Augmentative-Communication Perspective on Icon-Based, Web Site Navigation

Today, I spoke with Krista Wilkinson, Ph.D., who is an expert in the field of augmentative communication, particularly for people with cognitive disabilities.  Her interests include vocabulary learning and the use of visual supports in communication and education.

I approached Dr. Wilkinson with my struggle to create, for the future Clear Helper Web site, a set of navigation icons that would enable people with cognitive disabilities to find the information they want quickly and easily.

I said I would like to use icons shown by research to be effective  communicators.  She confirmed for me that little research has been performed in this area.  After more discussion, we agreed that icons we have seen in use on Web sites seem arbitrary, or bereft of context.

She explained that even the common use of left- and right arrows on Web sites to indicate previous- and next pages is not contextually accurate in practice.  She said that people with cognitive disabilities can find it confusing that a click to a right arrow does not actually present the next page from the right.  Instead, a new page just appears.

Dr. Wilkinson showed me an augmentative communication device, called The Tango, that uses arrow buttons in a contextually appropriate manner.  Below is a picture of it.  Note the green arrow buttons on both sides of the middle set of icon buttons.Tango Augmentative Communication DeviceWhen a user presses a green, up-arrow button, the middle set of icon buttons revolve upward like a slot machine acts, and presents a new set.  When a user presses a green, right- or left arrow button, the middle set of icon buttons scrolls in the relevant direction, and presents a new set.

Dr. Wilkinson suggested I might make Web pages act similarly when left- and right arrow buttons are clicked.  I can’t think of an accessible way to do that, but I will consider it.

Another suggestion she made would be much easier to implement; left- and right arrow buttons could be paired with a contextually-appropriate sound.  An example of this would be a recording of a page turning.

Again, little research has been performed to demonstrate that the context of icons can be understood, or that the pairing of icons with sound is more effective than not.  I’ll do what I can to experiment with these ideas on the future Clear Helper Web site.  Perhaps, through evaluations by users, and via automated Web-site evaluation tools, the effectiveness of the navigation icons I plan to use could be measured.

Note: No endorsement is intended or implied for the Tango.