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Digital Talking Books, Planning for theFuture

July 1998

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Consumer Involvement: Essential to Planning for the Future

Consumerism in the general marketplace is undergoing profound changes. Consumer expectations are increasing dramatically for everything from household products to secondary education. Awareness of the changing expectations of consumers should be part of any consumer-oriented development plan. Without careful attention to the expressed and unexpressed expectations of consumers, unexpected queries and protests can stymie the progress of even the most technologically sound plan.

Like the general population, members of the eligible blind and physically handicapped population vary greatly in age, intellectual level, vocational pursuits, and, of course, technological sophistication. These and many other factors will have a significant effect on their acceptance of and adaptability to a new format for their reading material.

Differences in the technological sophistication of blind and physically handicapped consumers will not only affect the manner in which consumers adapt to new things, it will also affect their notions regarding change in general. Why do things need to change? Why can't libraries for blind and physically handicapped individuals continue to produce talking books on cassette? A reasonable explanation of the need for change will be necessary for a large portion of the population. Rationales such as the increasing cost of maintaining the current technology, its continued viability in a changing consumer marketplace, and the potential for increased usability and flexibility of a new medium can help to allay fears and ensure cooperation.

At the other end of this spectrum, some consumers express considerable interest in the transition to a digital format and often wish to know why the change wasn't made sooner.

Consumer Involvement

An often perplexing notion for product developers is how to get consumer feedback on a product that doesn't exist. The fact that no piece of the proposed machinery can be placed in the hands of a blind or handicapped person should not be a deterrent to involving consumers in the transition. Many aspects of the transition to a digital format lend themselves well to consumer involvement, even at the earliest stages.

As of 1998, efforts to bring together a wide variety of expertise from organizations such as the NLS Technology Assessment and Research Program (TARP) and NISO have involved consumers. Representatives from consumer organizations, patrons of regional libraries, and network library staff have participated in an active, meaningful way. These consumers have provided detailed input on possible features such as indexing methods and search functions.

Happily, a growing portion of the consumer population is familiar with the forms and features of current consumer electronic equipment--compact-disc players, digital message recorders, and digital answering machines. In addition, in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, news services--even daily newspapers--are carried over the telephone in digital format. Such products and services demonstrate the vast range of possibilities to the less technologically sophisticated members of the population.

It is possible to involve even the most unsophisticated consumer at every stage in the process: the conceptual stage, software modeling (audio quality testing, etc.), and hardware mock-ups. At a recent meeting of the NLS National Audio Equipment Advisory Committee, consumers tested the quality of various levels of audio compression. Even though there was no actual product for them to examine, it was possible to obtain their feedback on the relative clarity of audio samples, thus guiding the way toward decisions about compression ratios for file formats, storage media, and so on.

When attempting to communicate some of the conceptual notions about digital design, it may be helpful to have a metaphor in mind; for example, "The goal of the form and features of this model is to match as closely as possible the use of a print book." The developer can then communicate the metaphor to targeted consumers as a framework for conceptualization and discussion.

Needs Assessment

For some aspects of the transition to a digital format, standard needs-assessment activities can be very useful in making sure that a representative cross-section of consumers is involved. Of the several methodologies typically used in a needs assessment, the one chosen must be appropriate to the type of needs being assessed and to the target group of consumers.

To determine needs that relate to talking books and how a digital format may be configured, a combination of several methodologies will likely yield the best results. Four common methods for assessing needs are (1) secondary use of data, (2) key informants, (3) community forum, and (4) survey.

Secondary Use of Data

In this method, inferences about consumer needs are derived from data collected by different groups for other purposes--as part of a national census, by health-care institutions, by large organizations serving the same population, or even from the organization's own user statistics. Data used in this approach include social and demographic indicators such as age, educational level, employment data, and income level; service statistics and use patterns; and epidemiological data. The analysis of trends for factors like age and educational level can have wide-ranging implications for the talking-book format of the future. It is important to determine whether advanced features--which may take a disproportionate amount of time and expense to develop--will be used by only a few people pursuing advanced academic degrees, or whether such features will be more and more in demand by a wider segment of the population with an increasing educational level. While advanced features may be costly to develop, such efforts may offset the cost of multiple activities currently underway to meet the needs of both recreational and educational/professional users.

Care must be taken, however, to ensure that data gathered and trends observed truly reflect the blind and physically handicapped population. For example, the population in general may be getting older, but is the blind population getting older at the same rate, at a faster rate, or at a slower rate?

The advantages of gathering information through secondary analysis of existing data are that the data are readily available at minimal cost and on a wide variety of characteristics, and information can be gathered on unserved portions of the population. Some disadvantages of this method are that the data reflect only information individuals have been willing to share with an institution or government; the data tend to be descriptive; many statistics will be estimates; and the data do not reveal the individual values and beliefs underlying current trends.

