Let's Talk

Assistive Tech: Essential For Some, Useful For All

In this conversation, I spoke with Rich Purcell, who is a medical doctor and the founder of the assistive technology Caption.Ed, a company which keeps the user’s voice at the heart of their innovation.

Photo of Rich Purcell

Speaker 1: Welcome to The Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hello there. Thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of The Inclusive Growth Podcast. I'm Toby Mildon. And today I'm joined by Rich Purcell, who is the founder and director of Caption.Ed. And I came across Rich's product called Caption.Ed. And I was really interested in talking to him because in my book Inclusive Growth, there's a whole chapter on cyber, and how technology can help organizations deliver on diversity and inclusion. And there's all sorts of technologies and apps that can help. But also the need for assistive technology or making technology accessible to not only the public, so that could be a website or any apps that you develop, but also internally in terms of making sure that your systems are accessible. So that could be your career management system, or learning management system, or internet, that kind of thing. So I came across Rich's product, which is called Caption.Ed and it falls into the kind of the last category of assistive technology. And I was really keen to just have a chat with him about what his product does, and how it helps people in organizations, and how it can help increase inclusivity for you. So Rich, thank you for joining me today. Great to see you.

Rich Purcell: Yeah, thanks Toby. Nice to be here. Thank you for the invite.

Toby Mildon: So before we delve deeper into what your product does, and how it can help make workplaces more inclusive for staff. Can you just let us know a bit more about yourself and your background?

Rich Purcell: Yeah, absolutely. So my background is actually within healthcare. So I'm a doctor by trade, I started to become interested in assistive technology back when I was at university, which is quite a while ago now. And I'm very dyslexic, really dyslexic. And when I went to university, and I was... I got to medical school, and I was faced with the delights of medical vocabulary. So lots of long and easy terminology, I really struggled. And I struggled for a number of years until there was a sort of a slight break in the workload, which managed... And I managed to consider a solution for the problems that I was experiencing. And a friend of mine said he was also experiencing the same problem. So we collaborated to build a piece of software that would help us and we built this piece of software. And it turned out, it wasn't just us, who were... Was struggling with the problem, and lots of our peers wanted to use it. And then our university wanted to use it. And then other universities and NHS Trust and other organizations wanted to adopt this technology that we'd built. And that's really kinda of where I became interested in assistive technology.

Rich Purcell: I then went on to practice kinda medicine in the NHS, but at the same time kind of grew my interest in assistive technology up until sort of 2018 where we were sort of approached by a couple of UK universities, who were asking for support with a particular problem surrounding captioning, and wanted some advice on how they might better support students. And the problem that they spelled out to us was one that was really interesting and needed some real consideration. And so we spent two years kind of collaborating with them, in order to build what is Caption.Ed. And we launched that in August 2020. And then since then, we've kind of built a business really around Caption.Ed and got the software out to lots and lots of people both in higher education, but also in the workspace. And yeah, and things have moved pretty quick over the last 18 months. And now we've got a really broad user base using our products.

Toby Mildon: That's really cool. So what does Caption.Ed do? And I know from our chats earlier, that you're really keen to make sure that you promote the voice of the user as well, in the way that you've developed Caption.Ed. But if you could maybe let us know a bit more about that.

Rich Purcell: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, so Caption.Ed is a piece of AI-driven captioning and note-taking software. So the software works by sitting on the user's computer, or mobile and allowing them to caption anything, and it really is anything, so it can be a Zoom call or a Microsoft team's call. It could be an in-person conversation, or meeting, or lecture. It could be a YouTube video or podcast. It could be absolutely anything. And the idea is that the user gets really accurate, so highly accurate and instant captions just with a clicker of a button. But we go a step further and we allow the user to kind of highlight key bits of information within those captions and add their own annotations on the fly, and then save all that information to return back to later.

