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Visual Memory Is Key To Use Of Graphic Interfaces

New research has found it is easier for blind computer programmers to use and develop graphical user interfaces (GUIs) when they have previously been sighted and retain some visual memory. This memory helps programmers to visually represent GUIs, even if the interfaces themselves were designed after they had lost their sight, it found.

The research, termed the ‘Combine project’ (
http://fastlink.headstar.com/hayhoe1 ),
was conducted by Dr. Simon Hayhoe, editor of the ‘Eco’ collaborative website on blindness and the arts.

GUIs are rapidly replacing older text-based mainframe systems. These text-based systems were preferred by programmers who had no visual memory and so had never experienced GUIs.

Hayhoe told delegates at last week’s BETT 09 educational technology conference in London that social and cultural factors have also influenced opinion on blind people, often causing them to be underestimated and limiting educational opportunities. There are also generational and educational factors in how blind people work with new technologies. “We can’t think of blindness as just a perceptive problem”, he said.

The ongoing research project surveyed a group of computer programmers registered as blind; those born blind; those with assimilated blindness (someone who went blind during the period of 4-18-years-old); and those with visual memory (people going blind in adulthood).

Participants were asked whether they used text-based programming environments or GUIs, and for the latter, how these were represented or imagined by the individual, for example with the use of visual metaphors to navigate the system.

The work could help inform future interface design, Hayhoe said. Areas he hopes to address in a second phase of the study include the motivations of blind students who become programmers, and whether it is common for programmers with visual memory to reject the use of Braille. This last point arises after the case studies of those with visual memory showed that they preferred to use suitably adapted mainstream methods to understand programming languages.

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