A Study of Factors Affecting Learning to Use a Computer by People Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision
For people who have access to vocational rehabilitation services, the path to computer literacy through training in the use of traditional screen-reading and screen-magnification products is predictable. For the vast number of people who have little experience using a computer without vision or with low vision, however, learning to use a computer can be challenging.
Two major obstacles that AFB TECH has identified are the high price of conventional access technology and the lack of training for people who are not connected with vocational rehabilitation. These obstacles mean that the vast majority of older people who experience vision loss, yet still want to use computers, face some serious problems.
In this article, we highlight the experiences of seven individuals who participated in a user experience study conducted by AFB TECH and the AFB Center on Vision Loss. The study was designed to illuminate issues that face those who want to learn to use a computer but may not have experience with the Windows operating system or access to formal training.
To present a contrast in both scope and price, we selected two lesser known screen-access programs: Guide, $795, available in North America from EVAS (www.evas.com) and System Access to Go, from Serotek, which is free (www.satogo.com).
Guide is a program in which all its 23 applications, including word processing, e-mail, calendar/planner, phone directory, web browsing, and DVD viewing, share a common look. The presentation is not like conventional Windows programs. A simple text-based visual design is combined with keyboard commands that use only the alphanumeric keys, cursor navigation keys, and the number row. (Note that more advanced hot-key combinations are available for advanced users of Guide, but they are not necessary to operate the program.) In this study, Guide was used without a mouse, which is the standard configuration.
System Access to Go is a free, publically available, screen-reader application that individuals may access at www.satogo.com. When the site is visited, the user is prompted, by voice, to press several Windows key commands to load the screen reader on the computer. After several seconds, the system is ready to accept a user name and password. System Access to Go is functionally similar to the traditional screen-access programs, such as Window-Eyes and ZoomText. For the purposes of this study, it is appropriate to think of System Access to Go as you would conventional screen readers and magnifiers because it is compatible with standard Windows applications. For the purposes of this project, we selected Internet Explorer 7 and Outlook Express configured in a traditional manner on a computer operating Windows XP. System Access to Go supports the use of a standard Windows mouse, and during the study, a mouse was available to those who chose to use it.
After analyzing the nontraditional screen-reader and screen-magnifier technologies on the market, we selected two that provided a contrast in user requirements and that would allow us to observe and interact with a small group of users who do not have immediate access to traditional screen-access products or training. We wanted to look at the experience of using two different types of products. The first was Guide, which is intentionally designed to be a simplified program that eliminates the need for a person to learn the more complex concepts of the Windows operating system and its applications. At the other end of the spectrum, System Access to Go is free and therefore addresses the other major obstacle: the price of access technology and training.
We invited seven individuals, aged 60 to 88, to the AFB Center on Vision Loss in Dallas. Each individual spent about 90 minutes with two staff members who were visiting from the AFB TECH office in Huntington, West Virginia.
The activities were divided into three segments. We began by asking questions about each participant's computer experience and his or her attitudes toward access technology and desire to use a computer. We also asked each participant about his or her knowledge of training resources in the community.
After we gathered the biographical data, we asked each participant to complete some basic computer tasks using Guide and System Access to Go. These tasks included basic navigation, either in the Guide menu or on the Windows desktop; browsing a list of e-mail messages; selecting and reading a message; browsing the www.afb.org web page; finding a specific headline; and reading that item.
One AFB TECH staff member helped each participant to understand the technology. In this way, we attempted to focus on how easy each program is to use, not on the specific skills of the participants. After these tasks were completed, we concluded by asking each participant follow-up questions.
Overview of Observations
Because only seven individuals participated in the study, no universal conclusions can be drawn. Despite this limitation, some useful information emerged, including important technical themes and interesting comments about the availability of training and services.
Several skills were identified as either enabling or, more commonly, inhibiting successful use of the computer. The most important was the lack of keyboarding skills. We asked the participants to rate their keyboarding skills on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent. For five of the seven participants, the ratings of both the reported keyboard skill assessment and the observed keyboarding skill were 3 or lower. The two participants who rated their skills at 4 or 5 had previous experience using the keyboard before they lost their vision and used touch typing techniques. Only one participant was receiving formal training in the use of a conventional screen-reading product, but since training had only recently started, he stated that his keyboarding skills were still on the lower end of the scale. Keyboarding proficiency affected the use of both Guide and System Access to Go.
The majority of the seven participants stated that they use low vision techniques as the primary strategy for accommodating their vision loss. This finding is not surprising, given the population of older people who are experiencing vision loss. For those who use some or totally nonvisual methods, no particular pattern emerged that would distinguish them as a group from the others. Although this finding is not conclusive, it suggests that the availability of training and other factors, not the degree of remaining vision, are strong predictors of successful computer use.
