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TalkBox: A DIY Communication Board


UX Researcher & Designer


4 months

Sep 2019 - Dec 2019


Dr. Foad Hamidi & 

Jason Charney


This project is about the design and development of TalkBox and its instruction set. TalkBox is a low-cost Do-It-Yourself (DIY) open-source communication board for non-verbal users. The goal was to make it easy to assemble and intuitive to use. 



I was responsible for building the DIY instructions and conducting a Think Aloud Observation Study while Jason Charney, a fellow designer focused on the design iterations. We worked as a team in the Designing Participatory Futures (DARE) Lab under the guidance of Dr. Foad Hamidi.


Left to right: Dr. Foad Hamidi, Jason Charney (holding TalkBox), and I in the DARE Lab


  • Non-verbal children/adults and their caregivers

  • Novice users who have little or no knowledge about circuitry

Research Methodologies

  • Literature Review

  • Hierarchical Task Analysis 

  • Think Aloud Observations

Learning New Skills 

Fabricating new versions of TalkBox involved tasks like 3D Printing, Lasercutting, and Soldering, which were new to me and a lot of fun. These activities helped me empathize with the maker community.


Lasercutting the individual parts of TalkBox to build a quick and low-cost prototype.

3D Printing.jpg

3D printing an enclosure for electronic components.


Soldering wires connected to the Touch Sensor hat. 


Engage in user tasks when possible. It not only builds empathy but also equips you to ask better questions. 

Literature Review

For the literature review, I read ten ACM research papers, explored articles, and watched youtube videos on DIY maker projects. I gained interesting insights on how makers use instructions and what changes in the design of instructions would improve their learning experience. I also wrote a research paper of my own that identifies research gaps, synthesizes findings, and proposes solutions for the creation of effective DIY instructions.

Relevant insights from the Literature Review

  • There should be room for customization in DIY projects.

  • Readers of instructions want to learn techniques rather than following step-by-step instructions.

  • Instructions should encourage design thinking and exploration.

  • Makers appreciate the addition of humor in DIY instructions.

  • They also appreciate multiple formats like text, images, and video instructions.

  • The maker community is inclusive of all ages, levels of knowledge, backgrounds, and abilities.

  • The focus is on self-reliance, sharing knowledge, and connecting to like-minded people.

Research Questions

  • How do we strike a balance between making instructions easy to read and adding sufficient information about the design process?

  • Making DIY kits “error-proof” give makers a sense of accomplishment but does it facilitate learning?

Making DIY instructions


The design process started with a brainstorming exercise. Backed with insights from the literature review, I let my creative juices flow and jotted down all ideas that came to mind, even the outlandish ones. After discussing the pros and cons of each idea with my team, we decided to pursue two versions of DIY instructions:

  1. ​An experimental storyboard version with a panda as the protagonist.

  2. A traditional photo version similar to instructions on Instructables.


Notes from Ideation

Hierarchical Task Analysis (HTA)

I started by observing Jason assembling the TalkBox, taking notes, and preparing a draft document of the Hierarchical Task Analysis (HTA). With my novice making skills, I began assembling TalkBox myself. Every time I was unsure of what the next step was, I made notes. I applied the P x C Rule to break down the assembly steps further and refine the HTA.


Performing user tasks yourself will give you a design direction but remember to test those designs with actual users.

Using HTA as a guideline, I made two versions of DIY Instructions


A few sketches from

the storyboard version


A glimpse of the Photo version


Ask yourself: What assumptions have I made? What is the source of those assumptions? What were the unexpected outcomes of the usability test? How can we incorporate the new insights going forward? This exercise helps maintain objectivity, control biases, and improve your research strategy.

Usability Test

Think Aloud Observation

We invited 3 students from the Mechanical Engineering Department at UMBC to the DARE Lab. The students used both versions of the DIY instructions to assemble TalkBox and were asked to think aloud as they navigated through the instructions.


  • Identify points of hesitation during the assembly process and probe for reasons 

  • Judge the response to hand-sketched storyboarded instructions 

  • Evaluate the user experience for both versions and make a note of the strengths and weaknesses of each


Notable Findings

  • Participants missed minute details like the orientation of a notch on a hardboard piece while reading instructions.

  • The texture of the hardboard pieces was perceived as a clue to the orientation of the pieces. 

  • The Panda brought a sense of ease to the TalkBox assembly process and made the experience engaging.

  • Participants liked the highlighted portions in each of the frames in the storyboard version because it helped them focus on the task at hand.

  • The sketches did not resemble the actual pieces as well as the photos so participants switched to the photo version sometimes for clarity.

  • Numbers can be used to guide the assembly of pieces just like IKEA's assembly instructions.


Don’t get attached to your designs no matter how hard you worked on them. Appreciate ambiguity and iterations.

Plan of Action for the future 

  • Find a way to add affordance to the pieces so that users don't have to rely solely on instructions to not make mistakes. Explore using different textures.

  • The orientation of the base for the tiles is confusing. The notch is supposed to be on top but users placed the notch on the bottom. The instruction warns users about this error and yet participants got the orientation wrong. A possible solution for this would be to make the dividing teeth uneven so that the tile base fits only in one particular orientation.

  • Highlight relevant portions of the photo just like the storyboard version.

  • Build an IKEA style set of instructions using the numbering technique and conduct a comparative study.

  • Experiment with digital sketches using the hand-drawn sketches as a guide.

  • Use the following design guideline for all versions and test for design exploration value. 

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