Talent Behind the Digital Talking-book Machine
Spotlight on Humanware's Design Team
When it comes to digital talking-book design, only the best will do. That is why the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, has recruited some of the best minds in accessible technology for the task. Among them is the team from industry leader HumanWare, which supports prime contractor Battelle on a range of activities.
HumanWare brings seventeen years of experience in accessible technology to the NLS digital project. An innovator in the field of talking books, the company has developed four versions of digital talking-book players in that time. This knowledge is helping NLS build the best digital talking-book machine for its patrons and librarians.
"With HumanWare’s experience behind the digital talking-book project, we have a head start in building a device that will significantly enhance the way our patrons experience reading and access print information," says Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director.
HumanWare’s responsibilities are twofold. They are designing the user interface and develop the software needed to operate the machine. They also coordinate the usability testing associated with this project.
Three industry veterans lead the HumanWare team. Gilles Pepin, president and CEO of HumanWare’s Canadian subsidiary, provides technical direction and design consultation. Pepin holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering with a specialization in digital speech coding and has thirty years of experience in speech technology. Alain Paré, deputy program manager for the NLS project, oversees all activities of HumanWare and its subcontractors, the National Federation of the Blind and the University of Wisconsin’s Trace Center. Dominic Labbé leads a software development team of six in creating the framework needed to run the player. A software specialist for over ten years, Labbé manages software development for HumanWare’s entire line of digital talking-book players.
Interfacing with Users
HumanWare is leading the effort to design the player’s user interface, which includes selection of controls such as play, stop, and volume as well as navigation features. The user interface must be designed for easy usage by readers of varying age and skill levels. Features must interact harmoniously with each other to provide an enjoyable reading experience. To ensure this, interface designs are examined in a series of eight patron usability tests.
Three test rounds have been completed to date. The first identified requirements, including those of patrons, librarians, and repair personnel. Feedback from this test went toward the design of initial models. The next two rounds tested versions of the user interface on simple prototypes. The results were helpful in refining hardware and software design. HumanWare is currently supporting Battelle as they gear up for the fourth test, which will focus on the player’s audio characteristics. The audio quality of the player is a high priority for engineers. They will assess all variables that affect audio quality, including speaker size and sound levels and the size, shape, and configuration of the player’s shell.
The remaining usability studies will focus on testing stages of prototypes that each more closely resembles the final product. The final test will use prototypes incorporating the exact components—including the player shell, controls, and processor—that will be used in the final version.
"User testing has been very beneficial in showing how patrons interact with players and finding out which features do and do not work for them," noted Michael Moodie, NLS deputy director. "Each test has afforded some excellent insight into how we can refine the machine to better suit patron needs."
Paré agrees that these tests yield a "goldmine of information" that is critical to building a successful product. Rigorous, repeated testing is particularly valuable to the digital player because of the high standards and complex specifications it must meet. In fact, during the design of the NLS player, HumanWare will have gathered more usability feedback from end-users than it did for any other product it has developed.
"Our highest priority is satisfying users," adds Paré. "We’re spending a lot of time and effort to make sure that happens. Ultimately, it’s important to build a very reliable product that will stand the test of time."
Building Smart Software
The digital talking-book player will be a smart machine. The "brain" lies in its software. Building "brain cells" is where HumanWare’s software development team comes in. In addition to the user interface design, HumanWare is charged with creating the player’s software based on input from patrons and librarians.
The player’s functions—including controls such as play, rewind, fast forward, volume, tone and speed adjustment—all will be implemented through computer software. HumanWare’s challenge is to write software that will run rapidly and reliably on a portable player. Engineers also must develop software support systems for maintenance and upgrades to the player.
Like NLS, HumanWare is excited about the possibilities the new system holds for patrons. "Digital talking-book technology is a powerful system that will enhance patrons’ access to information," says Pepin.