Both Guide and System Access to Go allow individuals to change the font size and to control the appearance of the screen. Three participants preferred using System Access to Go with the mouse and magnification over using Guide. All three (one of whom was a skilled keyboard user) reported that the movement of the mouse pointer was difficult to follow while using the program. They also noted that the mouse jiggled with small, inadvertent hand movements. One participant stated that slight hand tremors exacerbated the situation.
These experiences suggest that tailoring the Windows settings for the mouse pointer to optimize its size, appearance, and speed can assist in maximizing the usefulness of the screen magnification that is available in System Access to Go. In addition, selecting a mouse or an alternative, such as a track ball, may be useful. A mouse pad is also a means of controlling the movement of a mouse and provides a physical reference for the individual.
An additional factor for this group was the familiarity with the visual layout of Windows and Windows applications. The participants perceived their existing skills and knowledge as valuable skills and viewed the magnification in a positive light.
Each participant was asked to navigate a list of e-mail messages using Guide's e-mail client and Outlook Express, respectively. No appreciable differences among the participants were observed. When each participant was asked to navigate in a message, differences in use and preferences were revealed. The participants could be placed in one of two groups. Some, primarily the mouse users, preferred to navigate content, while the non-mouse users preferred to listen. Thus, we can think of some individuals as "navigators" and others as "listeners."
When a message was allowed to be read in its entirety, no pattern of preference for one product was revealed. Several participants reported that they lost track of information if the message was long.
A difference that emerged was for the participants who wanted to navigate through content, rather than to listen to it as continuous text. For the navigators, System Access to Go was preferred. This was especially true for the group of three who used screen enlargement and the mouse.
The participants who were the least familiar with Windows stated some preference for Guide, which assigns numbers to various functions. A drawback that was also expressed was that if the individual was just listening, the list was long, and it was easy to forget which number had appeared at the top of the list by the time the system was finished reading the entire list. In instances in which individuals did forget, it was necessary to navigate, perhaps reducing some of the intended functionality of the Guide interface design.
Web navigation was the third of the three task areas that each participant completed. It is not surprising that navigating the Web is a more complex visual and auditory task than is using e-mail. When pages were allowed to be read as constant text, both programs announced links and other information clearly. Two participants clearly preferred the Guide web-browsing experience. The three mouse users with low vision preferred System Access to Go; however, they found the visual element more complex than it was for navigating e-mail and reading messages. For these individuals, System Access to Go provided focused verbal output; however, since their preference was for magnification, listening to content was not as desirable as using vision.
The most complex element of our design included listening to or navigating the AFB.org web site to locate the Headlines link. From this link, an item about Carl Augusto, AFB president and CEO, was to be read. Some users, particularly when using Guide, were unable to listen to and track the information. For both programs, navigating and listening in combination produced the best results. Those who preferred System Access to Go also had the most satisfactory experience with this task. It is reasonable to conclude that the relatively more advanced design of the Internet Explorer browser, used with System Access to Go but not with Guide, is in, some part, responsible for this difference.
Beyond the tasks of navigating menus, reading an e-mail message, and browsing a web site, we discussed both perceptions and experiences with each of the seven participants. Only two participants were familiar with the major screen-reader manufacturers, one of whom is learning to use JAWS.
As part of the initial interview, the participants were asked how much they would be willing to pay for computer access technology. Their answers to this question varied a good bit. Some were very concerned about the cost of purchasing access technology, while others had less concern about the cost and were more interested in what the technology could do.
Only two of the seven participants were able to identify training options in the Dallas area, the location of the study. One person identified the Hadley School, in Illinois, while another stated that networking with other people who are blind had resulted in contracting with a tutor for $30 per hour for JAWS training. The remaining five all expressed frustration over the lack of training and said that it has been somewhat discouraging to them as they try to learn about technology.
When asked a general question about training methods, all the participants stated that they were willing to attend classes if training would be effective. There was a general preference for in-home training if it was equally available and effective.
After the hands-on portion of the session, we asked some follow-up questions. All the participants said that they understood at least some of what the computer was communicating and what was going on. Two of the experienced users understood all of what the computer was communicating and, on the basis of observations, had the easiest time tracking familiar processes, especially using e-mail.
Because it is important to be able to understand and repeat the steps for using programs and performing tasks, we asked each participant to tell us how easy it was to follow the steps to using each program. All reported that it was easy, with no difference among those who preferred one program or the other. However, our observations revealed some difficulty for several of the participants despite their self-reported ease in understanding. This is a potentially important aspect of tutorial or other kinds of training and merits further consideration. These difficulties were equally common for both Guide and System Access to Go.
