding Graham’s needs and the challenges he faces. We worked with Ruby, role playing Graham’s condition and post-it noting actions or statements. A huge learning that came from this exercise was how important timing was to a response. A well placed “yes” allows conversation to flow where as a mistimed “yes” causes confusion and halts a conversation in its tracks. Through spending time with Graham, Ruby also learnt that it was key to be able to communicate Graham's character and his infectious sense of humour and that anything with a“robot voice” was to be avoided. Her understanding of the situation lead to the concept of the Reaction Pad.

The Reaction Pad was born

The early concept for the Reaction Pad was an iPad application that would be an expressive tool taking emotive audio clips from films, TV and music as a means of giving Graham an outlet for expression. This idea encompasses a digital pallet of expressions to be quickly and easily accessible with very few interactions. The key differentiator is that the Reaction Pad focuses on personality rather than exact wording or transactional communication and this proved fundamental to portraying Graham's personality.

Reaction Pad image

The nitty gritty

Built on a grid system, the app is made up of 4 sections. Attention and Quick Statements contain a selection of phrases, that when selected are sounded through the iPad. They spread across the full range of language including expletives - it was important to allow the full spectrum to provide Graham with the options. The Emotions section contains expressive content from clips of his favourite films or TV and the Environment section connects Graham to his smart products, enabling him to alter his surroundings, e.g. increasing the temperature, changing the lighting or play music.

Reducing fatigue and maximising Graham’s energy for communication

This was tackled in a series of ways. The application is able to connect to a range of bluetooth input devices designed and developed by Ross Atkin. Should Graham’s hand get tired another input device could allow him to continue for a little longer. The other system was a shortcut system. Inspired by Graham’s love of gaming, everything in the app was accessible through a combination of 4 inputs reducing his inputs to a minimum.

Reaction Pad image


Being reliant on fixed phrases would quickly get tiresome so the app was designed with a mirrored website where Zoe can update audio clips, rearrange them or change the action on an environments button. Future iterations of this application could include greater sound banks and editing directly from the application.

Graham’s Voice

Having been built to be customised, when Zoe found old videos of Graham before his stroke it was possible to strip the audio off the video and construct words and phrases in Graham’s voice and allow Graham to play them through the app!

This was a fantastic project to be a part of and we thoroughly enjoy working with Ruby, the whole Big Life Fix Team and producers Studio Lambert. Design and technology that improves people’s lives is what Mettle was conceived to do!