An Accessible Design for NLS Patrons

Accessibility is a hot-button issue in the world of consumer products. Engineers consider the wide range of abilities and limitations of consumers and incorporate accessible design into their work-as will the team that creates the new digital talking-book (DTB) system for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress.

Involved from concept to handoff for production, the team members are HumanWare, formerly VisuAide, a leader in DTB technology; the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the largest organization of blind persons in the world, with more than fifty thousand members; and the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a specialist in accessible technology for the disabled. They will assist Battelle, a leading technology innovation firm, with the design and development of the digital talking-book machine (DTBM).

Getting Creative

"The creative input of our patrons is essential to designing a digital talking-book system that best accommodates them," says Frank Kurt Cylke, director of NLS. "One of the ways we'll identify the needs and wants of our patrons will be through repeatedly testing the player design concepts with focus groups of blind and physically handicapped users."

Other project highlights include creating multiple models of the DTBM, observing how users interact with them, and developing the player's software and hardware. Gilles Pepin of HumanWare, will manage and coordinate subcontractor activities. His team will also support Battelle with design and engineering activities by sharing the results of earlier tests, developing training materials, and testing the final DTBM for overall performance.

The two-phase project will take thirty months to complete. "The first phase consists of concept development, design, and testing," says Pepin. "The collected information will directly influence the design of the DTB player prototypes at appropriate stages of development." During the second phase, the player will be transferred for manufacturing and early DTBMs will be examined to make sure they operate according to design., two, eight

A series of eight usability test cycles will ensure that the final player is acceptable to NLS patrons. The tests will employ a combination of focus groups, fieldwork, and site visits. Individuals will test different versions of the DTBM in typical settings, be assigned operational tasks, and make evaluations based on their interactions with the machine. Testers will also make suggestions on the kinds of things they want the machine to do.

Recognized for expertise in consumer product testing, NFB and the Trace Center will administer usability tests to select groups. The Trace Center will test individuals selected from residential living centers for the elderly and senior day centers.

Batelle engineers examine results.Photo caption: Battelle engineers carefully test proto-types for performance and function. The DTBM will undergo a similar process.

"People who are older and those with multiple disabilities are a large part of the talking-book user population," says Gregg C. Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Center. "Our work can help ensure that current users will continue to be able to use talking books as they age, and new patrons will also be able to enjoy DTBs."

NFB will manage tests among blind and low-vision users, primarily NLS patrons who fit certain profiles such as visual ability, age, demographics, and level of exposure to technology. They will also test the DTBM with library staff and repair technicians.

"When a user population is involved, they will come up with many things that engineers don't even think of," said Dr. Marc Maurer, president of NFB. "Because if one believes that the target population for the machine will have a fuller life because of the machine; then the machine has to do what it's designed to do."

Facing A New Frontier:
Talking Book Machine Transformation

For many years, NLS and the volunteer machine-repair groups, TelecomPioneers and GE Elfuns, have partnered to keep talking-book machines in top shape. With a whole new technology in development for talking books and machines, what does the future look like for this relationship?

As the next generation of playback machines evolves, they will still have their work cut out for them. Cassette machines will be in use beyond 2008 when the new DTBMs are introduced.

The national organizations of volunteers have repaired more than 1.8 million NLS machines and dedicated countless hours in repair workshops around the country. Their efforts save NLS more than $5 million each year.

Last year alone, they repaired more than 127,000 machines. And with the promise of nearly one million new digital machines, the expertise of the repair volunteers will be needed.

But this isn't the first time these organizations have faced a challenge and won. In the past, the repair volunteers invented special tools and solutions to repair the specialized players.

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Digital Talking Book (DTB) Milestones


Start 6/20/03 - Finish 10/1/08
Milestone Date
Web-Magazine Pilot 1/12/2004
Digital data management system development 11/1/2004
Distribution system design and transition planning 12/1/2004
Player and medium design 3/1/2005
Design DTB containers and labels 6/1/2005
Web-Book pilot 6/1/2005
Prepare for DTB distribution 10/1/2005
Circulation systems design 12/1/2005
Manufacture initial lot of DTB containers and labels 9/1/2006
Distribution system implementation 10/1/2006
Circulation systems implementation 10/1/2006
Media production 3/1/2007
Media duplication 5/1/2007
Full player production 9/1/2007


For Information on the NLS Digital Project contact:

Jean M. Moss, Digital Projects Coordinator  Fax: (202) 707-1690

To view the strategic business plan on the Web visit