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Posted on August 10, 2020

Developing a user-centred communication book for the Super Core Vocabulary

This article originally appeared in the Communication Matters Journal (August 2020) by Daisy Clay, Head of Content Development and Kat North, Communication Book Project Lead.

Daisy Clay is a Speech and Language Therapist and is Head of Content Development for Smartbox. She is the author of Simple AAC and developed the Super Core vocabulary for Grid. Kat North works as part of the marketing team in Smartbox, and specialises in the creation and design of printed and online resources which support a range of Smartbox products.


Children learning to use AAC often start with paper-based AAC, building their language and communication skills using symbol boards or books. Often, if and when they progress to a communication device, they are faced with learning a new symbol vocabulary and a new layout.

Super Core is an AAC vocabulary designed and used in Grid. It focuses on making it easier for children to learn and thrive using symbol AAC. All design decisions were made with this audience and this aim in mind: from consistent word locations, to presenting activity-specific vocabulary alongside core words to help teach meaning throughout the day, across contexts.

It was always hoped that it would later be possible to create a robust Super Core Communication Book which followed these same design principles in a format
that was easy to use and easy to learn with. We wanted to offer Super Core in both electronic and paper-based forms, addressing the gap in the communication solutions on offer from Smartbox and allowing for a full circle approach to AAC.

Balancing challenges

The process of designing the Super Core Communication Book was complex and included many challenges which often involved balancing different issues against one another simultaneously, as the following article will explore.

Beginning the process of design We started the design process in a way that will seem familiar to Speech and Language Therapists everywhere – with hours and hours of printing, cutting, laminating, and sticking!

From the start, we were challenging ourselves to create something that was hard-wearing but lightweight and portable; something that provided access to a full and comprehensive vocabulary whilst being intuitive to use. We needed to ensure the book could be accessed directly, but also by those with more complex access needs through PAS (partner-assisted scanning). It is worth noting that throughout this complex design and development process, we have been lucky enough to work with a volunteer team of real-life researchers and have seen the book being used in real-world environments, at various stages of development.

Throughout the entire project, this meant creating five different versions of the book, with a minimum of 150 pages per version, and trialling eight different folder designs, not to mention the endless rolls of sticky tape, paper cuts, lamination pockets and cups of coffee!

Project aims

  • Based on working with groups of AAC professionals, combined with the clinical experience within Smartbox, we confirmed our intention to make a book which was:
  • Lightweight and portable
  • Durable and water resistant
  • Able to be personalised
  • Affordable
  • Suitable to use by itself, or as part of an AAC system
  • Suitable for those already using Super Core, or those new to Super Core
  • Ready-made, ready-to-buy, with no time (or laminator) required!

We also aimed to make the book as consistent with the design principles of Super Core as possible. The book needed to be easy to use and navigate, and provide a
comprehensive robust vocabulary while supporting the development of language. To aid this, it was key that the structure was faithful to the location and hierarchy
of the vocabulary found in the electronic version of Super Core.

How long does it usually take to make these resources?

We used a range of sources to find out how long people typically spent creating a communication book. Answers included: “I would say about a week if you worked
on it continually”, “I’ve done one in 6-8 hours but I had help”, “It took about 14 hours”, and “2 whole days if your printer is down the corridor and other people keep using it!”.

At our talk at Communication Matters in September 2019, we asked the same question, and over half of attendees said it took more than a day. This is time spent making AAC instead of teaching AAC.

Key challenges


With the navigation, we needed to convert a multi-dimensional vocabulary, designed around dynamic screen changes, into a 2D environment. We constantly brought focus back to the fact that this had to be done in a way that kept navigation simple and intuitive. The initial tab-based solutions took on a life of their own and sprouted tabs left, right and centre!

In order to simplify navigation, the book was divided into three key sections – core, activities and topics – each with a numbered index on a tabbed divider. All tabs were colour-coded and numbered, to give additional cues which could be used to navigate by both the
communication partners and the AAC learner. The colour-coding and layout of tabs was also designed to replicate Super Core for Grid as closely as possible.

