Communicating without words – the start of a new MOMO

Team MOMO has been busy travelling the country to find out more about the communication challenges faced by young people with learning difficulties, and how they are being overcome. We’re doing this as part of the design process that will lead to a new version of MOMO for them (working title: MOTO!).

Learning difficulties affect people differently, leading to a variety of individual needs and a range of different solutions. From hi-tech gadgets and communication apps to using sign language, there’s a lot of options out there, some of which are more accessible than others.

How can we bridge the communication gap?

At a recent visit to a short breaks unit in St Austell, Cornwall we found out lots about how young people with learning disabilities hang out and communicate with each other, and how they inform adults about how to best communicate with them.

While different young people use different tools and aids, the unifying thread is the role that visuals play. 


From photos of objects to symbols and illustrations of sign language – each system relies on being able to convey a word’s meaning in a pictorial format. When one thinks of cave paintings, hieroglyphs and other languages that are based on pictorial representations of words, it becomes clear that at the bottom of a lot of human communication is visual representation of a message.

Systems are usually differentiated in 3 ways: structure, design and user centredness (e.g. when sound is added to make it easier to understand). However, what works for one child with learning disabilities may not work for another child even when they seem similar in nature.

“Different symbols mean different things to different people.”

Bridget Drew-Spyer, Project Manager at Quarriers, South Tyneside

So if each child is different how can we develop tools and systems that work for as many as possible? We’re exploring 3 key steps to developing a user centred communication system:

  1. Understand the abilities of an individual (not just the limitations) – this helps develop ways of communicating that can keep evolving as their capacity grows.
  2. Identify and use individual motivators – what motivates a child to use a particular system will vary. By identifying common motivators you can select or design a system that they like and feel comfortable using.
  3. Get creative – look beyond the obvious solutions to create what works best for an individual. This isn’t necessarily about services or interventions, but about thinking outside the box.

Getting outside the box is what we’re doing as we develop MOTO. It goes live in December. Request an info pack here.

by Manjul Rathee, Service Designer at MOMO