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memory game and remembering something and a communication device

E.A. Draffan

Spatial memory when designing communication charts and apps

In recent months we have been developing our free Global Symbols Board Builder to make charts and information sheets for times when verbal communication can be challenging. The version that is available is ready for beta testing. We have yet to offer different templates, but simple charts can be created. Part of the work has involved research around the development and adaptation of some recognisable symbols related to health, as well as what we hope is an easy to use online chart creating application.

Discussing ideas with potential users and a recent article by Page Laubheimer on the NNgroup blog has highlighted the importance of spatial memory when thinking about user experience (UX) design.

The ability to recall the location of things is an important aspect of human memory. In graphical user interfaces (GUIs), this capability is absolutely essential, as it allows users to quickly locate controls without undergoing laborious visual search each time. Searching an interface visually for specific objects is inherently a slow and effortful process, and reducing the need for it is a huge boon to user efficiency. (Page Laubheimer, 2020)

It has been interesting to see how our work on Board Builder and the adaptation of symbols has come together from a usability and an accessibility point of view, that includes involvement in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) work on providing usable content for those with cognitive and learning disabilities. The key points that relate to spatial memory Include comments about:

  • "Symbols: Use familiar symbols. For example, people may look for a question mark for help. If you use a different symbol, fewer people will find help.
  • Text: Use familiar terms. For example, some people have a limited vocabulary. Uncommon terms may cause them difficulty.
  • Element location: Place elements in expected locations. For example, people may look for the search on the top right hand corner of a page. If it is somewhere else, it will be hard to find.
  • Getting help: Always make it easy to find help."

Being able to remember the location of symbols on communication charts or boards is also the basis for automaticity, which includes the speed and ease with which actions occur, just like a touch typist using a keyboard. Familiar design patterns, labels and symbols undoubtedly enhance user experience, but they still have to be learnt and practised over time.

We have been very careful to think about iconicity, where a symbol resembles its meaning when designing adapted Mulberry Symbols. Those individuals who have been in situations where COVID-19 has resulted in a struggle to communicate have often been adults, yet most of the freely available symbol sets are designed for children. To help make these symbols as visually accessible as possible, please take part in the acceptance survey for the first 22 symbols related to health and used on our recent boards. If they do not look in the way you want we can change them!

The intention is to provide more chances to adapt symbols with changes of skin tone, hair colouring and other additional elements in the coming months with the addition of a symbol creator working alongside Board Builder.

It seems amazing, but there are times when working in two areas of interest, such as augmentative and alternative forms of communication (AAC) using symbols and digital accessibility for online content and applications can come together to enhance user experiences in such a way that could never have been imagined in 1995 when undertaking a Winston Churchill Fellowship!