Greg Scott just wanted to go to a restaurant where he could take a date and have a quiet conversation. As a Manhattanite with a hearing impairment, this was a tall order. He searched for quieter restaurants by reading reviews and found that, even those that were supposed to be quieter, usually weren’t. It was even harder to find a quiet restaurant when he was traveling. Echoing the experience of many persons with hearing impairments, Greg said “I recall many times sitting at a restaurant table feeling completely lost in the conversation while others conversed and connected with each other. I would often nod my head in unison with the conversation, pretending to hear my companions when I could not, and then idly pass the time by entertaining myself with whatever fiction entered my head.”
He decided to take matters into his own hands and started taking decibel readings when he was in restaurants and kept lists of some of the quieter restaurants he found. Soon his friends, most of whom didn’t have hearing impairments started asking him for his lists. This gave him the inspiration to found Soundprint, a free app that can be used to take decibel readings in restaurants that then loads the readings into a database (crowdsourcing), so anyone can look up sound ratings for a variety of restaurants. It’s free and the more people that use it, the more it grows and the more valuable resource for finding a quiet spot it becomes. It’s basically Yelp for noise levels in thousands of restaurants, bars, and cafes across America and it’s growing by the day. For cities that have enough restaurants rated, Soundprint offers Quiet Lists of the quietest restaurants in that city. After curating the first quiet list of top quiet restaurants in his hometown of New York, quiet lists are now available for ten additional cities (Ann Arbor, Baltimore, Chicago, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Portland, and San Francisco Bay Area). As more people use the app and submit sound ratings, the number of quiet lists will also grow. When taking sound ratings, users of the app have often found restaurants curious about how they can create environments more conducive to conversation. Greg has developed a list of tips for venue managers about how they can optimize the sound in their spaces that he shares on his website. https://www.soundprint.co/venue-managers-tips/ Soundprint is now being used to measure many types of venues, including retailers, cinemas, gyms, arenas etc., although their major focus is still on restaurants, bars and cafes.
If we look at Greg’s actions through the lens of our Action Model for Self-Determination, we can see that his work with the SoundPrint app is a great example of self-determination. Greg knew himself well enough to know he wanted more quiet conversations (Know Yourself), he believed in his right to have those conversations and his ability to venture into new territory (Value Yourself), he set a goal and put together a strategy to make his idea reality (Plan), he set his strategy in motion bringing others with him along the way (Act) and, as the app evolved, he celebrated many successes and set new goals based on what he learned (Experience Outcomes and Learn).
We had a chance to interview Greg about how the steps of self-determination had contributed to his success with SoundPrint. As he reviewed the model, Greg commented that he wished he had the opportunity to learn more about self-determination when he was in high school and college. We met at the Radiance Tea House in Midtown Manhattan, a quiet restaurant (surprise!) that also has a lovely selection of teas. I had the Golden Lily, which was delightful. In addition to being a connoisseur of quiet restaurants, Greg is also discerning about good food and drink; a fabulous combination!
Q. As you look at the Self-Determination Action model with its five components (e.g., Know Yourself, Value Yourself, Plan, Act, Experience Outcomes and Learn), which of the steps do you think was most important to identifying what you wanted to do?
A. I think the most valuable aspect was “Value Yourself” because loud noise is clearly an issue for many of those with hearing loss and understanding that this was a heightened issue for us (wanting quieter venues so we can connect and socialize with others) was an epiphany to begin exploring whether this app would be useful for others – that is does the problem/issue also exist for other people? Does it have universal design? And if so, believing that you are qualified to address the issue – in our case, it was that this is a common daily experience, you pay very close attention to the issue hence you’re in a unique position to see what can be improved. Should the experience be improved for those with hearing loss (or other sensory disorders), then it likely would be improved for others as well (addressing universal design) since noise is a very common issue, even for those with normal hearing.
Q. Which of the Action Model steps were most important to dealing with obstacles (either internal or external)?
A. For dealing with obstacles, the most important part was planning effectively and undertaking a lot of trial and error with coming out with the product. Initially, we did not know how people would respond to the issue – as mentioned above, was this a tool (the SoundPrint app) mainly for those with sensory disorders or would those with normal hearing care as well? Hence, we rolled out a minimal viable product (MVP) to test this – a bare-bones version of the app and gauged how people responded and who ended up using the app. Did people like it? Did they use it? And most importantly, why? Our app relies on crowdsourcing where users take action to measure the noise level and submit it to our database – this is a potential obstacle. Hence, we reached out to many people, those both with hearing loss and normal hearing to gauge their initial reaction, whether they would use the app, and whether they would continually use it. These insights helped us plan and shift gears a bit in terms of how we designed the app and how we approached raising noise pollution and hearing health awareness. Should the focus be more on praising the ability to find venues conducive for conversation and connecting with others or should it be more protecting your hearing health? These are two very different answers/reasons that have significant impact on how to design the app, etc. but both aimed at reaching the same goal – helping the community find quieter venues.
Q. Which of the self-determination action steps were most important to keep you motivated?
A. To stay motivated, the “Experience Outcomes and Learn” proved immensely helpful. Considering that there aren’t many apps out there that are trying to accomplish our goals, we were really entering “white space” that hadn’t been encountered before. There were numerous setbacks that occurred – whether that was from a technological development viewpoint (i.e. some users had very different preferences for using the app or wanting certain features) or the strategy in raising noise pollution awareness. And sometimes people would write in with emails that they were disappointed about x, y, z. Initially, it was a bit surprising, but once we looked at this type of feedback as something to learn from coupled with the acceptance that it’s natural for mistakes to be made, our approach, learning and mindset grew and it made the app much better.
Q. What kind of help or support from others did you find you needed?
A. Undertaking this type of entrepreneurial endeavor can sometimes feel like you’re driving down the highway solo with no assistance, so we naturally joined a startup leadership program with other like-minded entrepreneurs, some of which had similar socially-driven mission companies. The ongoing support and sharing of ideas and feedback was immensely valuable and gave us a sense that we were continually doing the right thing.
Q. Were there times when you found you had to get creative?
A. Definitely, given that we have limited funds and do not generate revenue (at least during our early stages), we constantly thought for ways to get creative. This entailed a lot of googling for terms such as “creative strategies in accomplishing xyz” — for example, how to effectively reach out to journalists or potential business partners. The main limitation was time, and so we also adjusted our daily schedule to maximize time – i.e. I pretty much stopped watching TV on a daily basis which created 2-3 additional hours to devote to SoundPrint.
Q. As you have worked to build Soundprint, which steps in the Self-Determination Action model were the hardest? Which were easiest? Which do you think were most important to achieving your goal?
A. For me personally, it was the “ACT” part, notably in practicing assertive communication. With SoundPrint, this meant being very proactive in reaching out to potential partners – such as Speech and Hearing agencies, audiologists and the like and expressing what you’re about, what you’re seeking and if the partner would potentially be interested in joining to raise noise pollution awareness. I found it similar to the progress I had undertaken when I was young in school where I did not always proactively advocate for myself and services early on, but once I challenged myself to test and undertake such action, the potential stigma or embarrassment subsided and was mitigated. The easiest was probably “Valuing myself” but this is because I went through this process when I was younger. As mentioned above, I did not always advocate for myself, rights for accommodation and simply being comfortable (for example, having a CART stenographer seated next to me during college for every class in front view of everyone) – but once I saw the benefits (I finally understood almost everything that was being said in class and hence the subject matter itself!), valuing myself and getting comfortable with who I was became more natural.