Made to Order: Creating a DTBM Suitable for All

Since the program began in the 1930s, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has relied on consumer input and understands its importance. Developing a complete picture of the needs of program users is one of the top challenges for engineers of NLS's digital talking-book (DTB) project, and they have recently completed the first in a series of eight rigorous user needs tests.

Library staff discuss book circulation.
Photo caption: Library staff and volunteers discuss the book-return process and how packaging might increase efficiency. Photo by Alain Pare of HumanWare.

Two objectives guided the user needs tests. The first is to validate requirements for the digital talking-book machine (DTBM), flash-memory cartridge and mailing container, and make adjustments as necessary. The second is to gather patron feedback from hands-on testing to guide the product design.

"User testing will enable us to optimize the experience of operating the machine and get the most out of the system," says Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director. "Patron comments will help designers to enhance areas that most concern our patrons."

Focus groups were conducted over a three week period in Baltimore; Los Angeles; Clearwater, Florida; and Madison, Wisconsin. A diverse range of current and potential users-with visual and/or physical impairments-provided valuable input. The regional and subregional libraries involved identified the users and organized their participation.

Four industry leaders in assistive technology played varying roles in the process. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) developed test procedures and moderated most of the focus groups. HumanWare, formerly VisuAide, managed the tests and identified user needs. The Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin gathered feedback from seniors with multiple disabilities in separate test sessions. Industrial designers from Battelle — a technology innovation firm contracted to create the DTB system — were at each location to observe.

Developed by the National Federation of the Blind with NLS support, the agenda ensured constructive and thorough feedback. Group sizes were generally limited to two or three participants, permitting examiners to gain a personal understanding of user needs through interviews and operational tasks performed on the current C-1 cassette player. Additional interviews were conducted with library support staff members, whose needs will also impact the design.

Participants carried out a series of tasks to test accessibility and performance including operating the main controls of a C-1, wrapping the power cord for storage, and opening and closing mailing containers. Patrons also reviewed various proposed player shapes and sizes, cartridge shapes, and insertion and removal methods, as well as button shapes and layout.

"Operational tasks are important because they give us an idea of the range of abilities of users, and provide an understanding of the challenges they face and what we must design for," says Michael Moodie, NLS deputy director. "We learn more specifics about the machine's operation by observing how patrons handle the machine."

Lessons Learned

Results place patron needs into four main categories: usability, portability, maintenance, and packaging/labeling. Patrons noted the importance of portability and reported moving players around relatively frequently. They preferred a smaller, lighter machine with a built in handle.

Accessible design remains a key issue. Buttons accessible in shape and layout are essential as are built-in audio prompts to guide users.

According to James Gashel, NFB Executive Director for Strategic Initiatives, the findings underscore the importance of user testing. "These results illustrate just how informed consumers are," says Gashel. "Not only do we know exactly what we need from information technology, but we can help engineers design for those needs. We will help them help us."

Library support staff members were generally interested in how the new technology can help them better serve patrons. They value a simple interface that can be easily explained. Librarians anticipate that the packaging design will make the book-return process more efficient. Repair technicians look forward to a design that facilitates service and cleaning.

The lessons learned affect each component of the DTB system-player, cartridge, and mailing container-underscoring the need to integrate and coordinate all parts of the system.

"This decision will impact the entire distribution network—duplication, circulation systems, data management, and possibly even facilities," says Moodie. "It is important that we consider the economic, operational, and human impact of each model."

Striking A Balance

Creating a made-to-order digital talking-book machine is a tough assignment. The sessions uncovered a variety of patron needs. Success hinges on the understanding that some compromise will be necessary in the final DTBM design.

While NLS values user feedback, it will be impossible to incorporate every recommendation. According to Moodie, NLS must review all patron needs and prioritize their integration. Trade-offs will ultimately be made.

"This is an exercise in trade-offs. Incorporating some feedback will unavoidably happen at the expense of other accommodations," says Moodie. "Nevertheless, we will strive towards a design that reflects the highest patron priorities. We are confident that the end result will be a smart, easy-to-use player that provides an enhanced user experience for all."

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Digital Talking Book (DTB) Milestones


Start 1/12/04
Finish 10/1/08
Milestone Date
Web-Magazine Pilot 1/12/2004
Digital data management system development 11/1/2004
Player and medium development 3/1/2005
Distribution system design and transition planning 3/15/2005
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
[email protected]  Fax: (202) 707-1690

To view the strategic business plan on the Web visit