Nerding out on AAC: what is it like to switch grid sizes/layouts?

A frequent conversation in AAC communities for people who use symbols-based apps and their caregivers is: what grid size should I use? Is it okay to change grid size/layout later? Well, in the last week or two I changed my symbols-based app around significantly, and want to talk about why I did so and what it’s been like to transition.

First, some basics: I’ve been using Proloquo2Go for a couple of years now. This highly customizable app (for IOS only, unfortunately) features buttons with picture symbols for full words as well as a QWERTY typing view that can be switched to as needed. Due to my sensory profile (strong fine motor skills, somewhat easily overwhelmed visual processing, and difficult hand eye coordination) I’d come to use Proloquo2Go’s symbols view largely based on motor plan rather than by visually scanning for the words I wanted – that is, I had built a muscle memory of where many words were located on each screen so that my hand would automatically move to the right area, similar to how I type on QWERTY. I had this decently down for common words, albeit with plenty of near-misses on the buttons I was aiming for due to the hand-eye coordination problem, and of course was still relying on visually scanning (which takes me longer) for less frequently used words (“fringe vocabulary”).

So if having built up this muscle memory was how I navigated the app as well as I did, why would I want to switch grid size/layout?

I had toyed with the idea of changing the layout of many of my fringe pages for months, because I’d long since noticed that I almost always habitually went back to the “home” screen for core vocab rather than checking whether any given fringe folder’s template included the core word I was looking for. This meant that the templates used in most core folders were just taking up space, pushing lots of fringe words to the second layer of that folder – meaning it took an extra button press to reach those words. If I was going to automatically go back to the home screen to use core vocab anyway, why keep the same words in the fringe folders? But on the other hand, was it worth re-learning where my favorite fringe words sat on the screen once core words were removed?

I’d also noticed that the default templates (and honestly I’m not sure why this seems like a good idea to anybody) both vary which words are available on different kinds of pages and occasionally alter the location of core words compared to the home screen. This means that I couldn’t rely on motor planning to inform me where to find core words when on one of the fringe pages, which is probably what built my habit of returning to home each time for core words in the first place. While using fringe page templates like this might speed up communication for many people because their ability to visually scan for core words on the page they’re already on prevents them from needing to tap back to home, it was just slowing me down by pushing fringe words “further away” (more button presses) from the home screen. But learning how to edit templates somehow seemed like a daunting task, and I wasn’t sure if it was worth it.

The event that prompted me to go ahead and change all this stuff was that I’d offered to build a core board for a Facebook acquaintance to print out and introduce to their little one while they were waiting for the usual April sale on the app. I encouraged them, as is the general recommendation, to request whatever grid size they thought was the most buttons their kiddo was going to be able to handle given the prospective screen size and any visual impairments or other constraints. They chose 8×14, one of the standard options. I remembered considering this grid size when I was initially setting up my app, but at the time I felt visually overwhelmed trying to contemplate navigating anything bigger than 7×11 on my Ipad Mini, so I had set up my own user profile as 7×11 and used it ever since. I created a quick new user profile for 8×14 in order to create this other family’s core board, and after editing for a few minutes I realized… this is not overwhelming to me. 

I think something about having a couple years to get used to symbols-based/grid-based AAC – and this app specifically – really made a difference in how visually overwhelming a bigger grid size felt. So I quickly did the calculations: 35 more buttons per page? Even 35 more buttons just on the home screen would probably speed up communication. But I just wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to try to get used to a new layout.

And that’s when I remembered the other changes I’d been thinking of making – removing the templates from many fringe pages; editing the standard templates. If I was going to make changes, I really ought to make changes, right? I knew a major reason for the common recommendation of starting with as big a grid size as possible is that changing the layout of what-word-is-where later can be extremely difficult for an AAC user to adjust to, especially those of us that do rely on a motor plan more than visual scanning. Would making these changes be like learning AAC from scratch?

I took a few days’ worth of deep breaths and dived in, figuring, 1) I enjoy fiddling with communication boards no matter what, so even hours of rearranging and editing would probably just register as “ooh fun!”, and 2) if I put in a lot of effort but it ended up impossible to get used to, it’s not like my old user profile would have disappeared. (Kudos to Assistiveware for letting me design multiple user profiles on one app/device!) I followed through on all the changes I was thinking might speed up my communication – bigger grid size, removing templates from many fringe pages, and editing the standard templates to better match the home screen and each other. I also did a lot more color coding and subtle customization like varied outline widths to make certain buttons stand out to me more.

