Regular readers of this column no doubt know I do a lot of interviews. If there’s one good thing that came out of this year, it’s my discovery of audio transcription service Otter.ai. I first learned about it after asking on Twitter for transcription services and getting a hearty recommendation from Votebeat editorial director Jessica Huseman. After years of painstakingly transcribing interviews manually, the switch to Otter has been a revelation—not only journalistically but, more important to me, in terms of accessibility. The bimodal sensory input is its killer feature; it’s much more accessible for me to hear and see a subject’s words as I pick and choose parts to use. It also helps the transcripts Otter generates are mostly accurate, and easily editable if need be.
For entrepreneur Amy Modglin, the enthusiasm for Otter is shared. Modglin lost her hearing four years ago and relies on lip-reading to communicate with others. She is founder of Modglin Leadership Solutions, an agency focused on leadership development and coaching. Modglin is late-deafened, which means she was born hearing but has steadily lost the ability to hear in adulthood. In a recent interview with me conducted over email, Modglin described Otter as “literally [being] my lifeline,” particularly in context of the pandemic and its demand that we all mask up.
Modglin found Otter on what she called her “personal growth journey.” She attends many types of conferences and, while still having some hearing left, began looking for note-capturing apps to use at the events. “I was always missing out on the speakers. I read lips, so I would be looking at whoever was speaking and trying to jot everything down as fast as I could,” she said. “I found Otter through an online search for note-taking apps and tried out as a solution to my problem.” While nothing is without warts, there are “definitely far more things to like about Otter” than not, she told me.
In context of the pandemic, Otter has been a true savior for Modglin. In The Before Times pre-Covid, Modglin was able to communicate easily—often not telling anyone of her deafness. Since the pandemic began, however, the health-focused outlook on mask-wearing has overshadowed their undervalued communicative pitfalls. For Modglin, everything changed: what once was easy swiftly and suddenly became really hard. “Since the world has started relying on masks in public, it has completely turned off the ability to receive communication for people like me,” she said.
Society’s general aversion to disabled people and their needs was the catalyst for Modglin to come up with a solution to succeed in communicating despite masks literally blocking it—Modglin described the inaccessibility of being unable to read lips as she once did as “so hard and so overwhelming.” That’s where Otter became her aforementioned lifeline. “It’s gotten me through doctors appointments, meetings with my clients, surgery, my mom’s funeral, and even everyday things like ordering food at a restaurant or going grocery shopping. If it were not for Otter, the world as far as communication would have been completely ‘silent’ for me,” she said.
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Modglin’s workflow for using Otter begins even before she’s entered a building for a doctor’s appointment or whatnot. She holds her phone close to her body, and when she meets someone who wants to talk with her, she tells them she’s deaf and uses an app to see what they’re saying. “Usually people apologize, which is frustrating to me or they are intrigued and want to look at my phone,” Modglin said. “I always ask them to speak loudly and explain that the transcription is not 100%, especially [for] people with accents so I may have some clarifying questions about what they say.” Later, Modglin will look back at her notes with her husband, who helps her fill in any gaps. She even uses Otter as a backup for Zoom calls, where she uses the captioning feature. She is more comfortable this way against bugs or other technical hiccups.
“I try very hard not to have my disability be a hindrance to communicating [with] me,” she said.
For its part, Otter founder and chief executive Sam Liang told me in a separate interview (also done over email) the company “set out to create a product that shaped the future of work to be more collaborative, more inclusive, more accessible, and more productive for all.” The software has myriad uses cases, like Modglin’s, and is a testament to not only how it works technically but also to its flexibility. “No matter who you are, it can make your conversations or meetings better,” Liang added.
He continued: “We are continuing this vision of making conversations more accessible and more inclusive by providing more than just transcription. Otter empowers people to participate in conversations in their own and unique way with the ability to highlight or comment on top of the transcripts and snap photos (of a whiteboard, a speaker, or presentation slide at an event) during a recording and they will be inserted inline with your transcripts,” he said. “Many people have a difficult time remembering all that is said to them in real time, with Otter you can easily search conversations and interactions. One user called Otter his ‘super index of interactions’.”
Liang touted Otter’s “industry-leading” accuracy when it comes to transcription, owing it to the powerful engine built in-house. Otter uses natural language processing to better understand human language across various traits: accents, environmental factors, and more. Liang said it’s “challenging” to teach a machine to learn how human beings communicate, but the company reminds itself that its North Star is to help people communicate effectively as they go about their day-to-day lives.
The company’s mission to help people communicate certainly resonates with Modglin. She recommends the software to everyone, especially those who are hard-of-hearing and who lip-read as she does. “I [also] think it’s a great option also for people that are in multiple meetings a day,” she said. “Let’s face it, many meetings we are multi-tasking, even if we shouldn’t be. This app gives up the chance to catch some notes that we may have missed while we answered another email, or sent another text.”