Key Informants

Individuals typically invited to serve as key informants are persons from other service agencies and educational institutions, along with consumer-group leaders and representatives who have specific knowledge of the needs of the group. Key informants can be interviewed individually or assembled in one or a series of meetings.

This method is frequently used for program planning purposes by libraries for blind and physically handicapped readers. Consultants are invited to review or gather information and make recommendations for example, the development of strategies for meeting the reading needs of blind and physically handicapped Native Americans. This method also involves the ongoing use of advisory committees of a few individuals selected for their expertise or representativeness.

As an adjunct to this method of needs assessment, developers should seek opportunities to see representative consumers in the context in which they use the service. Such encounters can be arranged by a library or consumer organization that can identify representative individuals who would welcome such visits. The developer then simply goes to the consumer's listening environment, typically a private home, observes the details of where and how the service is used, and asks some open-ended questions about the medium. This is not a data-gathering effort; rather, it is an attempt to get some first-hand impressions of what consumers are like and what characterizes the listening environment. It can reduce "ivory tower" misperceptions and give developers some sense of consumer expectations and priorities.

Another valuable experience is participation in sessions where prospective consumers are introduced to the library service and the related equipment for the first time, possibly during training for persons who have recently become blind. Participation might consist of simply observing or might include helping with instruction and equipment presentation. Through this experience, the developer can get a personal feel for problems and opportunities associated with a blind person's first encounter with an unfamiliar device. Again, this is not a scientific study but a personal encounter essential for a developer who has never met a consumer. The background and context it provides can guide the developer's thinking.

The advantages of the key-informant method are that it provides a good opportunity for in-depth study, it can be performed in a short time, and it is useful for reaching target groups who are isolated by language or culture. Its disadvantages are that the informing individual may not be representative of the entire group, the method can place undue emphasis on population segments, and it can result in conflicting statements that are difficult to reconcile.

Community Forum

The community forum uses the perceptions and experiences of individuals invited to the forum to identify and assess the varied needs of disparate groups in the consumer community. Ideally, all segments of the consumer population are represented. This method, when applied in its general form, is least likely to give usable results and is most often reserved for the consideration of very general issues. A community forum may, however, include some kind of brainstorming activity to stimulate the flow of creative ideas. Such brainstorming may have a wider application for involving consumers in the transition process, especially at the earliest stages.

The advantages of community forums include the following: they are useful when the community is relatively small or can be divided into manageable units, they can be planned and executed very quickly, and they clearly demonstrate to the members of the entire population that the organization is concerned about their needs. The disadvantages are that they assume that individuals can articulate their needs, and that some segments of the population may not be able to attend meetings because of age, disability, transportation problems, and the like.


The survey method assesses needs by collecting data from the entire population or from a selected portion of the population. The most common methods are in-person interviews, telephone surveys, and questionnaires. However, current program users cannot shed light on the needs of the unserved population, so care must be taken to use data gathered from this group only to plan services for current program users.

The advantages of the survey method are that each respondent has an equal chance of being heard, it is the most scientifically reliable and valid method, and it provides information about an individual's perception of his or her own needs. The disadvantages of this method are that it is the most time-consuming and expensive technique, only actual respondents' input is represented, people can respond with only what they know is possible, and many complexities exist in surveying a blind or visually impaired population.

A Note about the User Interface of a Digital Talking-Book Player

One especially thorny aspect of the development of a digital format is the user interface. How will the user interact with the finished product? With technology changing at a rapid rate, answers to this question are probably just vague descriptions of the ultimate possibilities. However, the user interface between persons with disabilities and a wide variety of consumer products has become a popular area of academic research, with application to such devices as information kiosks; automatic teller machines; set-top boxes; and other touchscreen, on-screen, and telephone-based services. Efforts to stay abreast of these activities continue so that the end user will benefit from the most consistent and seamless interface possible.

As prototype talking-book equipment and delivery systems are developed, multi-faceted consumer testing programs will be implemented at every stage. Such testing will begin with a small group of users reacting to pre-prototype modeling and expand to larger groups, drawn from all segments of the user population, using pre-production models in real-world environments. This testing program will be designed and implemented to ensure that the next generation of talking- book equipment is fully evaluated by the group who will be using it.


It is absolutely critical that whatever the shape and function of the final product, it be capable of meeting the needs of all consumers, not just the young, not just the old, not just the technologically savvy, but also not just the technologically naive. Any future talking-book format must be usable and useful to everyone in the most flexible and efficient way possible.

Decisions will be made, and they must be made through a planned, rational process responsive to the needs of the community as a whole. A service provider's responsibility is to the entire community it serves. It cannot respond to the needs presented by any single segment of the population without an objective assessment of the needs of the whole community.

Judith M. Dixon, Consumer Relations Officer

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prologue --- planning --- NISO --- activity planning --- 20 steps --- 9 tasks --- consumer involvement

bibliography --- appendix i: details in implementation --- appendix ii: overview of contracting approach

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