These observations are contrary to the common understanding that Windows is significantly more complex than is a consistent or custom user interface. Again, the size of the group prevented us from conducting a more definitive analysis; however, as with all aspects of the study, keyboarding skills and confidence may play a large role.
When asked to state which program they preferred, three participants stated a clear preference for Guide. An equal number preferred System Access to Go, with the remaining participant expressing no clear preference for either program.
We were also interested to learn how confident each participant was in his or her ability to learn his or her preferred program. The levels of confidence, expressed on a scale of 1 to 5, included 1 participant at Level 2, two at Level 3, and the rest at Level 4.5 or 5. The participants with the highest levels of confidence were the three who preferred System Access to Go and who had earlier computer experience. The participant who expressed the lowest level of confidence had no preference for either product.
We want to stress that we cannot state that System Access to Go provided the higher levels of confidence because the three individuals who reported a rating of 5 on the scale were the three most experienced users of Windows. It is reasonable to conclude that System Access to Go facilitated the use of existing skills effectively.
Although the products differ dramatically in price, we did not reveal the price of either one to the participants until the end of each meeting. After we told the participants that Guide is priced at $795 and System Access to Go is free of charge, their reactions were varied and interesting. For six of the seven, price was a serious or high-level factor in influencing which product they might select. The participant who stated that money was not an issue expressed no preference for either product. This was also the participant who expressed the lowest level of confidence in the ability to learn to use the computer with one of the products. All the Guide users stated that they would consider price if they were to purchase one of these products.
Conclusions and Recommendations
We want to reiterate that because this study included only seven participants, we cannot provide a comprehensive or universal overview of the experience of all individuals. Some important and obvious commonalities were observed, and a few more subtle patterns emerged.
The major lesson we can draw from our study is that keyboarding skills, or the lack of them, played the most important role in whether or not a participant could or would be likely to use a computer. For all the participants, increasing intermediate skills or learning keyboarding by touch would be first on the list of steps to learning to use a PC. Thus, for individuals and organizations that provide computer training, identifying and providing keyboard instruction is critical to laying the necessary foundation to using either of the products discussed here.
When we reviewed the data and observations, it became apparent that some participants did not have sufficient keyboarding skills to use even a simplified or specialized interface. It is possible that for an individual to use any interface, including a simplified design, a minimum level of keyboarding skill must be achieved. The question then becomes, how much higher a level of keyboarding skills is required to use Windows without a specialized or simplified user interface? By answering this question, future research may direct the development and implementation of the most useful user interface.
The second clear message is that even with a program like Guide or System Access to Go, instruction is critical, and without instruction, the participants would not be likely to use a computer. No clear preference for one kind of instructional method was expressed. All the participants stated that they would be open to a class or individualized instruction either at home or in a central location as long as it is affordable and effective.
The group of participants who use low vision methods and who had preexisting computer skills all found System Access to Go to be useful. Our observations suggest that some refinements of the Windows setup, including mouse settings, simplifying the desktop, and optimizing Outlook Express and Internet Explorer settings for users with low vision, will make this software a powerful tool for this group.
At the same time, for those who were open to using System Access to Go, but who did not have Windows skills, tutorial or other instructional assistance is required. The complexity of Windows makes this task more difficult and increases the length of time until an individual is able to use the computer independently.
For those who had relatively poor keyboarding skills and did not use the mouse or used fewer low vision strategies, Guide was the clear preference. While the program is costly, the requirements for instruction may be far fewer than with Windows, thus reducing the price of related training.
An intriguing strategy of training sighted individuals in the use of Guide and methods of instruction for users who are blind has been discussed. A local network of tutors, perhaps college or high school students, could be envisioned who would be a free or low-cost training resource.
For the time being, users with low vision who have used the Windows operating system in the past should be encouraged to try System Access to Go. Identifying an assistant or computer professional to refine settings is relatively easy, and the free-to-use model creates no financial downside.
At the same time, Guide can be obtained in a 30-day demonstration edition. This is a generous evaluation period. Again, an individual with intermediate or better skills may be able to grasp the Guide interface and conventions easily and to assist a potential Guide user in understanding the program.
Further study of existing instructional methods is desirable. The use of traditional, center-based approaches, as well as more innovative strategies, including phone-based and web-based techniques, would be a valuable next step.
In all instances, the participants stated that they were interested in using a computer and other technology to increase their independence and to communicate with others. Both Guide and System Access to Go have the potential to facilitate this common desire. The data collected and observations recorded in this study suggest some patterns of use for specific groups of individuals. Despite the technical stability and availability of these programs, the lack of training options may, unfortunately, still stand between individuals and their goal of independent access to the computer.
This article was produced with support from a grant from the AT&T Foundation.
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Screen-Reading Alternatives: An Overview of Lower-cost Options by Brad Hodges and Lee Huffman
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