Rich Purcell: So they can re-visit previous captioning sessions, and they can listen back to what was said and see a full transcript and review and amend their annotations, and then export all that information in a format that kind of works for them. So that's what kind of Caption.Ed is. And you can imagine, it's really useful for those people who need captions. And that's actually a lot of people. And I know there's sort of... Immediate thoughts go to people who are deaf or have hearing loss, but... So evidence shows that lots of people get real great benefit from captions, not just those people who are deaf or have hearing loss. Actually, Netflix published an article recently that showed that over 80% of their media is viewed with captions. But it's also really useful for productivity as well, and people who maybe struggle with taking notes and minuting meetings and things like that. So you can imagine not just those who maybe have a disability, that means that they struggle to take notes, but also just generally from a productivity perspective. And so, running HR meetings, interviews, research, all those sorts of things. You'll get a full transcribed and annotated transcripts afterwards.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, it would definitely benefit me actually, 'cause I can't use my hands. I use speech-to-text software. So I use Dragon Naturally Speaking, to dictate to my computer and control my computer. The downside is that I can't do that when I'm on a Zoom call. Because you get a conflict between the microphone and the audio and also in face-to-face meetings as well. I would have to sit there and talk over people. But having something a bit of AI that would automatically capture conversations and things like that, would be hugely beneficial actually.

Rich Purcell: Yeah, absolutely. And... And yeah and kind of, you kind of touched on the point there, really kind of like the voice of the user and why that's so important in building great software. And I really don't think you can build great assistive tech kind of, without it. I have my own challenges and the software helps me overcome some of those, and I can kind of talk with confidence about what those those difficulties are and how the software can better help me overcome them. But and these might... Those might be kind of totally different to someone else's reasons for using the software. And I don't have that experience so actually listening to the voice of our customers and making sure that we are developing the product in the best direction to suit our users' needs is essential. So the more people we can speak to, the more we can understand how the software can best help them, and the better we can design the product to align with those requirements. So yeah, there is no kind of future of the product really without our customer's voice.

Toby Mildon: So you started building this product also when we were kind of in the thick of COVID 19 and just wond... So I'm just wondering how the pandemic has affected you personally because of your medical background but also getting the business up and running at the same time?

Rich Purcell: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, we were kind of... We'd sort of started kind of working on the products sort of in the lead up to the pandemic. And then you're quite, right? Yeah. The pandemic kind of struck... Was right as we were kind of gearing up and starting to put the sort of finishing touches to it. And it kind of had a, I guess, a varying effects on those in the business. As a medic, I went back into the... I'd taken a year and 18 months or so out of clinical work. And I went back in to do some clinical work and it's sort of when the pandemic all kicked off for quite a while, which was... Which just felt like the thing I needed to do it sort of seemed like the apocalypse at the time.

Rich Purcell: And it seemed like a sensible place to be and thing to be doing but that was challenging 'cause we had a growing business, a product launch on the horizon and four days of every week I was on the wards which was, which was difficult. But we kind of persevered, we launched the product slightly later than planned in August, 2020 which was still kind of in the midst of the pandemic. And I think the pandemic did do something to help promote our products. There was definitely an increased demand for them and people were... A lot of people were online, a lot of people were experiencing issues with access to captions and just generally accessibility for kind of working and learning online.

Rich Purcell: So it was a large demand for our products so they certainly sort of, we managed to fill that demand. It also helped that I could speak to a lot of people quite quickly because everybody was behind their computers. So I could have a conversation one morning in Aberdeen and then a conversation in Southampton in the afternoon. And I could speak to a lot of people quite quickly, which was good. And we definitely saw that kind of pay dividends in the way that it kind of grew the business and our user base. So it was kind of it was... Definitely had some challenges but also gave us some real opportunity, I think generally and there was also an increased awareness of assistive technology during the pandemic. I think people had to adapt quite quickly and were looking at... And were using technology to help them adapt. So in that sense everybody had to sort of use assistive technology to some degree. And so I think there was more awareness and budgets available for it.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. I know a lot of my clients overnight had to move from being office-based to home-based. They were thinking about some basic technology setup like making sure all of their staff had laptops who perhaps were not remote workers previously. But also making sure that people had access to software and yeah, there was definitely a lot more talk around assistive technology. So how could somebody who say got a hearing impairment now participate in Zoom calls because they might have done face-to-face meetings beforehand and perhaps it was easier to do lip reading or yeah use a sign language interpreter but the way of working changed overnight for them. It sounds like your product is going from strengths to strength. How do you see it expanding into the workplace?