An off-the-shelf product

Our aim was to create a book that could be used immediately, allowing the focus to be on introducing, facilitating and teaching communication without needing to spend hours making a resource. Personalisation of vocabulary is key to any AAC system: it ensures that an AAC user can talk about what is most meaningful and important to them. For example, the need to include the names of their family and friends, favourite places, and personal information such as biographical or health information.

We agreed on two main ways to personalise the book. Firstly, by providing all the ‘activities’ and ‘topics’ vocabulary available as additional packs to be used with the book. This meant that all core vocabulary necessary for getting meaning and intention across was available from the off, but the ability to only include content relevant to the user would make each book feel tailored to that user.

When designing the book, we made sure that the cell locations were as consistent as possible with the existing Grid 3 resources, so that it would be possible to make changes to the Super Core 30 grid set in Grid 3, and then use the Print from Grid feature to print those changes and include them in the book.

Keeping the core consistent and always available

Fundamental to Super Core is that it is a core vocabulary system, based around core words which are highly frequent and highly functional. In Grid, there is a consistent block of core vocabulary which replicates itself across over an average of 50 grids, making it possible to access this vocabulary across a wide range of contexts and activities. In early versions of the Communication Book, we explored the option to include
the core on every page. This resulted in a lot of added bulk and weight, so we quickly agreed to explore other options.

We ultimately decided to include a core vocabulary page at the front of the book which could be removed and used alongside other pages, and also to include a mini core which would be visible at all times. We acknowledged that the size of these symbols was much smaller but would still allow for modelling and partner-assisted scanning of vocabulary for those users with less accurate access or visual impairment.

Weight, size and portability

It quickly became obvious that the book needed to be as lightweight as possible, to ensure that it was portable. There were several issues which contributed to weight and portability: the material the pages would be made from, the volume of vocabulary and the folder. Feedback on early versions stressed the importance of a folder which was tough enough to be resilient, but not so tough that it could be used as a weapon! Research also told us that the book would ideally be able to stand up by itself, to enable communication partners to model language within activities where they might need their hands free to manipulate materials whilst also pointing to words in the book. So, after several different folder designs from several different manufacturers, we were pleased to find a folder which met these criteria!

In terms of the paper, regular paper stock was out of the window as it can hardly be described as robust! We were asked early on why lamination was not a suitable solution, and weight was a huge factor (also the fact that the pages became damaged very quickly) as we couldn’t very well have a book that weighed more than our electronic devices! We explored a wide range of paper types and discovered a tear-resistant, water resistant paper which seemed ideal. However, when all the pages were printed and added to the folder, this paper made the book weigh over 5 kilos. We worked with our printer to find a much lighter paper type which brought the weight of the book down to around 2 kilos, inclusive of all pages and the folder itself. Whilst this was above our target weight (we had the lightest of our communication aids in mind), this was something we agreed we had to compromise on, in order to ensure a robust solution and provide access to a really comprehensive, adaptive range of vocabulary.

The possibility of making the book smaller in order to reduce the weight and increase portability was explored but early feedback suggested that this would result in less accessibility for individuals with visual impairment, or increased motor skill demand for those directly accessing the book. With that in mind, we agreed to keep
the book at A4 size, using the layout and cell size of Super Core 30. The cell size of Super Core 30 was also preferred due to the larger font size, increasing the prominence of the written labels to support literacy as well as allowing communication partners to model language. The consistency across Super Core 30 and 50
means that even those using the Super Core 50 grid set would still be able to benefit from using the book. And finally, a strap was added to the folder so that either communication partners or AAC users themselves would be able to carry the book with them more easily.

Feedback so far

This paper was presented at Communication Matters 2019, and when we asked the audience for their initial thoughts on the book and its design, the feedback was
overwhelmingly positive, with the book described as “robust”, “exciting”, “comprehensive” and “innovative”. Initial user testing has also provided us with some of the following comments: “She loves it… you can see how happy she is that you understand her”, Tilly’s mother “He has been able to tell us some really specific things and really surprised us”, Ben’s SLT “Well thought out to match the Super Core app” – Anon

“There is no need to make it myself; projects a professional image to parents/schools, vs home-made look of my usual core books” – Anon

As with any Smartbox product, we’re always keen to develop and improve our products, and we always value the feedback we receive. We look forward to hearing even more feedback on the Communication Book, and continuing its development long into the future!

Super Core Communication Book

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