It’s Hackathon time – but what are we here for?

Rowena Westphalen, Director of Solution Engineering, Salesforce

As we approach the apps4autism Hackathon, it’s the perfect time to refine our understanding of the meaning and potential of ‘human-centred design’.

In an age where customer experience has become the number one value driving successful businesses, the concept of applying human-centred design to technology engineering makes perfect sense. Applying it at all stages in the innovation cycle has become one of the most effective ways to create and deliver new services that meet customers' increasing hunger for amazing experiences.

Perhaps the most powerful application of human-centred design is in the medical field. There, it evolves from something that excites and delights its users, improves customer experience and humanises business, to something that truly transforms lives.

Look at Cochlear – a few years ago, Cochlear pivoted from being a business that sold hearing implants to surgeons (with not a tear-jerking video in sight!), to one that helped people connect with their loved ones.

Their change in thinking allowed Cochlear to recognise new opportunities related to helping people to connect. That's when they discovered entirely new product innovations that serviced latent unmet needs of the implant recipients. Today Cochlear provides a wireless technology service that allows users to stream music and have better sound clarity on phone calls.

Design thinking vs. human-centred design

But let’s step back and discuss what human-centred design really means. People currently use the term ‘design thinking’ a lot.

The application of design to technology humanises the tech experience. And design thinking's potential for humanising business, offering businesses a way to connect – not only on a functional level but an emotional one – is causing a stir among companies of all sizes.

I've switched to describing the process as ‘human-centred design’ though, because we need to remember that humans really do need to be at the centre of the process.

Human-centred design is a set of skills and tools, and a mindset of problem-finding and problem-solving based on empathy. Empathy is probably the most central element here, which makes this process unique and valuable but the designer’s mindset is probably the capability that provides the highest value.

‘Problem-finding’? Think of the famous quote often attributed to Henry Ford – “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. He was right. Problem solving is breeding and training faster horses. Problem finding is figuring out exactly what people really want and need, then helping people transition.

When people are exploring ideas, they often look for insight but I think people often don’t understand or fully uncover what ‘insight’ is. I think it's about getting to a point where you're able to reframe a perspective. In the human-centred design context, your biggest innovation point is when you can identify an unmet need. That becomes the inspiration from which we create something new.

Calling all change makers to the apps4autism Hackathon

And so we see an event like the apps4autism Hackathon, hosted by Autism CRC and supported by Salesforce. People who appreciate the power of human-centred design likely understand its potential. At this event, multi-skilled teams come together for three days to create solutions that could revolutionise the lives of people living with autism.

But it’s not just people on the autism spectrum whose lives could be revolutionised; we could all benefit.

Autism is not a disability, it’s a different ability. People on the autism spectrum have many strengths, yet their abilities vary from what we think of as ‘the norm’ – the masses. This presents challenges for them in the way they’re able to live their daily lives.

Human-centred design, creating apps that uncover some of the potential innovation points for people on the autism spectrum, can transform the lives of a large group of very talented people and can therefore benefit all of society.

Once there is greater insight into the real motivations behind the reactions and behaviours of people living with autism, once our perspective is reframed, we will collectively have the opportunity to ensure there is nothing standing in the way of a person and their abilities. That will be good for all of us.

Calling all change-makers. Apps4autism teams have unearthed key problems, insights, ideas and opportunities that are ready to be taken to the next level. We need your help to develop real-life solutions, using the Salesforce app Cloud, which can be prototyped and developed in health services, schools, workplaces and communities.

If you love technology and want to make a difference in people's lives, join the apps4autism group Nov 14-16 and help us create real solutions for real people.

A Pilgrimage to the Hackathon Room

Dr Olivia Gatfield, Autism CRC

Including people on the spectrum is crucial to the success of the Autism CRC Hackathon as they are the user experience (UX) experts. Charged with ensuring we could provide the best possible experience for people on the spectrum, Rickkie Johnson and I visited the venue last month along with two other autistic adults - Tori and Joel.  These guys, along with other autistics, have taught me that people on the spectrum can do anything, but some minor adjustments can make a huge difference. 

We discovered that getting to the Hackathon room was quite an event in itself - there is a rotating door (help those of us who are from warm states as we’ll be the ones stuck in there), a sign-in procedure, a security check and two lifts to access the room.  Feeling the anxiety rise?  Relax, we got lots of photos on our visit and are developing a guide to the event.  This will include photos and instructions for getting to the room, photos and descriptions of the rooms, emergency evacuation procedures, and pictures and contact numbers for Rickkie and I. We are the autistic engagement support people and will be available in-person or via text for the entirety of the event. 

One of things we needed to consider was the sensory environment.  Hackathon events have the potential to be really noisy and the event is to be held in a ‘ballroom’ with floor to ceiling windows.  I conjured images of wooden floors and high ceilings - an acoustic nightmare - with our eyeballs being burned by glare (I started hoping for rainy days - sorry Melbournians!).  To our relief, the room is carpeted with unpatterned carpet (this can be a sensory issue for some) and acoustically considered.  But, to help reduce cross-pollination of sound between the project teams, we will spread them throughout the large room.  Kitted out with electronic blinds of the future, translucent or black out blinds can be lowered so we don’t have do a Bono and wear sunglasses inside (you are welcome to though and probably should if you are a U2 fan). 

