Speech System Designers Need to Hold Procedural Memory in Mind

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Sometimes the things that come so easily, so naturally for us—the things we’ve been doing pretty much automatically our entire lives—are really, really hard for a lot of other people.

Tying your shoes or using a telephone or an ATM, or being the driver in your own car and also in your spouse’s car and also in a rental car. Easy, right? It’s a transferable skill, right? The answer is yes, but not for everyone.

When you get into your car, you know where everything is and you know exactly what you need to do before you embark on your journey: put on your seatbelt, put the key in the ignition or press the Start Engine button, release the emergency brake, maybe even turn on the radio. With a rental car, you have a bit of a learning curve. Maybe it’s not immediately apparent how to adjust the mirrors or pair your phone with the car.

This is procedural memory. It’s connected with how we do something. Complex sequences of where things are located on a device may be learned. But it’s person- and space-specific.

When someone with autism or a brain injury or some other condition that affects procedural memory is learning a new skill, it makes a difference how and where the person learns it.

These individuals need to be trained to do exactly the task they want to learn. They need to be trained on that one specific software program or that one specific cell phone with that one specific graphical user interface (GUI).

This is why therapy is not always super effective.

When a kid with autism is working with her speech therapist to use a device (whether it’s an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device or a cell phone or something else), the therapist can’t just randomly arrange icons on the device, because if he subsequently moves the locations of the icons, or even changes what they look like, the child will not recognize them or how to accomplish her goal.

Similarly, when companies make visual changes to software within its updates, this affects the steps in doing something. And it makes learning difficult. So when a cell phone provider does an auto update and the placement or look of the icons changes, or when the options in an IVR change, it’s a really big deal for a person who has procedural memory challenges. This is one reason IVRs are so difficult for people with certain disabilities and why the FCC has rules about it.

Procedural memory is dependent on motor memory. We learn by practice, remembering what we do multiple times. We know where it is and what to do with it or to it in that particular context. You don’t have to think about it when you get into your car, but you lose the familiarity when you get into someone else’s.

When someone living in the United States drives a car in England, it takes some getting used to. We’re used to using our right hand for the cabin controls. But now the controls are on the left side. Intellectually we know it’s flipped, but we still instinctively use our right hand.

It takes a while to adjust for people with no injury, illness, or impairment. For individuals with these conditions, it’s even more difficult, if not impossible.

Augmented reality (AR) can be a game changer for these patients. Therapists can use AR to teach social skills to individuals with autism, improve interpersonal interaction, rehabilitate people with Parkinson’s and other neurological conditions, and more. (More on this in another column.)

Please use this information when you’re designing your systems. Even if you’re just responsible for the speech design part of the project, you can still help make a better overall product by keeping procedural memory in mind. And you can still help make the world a better place for people with disabilities by being more understanding of people who don’t have the robust procedural memory you have.

Now transfer this knowledge to your products. It’s easy, right? 

Robin Springer is an attorney and the president of Computer Talk (www.comptalk.com), a consulting firm specializing in implementation of speech recognition technology and services, with a commitment to shifting the paradigm of disability through awareness and education. She can be reached at (888) 999-9161 or contactus@comptalk.com.

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