Rich Purcell: Yeah. That's a good question. So I think we sort of started off in I mean, I say started off, we've only been going for... We only launched the product 18 months ago but we kind of... Initially we were... We had a lot of uptake in higher education, so the whole of higher education moved remotely. There was really big demand for the software and we were adopted by a large number of UK universities and overseas as well. So that was kind of where we focused initially and as the product grew and became sort of more widely adopted, it started to be used more and more in the workplace as well. And that's really where we are now. So we're starting to find that we're getting lots of organizations, take on the software. Initially, those kind of, and that... Those sort of initial inquiries came through things like access to work and kind of workplace adjustments.

Rich Purcell: But what we've found, which is really interesting is that often somebody gets the software say through a workplace adjustment a single user will, will have access. And then we'll get a... Have an email through from the head of the departments or their manager saying, "what is this software and can we use it more widely," which is really nice because that's sort of spreading that from really assistive technology through to kind of productivity tools and kind of getting more widely adopted. So yeah, we're finding that quite regularly so we've been adopted by a number of large organizations from everywhere from government organizations and government bodies through to financial institutions and yeah, all over the place, really.

Toby Mildon: I like it when assistive technology starts out and then goes into mainstream. So the keyboard was designed for a blind countess to write love letters to her lover and now everyone uses a keyboard. And when I was working at the BBC in user experience in design, my boss, a guy called Jonathan Hassel, who I've interviewed on this podcast and he now runs his own accessibility company auditing websites and helping companies embed accessibility into their organization.

Toby Mildon: He... I remember he worked on a project where they were looking at using 3D audio to teach blind children, how to learn maths at school and then that technology was picked up by a games company. They developed a game for your iPhone where you could run away from zombies, but they realized that you can't run and look at your iPhone at the same time. So they were relying on sound. And it was really interesting how that sound 3D sound technology was then adopted by a mainstream games company. How do you see your product evolving and being adopted?

Rich Purcell: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that's right. I think with assistive technology, I kind of feel like really good assisted assistive tech is kind of essential for some but useful for all. And that's kind of certainly what we've found in the software is there's people who cannot work or study without it, but then there's other people who just find it such an useful kind of a compliment to help them be more efficient and effective. And yeah, everything from... And I found that with say like the first piece of software that I ever built, that sort of medical spell checking software, you know that was, for me, it was essential. I'm very dyslexic and really was really struggling and built this thing.

Rich Purcell: But we surveyed the whole of our medical school at Bristol University and found that 97% of my peers also found it difficult and would find it useful. So that's kind of the classic example and spell check is generally, you know, they were built for people who were dyslexic. And now I don't know anybody who doesn't benefit from a spell checker. So yeah, essential for some, but kind of useful for all, I think and that's certainly what we're seeing is people kind of adopt it, maybe through say a workplace accommodation, but then the whole organization kind of gets behind it and can use it as a tool for productivity.

Rich Purcell: I think the challenge for us is making sure that we're assistive tech first and making sure we don't just make decisions for mass market and listen to, again, listen to our users and honing on those... Honing on those and those very specific use cases. I think for us, one of the big things is we're self-funded, which means that we have the freedom to do that. We have the freedom to sweat the small stuff really listen to and our customers rather than answering to kind of basically to other people's incentives or requirements, we're able to focus on what we want and what we think's best for our customers and our product, and rather than sometimes conflicting interest.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. And I think it's important to hone in on that assistive market because... Well, one of the things that Jonathan talks about and that the benefits of accessibility is that it can be a real source of innovation, kind of one of the upsides of thinking about accessibility first and getting it embedded into any products that you develop. I must admit when I first looked at your product, I was wondering how it was similar to similar products out there, 'cause you know, I've used Otter.ai in the past and it integrates with Zoom and that kind of thing. So how does your product differ from those other solutions on the market?