Although the Hackathon room ticks many sensory boxes - the event itself may be overwhelming for some.  Our game plan is twofold.  ANZ have let us use a smaller room on the same floor as the Hackathon room.  This will be our chill out zone - a quiet, dimly lit room that anyone can use to have some down time.  Lounge in a beanbag, fiddle with some sensory objects, pop in some disposable ear plugs, grab a cup of tea, chill with an adult colouring book.  We ask that people don’t bring food into the room (smells can be a sensory issue for some - and I’m naming and shaming you tuna), and please don’t talk on your phone or approach people.   The other essential element of our game plan is to have small red dot stickers that anyone can put on their visitor badge.  This signals to people that you would prefer not be approached for a chat.  Put on your dot, grab some food, take a seat, soak in the experience - all without having to make ‘small talk’. 

These are small things indeed, but we hope that by taking these steps we can help reduce anxiety some people may feel and ensures the space allows everyone to have the best possible experience. 



Is your new App autism Friendly? Probably not.

 Robert Szczerba

 This article first appeared in Forbes found here.

Computers, smart phones, and related technologies are actively improving the lives of people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). These technologies can help compensate for verbal and social challenges as well as enabling new ways of communication, socialization, and learning.

ASD and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and possible repetitive behaviors. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the current incidence of autism is a staggering 1 in 68 children.

Every day we see new apps or software tools marketed to this rapidly growing demographic. However, while the technical capabilities of these tools continue to improve, usually much less attention is paid to the design and implementation of the user interface (UI) – or how the user views and interacts with the system. A well-designed UI can make the difference between a great user experience and a horrible one – and from a business sense – the difference between success and failure.

While there has been significant research in the area of UI design for individuals with disabilities, most of these efforts have focused on individuals with either visual, hearing, or mobility (fine motor or gross motor) impairments. Much less work has focused on UI design for individuals with cognitive disorders such as autism.

One person seeking to change the research momentum in this area is Nikolay Pavlov, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Informatics at Plovdiv University (Bulgaria). Pavlov reviewed a number of different design standards originally intended for individuals with learning disabilities and/or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as well as feedback from end users and clinical professionals. He then aggregated the best practices to create UI design recommendations for individuals with autism.

His recommendations follow the guidelines set up by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to improve web access for people with disabilities through the use of inclusive design concepts. The goals of which are to improve accessibility and usability of the developed software. A summary of his findings are broken down into the categories below.


  • Use contrast between font and background
  • Use soft, mild colors when possible
  • Make sure any text box is clearly separated from the rest of the page
  • Present text in a single column
  • Use simple graphics
  • Use clear, sans-serif fonts
  • Avoid use of bright colors
  • Avoid use of background images
  • Do not overlap transparent images and text
  • Avoid use of pop-up elements and other visual distractions
  • Eliminate elements that “stand out” too much on the page
  • Avoid horizontal scrolling

Navigation and Page Loading

  • Strive for simple, clear navigation methods
  • Indicate on each page clearly where the user is located
  • Support navigation with mouse or keyboard
  • Allow the use of the browser’s buttons
  • Design to decrease the loading time of new pages
  • Use visual progress indicators for time-consuming actions
  • Always have a clearly located “help” button
  • Avoid the use of complex and/or hierarchical menus


  • Design for simplicity with few elements on screen
  • Try to have only one toolbar
  • Use clear, large buttons with both icons and text
  • Give short, easy to follow, instructions of use at every step
  • Avoid cluttered interfaces
  • Do not use multi-colored icons
  • Avoid buttons with icons only, except for the most popular actions (i.e., “back”)


  • Allow personalization of (a) font type and size, (b) line-spacing, and (c) themes for text background and foreground colors

Ease of personalization was determined to be a key element of UI design for people with autism because these individuals have a wide variety of personal preferences based on their sensory tolerance levels.

While good UI design is important for any software development effort, it’s even more important when designing for individuals on the autism spectrum.

 This article first appeared in Forbes found here.

5 Ideas to Hack

Wojciech Nadachowski, Autism CRC

When we launched apps4autism, we received a number of applications. It was hard to choose between them with some very novel ideas.  The projects were assessed in their capacity to be innovative, transformative, meeting a community need, the project's ability for a technological solution, the capacity to inform research, as well as its uniqueness. 

Autism CRC have selected 5, here they are:

  • SpeakSoon, led by Dr David Trembath, Griffith University
  • Resilience, led by Dr Ian Schochet, Queensland University of Technology
  • Peer Mentoring, led by Dr Sonya Girdler, Curtin University
  • ACT Therapy, led by Cindy Nicollet, QCIDD, University of Queensland
  • BOOST-A, led by Megan Hatfield, Curtin University