The results? Almost none of my fringe folders necessitate second layers – the words (or subfolders) I need are all on the first screen of each. For my People, Places, and Verbs folders, I pulled my most commonly used words from each of their subfolders out onto the main page. (For example, now I can find the words “friend” and “doctor” under just Home>People rather than Home>People>Friends and Home>People>Healthcare.) My Home screen fits not only more words on it now but more folders, so I don’t have to navigate to the second layer of Home as frequently either. Let’s look at how this affects sentence construction: on my new layout, the sentence “yesterday I had coffee with my friends [O] and [Z], we practiced more sign language and talked about our plans for next week” requires 49 button presses (average 2.1 per word), but on my old layout, it requires 58 (2.5 per word). If that sample is representative, it adds up! Writing 2000 words of my novel (I like composing on my symbols app and then copy and pasting into Google Docs) will take 4200 button presses on my new layout instead of 5000. Additionally, four of the necessary buttons for this example sentence have added color coding in the new layout due to being words I use frequently, which I expect will help me navigate to them (and buttons relative to them) more quickly. After editing templates, none of the core words from the home screen are located somewhere different (if present) in other folders, so I can more consistently rely on the new motor plan I’m building.

It is not without difficulty to switch to a new layout, and if someone has even more trouble with cognitive transitions than I do, it’s possible there’s no number of decreased button presses that would be worth the learning curve. But for me, this feels like a really positive change. I’ve been making a point to practice the new layout just like I made a point to practice the app when I very first got it. Reading aloud to myself, answering practice prompts in Facebook groups for AAC users, using Proloquo2Go to compose texts and Tweets, and writing other documents using symbols are all helping orient me to the new layout. I kept as many things in the same relative place as possible given the task at hand – like, the home screen doesn’t look like it went through a catastrophic reorganization compared to what it was before, it just has more than it had before. More personalized color coding than is the app’s default seems to be slightly improving my ability to visually scan for fringe words’ new locations. Wonderfully, this grid size even leaves me room to grow – many fringe folders now have one or two dozen blank spaces I can add vocab to as I find myself without any given word mid-thought, rather than knowing any additions would just be buried on the second layer.

Proloquo2Go’s default setup does work very efficiently for some people, but its customizability is its true strength – and the fact that the app allows for me to easily make all these changes is a major reason I am loyal to it. What I’d say to anyone considering changing their own grid size or app layout is: talk to other people who have done it (this Facebook group is a good resource), and make lists of what you expect will be the pros and cons… but, when in doubt? If inefficiencies or possible changes have been nagging you for awhile, then I’d say just go for it. Make sure you have a backup of your old layout safely tucked away, set aside plenty of time and energy for editing/customization and practice, and see what happens!

If you’re a professional or caregiver considering changing another person’s app – ask them directly what they think. Explain what you understand to be the pros and cons to be in language they understand, and phrase follow up questions in a way they are able to answer (for example multiple choice or yes/no if open-ended is more difficult for them). If they are excited about a reorganization, wait until you’ve basically finished tinkering with the new layout before introducing it to them, and ask them what they think/if they want any changes. After that, do your modeling on the new layout but make sure they have access to the old layout anytime they want to switch back to it – their ability to communicate in the moment should never be frustrated by trying to learn a new layout for the long-term.

Have you switched your AAC (symbols app, letterboard, whatever) to a new grid size or layout before? What was it like? Comment below!

5 thoughts on “Nerding out on AAC: what is it like to switch grid sizes/layouts?

  1. This is so cool! Until I switched mine around to make things easier on actual communication, I was like reliant on typing mode. Which yes I know sounds silly. I am happy that you found a good way to rearrange your program.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! This is great information for those of us helping with AAC systems. I’m curious if you every tried Unity of LAMP Words for Life?

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    1. Oh good, I’m glad it’s helpful! Nope I’ve never tried – well, my friend uses Unity on an Accent with switch access but I haven’t had much direct interaction with it. A number of people in the Facebook group “Ask me, I’m an AAC user” use those though if you haven’t joined yet!

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  3. Would you be willing and or able to share a copy of this? We recently got P2G but our boy is having a lot of the same challenges being overwhelmed with the templates that keep changing. We looked on Facebook but didn’t get a response from anyone who had made the templates more consistent. (We did trial LAMP prior but he didn’t take to it.)

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    1. Hi Jake! I’m going to email you now (there’s an address included in your message) to see if I can be of any help. 🙂

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