Rich Purcell: I think one of the key things is that we've come from, again, assistive tech kind of first and put the... Put those use cases at the forefront of what we're doing. So things like, we are captioning and note-taking. So with captions rather than just plain transcripts, and you can get access to transcripts, but the captions are critical and things like how... What makes captions useful and there's two pretty key things. One is accuracy. So making sure the words that appear on screen represent the words that were spoken and to do that, we and... To make sure we're as accurate as possible, we do a few things like we refined for different accents for different languages and for different subject matters. So for instance, my background in the medical profession, if I'm talking about complicated medical terminology, I want to make sure that that's represented in the captions and we can refine the captions specifically for that use case.

Rich Purcell: So accuracy is a big one. And one that's often overlooked is from a captioning perspective, it's things like speed. So if you're using captions, then you may be unable to, for instance, hear anything and you're reading the captions, but often you may be filling in blanks using the captions and it's hard to fill a blank if there's too much lag because you miss something in the audio and there's no text there to help you fill that blank. So lagging speed is a big thing for us.

Rich Purcell: And other than that, security. We're used by lots of as I said, sort of big organizations. So, we have all our data hosted in the UK. We make sure we're secure and able to meet the both GDPR and the InfoSec requirements of large organizations. And then finally we kinda do things slightly differently. So with the way we've kind of focused on accessibility kind of first in our products, that the way that the app is built is to be as easy to use as possible. You can customize it all from everything from what kind of compliant and colorings to letter sizes to positioning the text on the screen and working with anything and everything from Zoom to podcasts, to in-person conversations. So yeah, we kind of put accessibility first in the products.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. And just to clarify, you mentioned WCAG so that's the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. It's the kind of globally accepted standards around digital accessibility.

Rich Purcell: Absolutely.

Toby Mildon: Cool. It's a funny story. I think accuracy is really important 'cause I was on a panel event recently where they had automatic transcription and it kept translating whenever I referred to one of the other panelists, their name came up as cupcake, and their name was not... It was really embarrassing because every time I said their name, it was like, so, what does cupcake think about this? So embarrassing, really? So the kind of question that I ask everybody when they come on this podcast, is what does inclusive growth mean to you?

Rich Purcell: Classically inclusive growth deals with often from a sort of economic perspective and focusing on the idea that whilst economic growth is important. It's not necessarily enough to generate lasting improvements to societal welfare. And I think for me, it's gonna be applying that to our business to Caption.Ed and the idea that purely monetary success for the business can't be our aim if we want to be fulfilled and really successful. You know, as a business we want to be profitable, of course we do. But that isn't synonymous with being successful and to be successful we need to think more holistically and have more of a holistic target to strive for.

Rich Purcell: So for me, that means building a diverse team of individuals who find fulfillment in their work and what they do while we're working towards shared goals for the company but the company's also helping them move towards personal goals. We want to continue to build our products and which ultimately are designed to make the world more accessible and also continue to increase the amount we listen to our customers and the degree to which we can put their voice into our products and ultimately better align the products to their needs. And in that way we'd be growing towards a more successful business for both internally as a business and then externally with our products. So yeah, I think that's what inclusive growth means for me.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. I love it. Thanks for that. And just before we go, what should the person listening to us right now, do if they want to learn more about your software or perhaps they've got some questions that they want to ask you, what should they do?

Rich Purcell: Yeah. Anybody who's interested, please get in touch so you can get in touch through our website, which is caption-ed.com or co.uk you'll find us there. So that's caption-ed.com or co.uk and yeah, get in touch, and I'll happily answer any questions, demos, trials, all that sort of stuff.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Well, Rich, thank you ever so much for joining me today on this episode, it's been really great to... To chat with you and thank you for logging in and listening to Rich and I today, hopefully you've taken some interesting things away how some... Yeah a product that begins to address assistive technology needs can actually benefit more than just the original use case, which is around people who might have a disability or who have an assistive technology needs that actually it's a source of innovation. And the need to have such assistive technology available to your staff so that they can work as productively as possible. So thanks ever so much for tuning in and I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of the inclusive growth podcast, which will be coming up very soon until then take care.


Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show, for further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.

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