Design of Basic Digital Talking-book Player Solidified

New year. New milestone.The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, recently completed the third in a series of eight planned usability tests of the digital talking-book (DTB) system. The study results confirmed the suitability of the overall design of the basic talking-book machine including the cartridge and insertion method. The approved design will undergo minor revisions and tests to fine tune the system.

"The test conclusions represent a major advancement in our digital transition," says Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director. "Extensive work has gone into developing and testing a basic player that is suitable for all users. We're pleased with the outcome and believe that our patrons will also appreciate it."

Primary goals of the study were to validate basic and advanced player designs and user interfaces as well as the cartridge design, insertion method, mailing container, and label. NLS also collected patron feedback on the user guide and key physical features of the player.

Seventy-one patrons of various ages and abilities participated in the assessment. Library personnel were also interviewed on how effectively the player and cartridge models met their needs.

For diverse input, the recent usability tests were spread across three cities—Cleveland, Ohio; Watertown, Massachusetts; and Madison, Wisconsin. The National Federation of the Blind managed tests at the Cleveland Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and the Talking Book Library of the Perkins School for the Blind. Additional on-site studies were conducted at retirement centers in the Cleveland and Boston areas. The Trace Research and Development Center of the University of Wisconsin at Madison administered tests at its facilities and at nearby retirement communities.

Users performed common tasks on three working models of the player. Each model had versions that featured two different methods for inserting the cartridge. Primary controls such as play, stop, and rewind and secondary controls for speed and navigation were tested. Also examined were player size and appearance, power cord storage, retractable handle, and placement of the headphone jack.

Tests were structured for patrons with both basic and advanced reading skills and simulated environments in which they would first use a new player-receiving operating guidance from a user manual only or personal assistance from a friend or family member.

According to Michael Moodie, NLS deputy director, the assessments were extensive for a reason. "Users were asked to test many different aspects of the DTB system because the design is still being refined. Key decisions are being made as needed. The more patron and librarian input we receive, the more effective our solutions will be."

Functional Feedback

Patrons were comfortable with the basic player's modern design and its user interface—including the distinction between primary and secondary controls. However, many were challenged by some of the advanced player's navigation features.

Although patrons could operate both cartridge insertion methods, they indicated that the one featuring a slot in the center of the front edge was preferable. This model also allowed significantly smaller player size. Most appreciated the retractable handle, but some had difficulty finding and pulling it out. Power cord storage was found to be effective. Patrons approved of a simplified sleep button and suggested improving the accessibility of the cartridge mailing container.

The Verdict Is In

Based on patron and librarian feedback, engineers recommended ways to fine tune the DTB system. NLS evaluated this information and accepted the modified design of the basic player. However, additional refining and testing is needed before the machine will be fully suited to patron needs. NLS wishes to further reduce player size without hindering button size and spacing, cord storage, or audio quality and wants to improve the operation of the fast-forward and rewind functions. NLS did not approve the advanced player concept model, citing the need for further testing to refine its features and functions.

Another key outcome was NLS's selection of the center-insertion method for the cartridge. This option allows for cartridges to be inserted into the player much like a debit card would be inserted into an automated teller machine. Additionally, NLS approved the proposed cartridge design, shape, and label concepts. Labels will feature increased information in braille as well as title and author segments in thirty-six point type for maximum legibility.

"We're pleased that so much has been settled in the design," Moodie noted, "and we are confident we can quickly solve the few remaining issues."

A Look Ahead

DTB engineers will continue to be busy in 2006. Over the next few months, their primary focus will be implementing the latest refinements to both the basic and advanced players. The modified players will then undergo follow-up usability tests at the Connecticut and Virginia regional libraries with eligible NLS staff. Patrons will check refinements to player user interfaces and hardware, including the basic machine's fast-forward and rewind functions. When the two players' overall designs are settled, the design team will shift its focus to software development and testing.

Other aspects of the overall DTB program will also be addressed. Development will continue on the Web download project, a digital archive, and the DTB distribution system. "We made great gains in 2005 and we anticipate 2006 will be another productive year," concludes Cylke. "We're looking forward to the work ahead which will drive us even closer to completing the digital conversion project."

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Digital Talking Book (DTB) Milestones


Start 1/12/04
Finish 10/1/08
Milestone Start 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—Phase II 9/19/2005
Design DTB containers and labels 6/1/2005
Web-Book pilot 6/1/2005
Prepare DTBs for distribution 10/1/2005
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