American Sign Language and User Interfaces

I’ve recently become intrigued by the concept of “Baby Sign Language” and the idea that my 10-month-old son, who’s not quite yet up to walking, may be able to communicate with me using his hands. To explore this, I sat down with a baby signing book that described pictorially many of the signs that could be useful to teach to my son. In order that we both learn a useful skill, all of the signs are taken directly from American Sign Language (ASL).

What really struck me about ASL is how easy it is to learn new words. Just about every sign has a real-life analogue that makes it easy to remember. The sign for “ball” for instance is made by putting your hands together as if you’re holding an invisible ball. The sign for “boy” has you drawing your hand away from your forehead as if you’re stroking the bill to a baseball cap.

This all came to mind this morning as I was building a small, simple database in Microsoft Access for a client. I had two Excel files that I needed to match using the email column in each of them. I imported both tables into Access, then went to create a query using the query designer. Identifying which fields to include in the output for the query was a no-brainer – for each field I wanted, I just double clicked on it in the table at the top and it appeared in the query below. Figuring out how to set the criteria for each table, however, was not so simple.

I tried clicking on the first criteria row for the email output column for table A, then double clicking on the email column in table B to signify that I needed them to be equal. That didn’t work. I thought through all of the ways that should work, then realized there was a SQL view I could be using. Thank God I know SQL – I’d think a majority of the target market for Access does not.

The key and mouse combinations I was using in the design view are what made me think of ASL – I was using my hands to communicate with the program instead of my words. When I switched to SQL, it was like I was speaking in the program’s native tongue. I’m certain there’s a way to use gestures to fill in the criteria for each column, but none of the ones I’m familiar with seemed to work.

In ASL, if I’m speaking with someone who’s deaf and I don’t know a particular sign, I can either spell out the word using the ASL alphabet or pantomime what I’m trying to say. In either case, the meaning is likely to come through. User interface designers could take a cue from this – they should consider all the ways in which a user, communicating with the program using only a keyboard and mouse, might be able to convey their meaning to the program and attempt to implement as many of these as feasible. It’s definitely a lot of work, but the increase in usability would be worth it. Not every Access user knows to type in the table name and field name in the criteria box to indicate equality. My act of trying to drag a field or click on the field I wanted to appear in that box is not at all an unreasonable assumption for communicating my desire to the program. Adding a function to properly react to that gesture wouldn’t be a huge burden, and it would have made the process of creating this query so much faster.

Perhaps it should be a requirement of UI designers to learn some ASL.

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