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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 November 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 11

Research

Left to Your Own Devices: Results of a Study on the Usability of Everyday Household and Electronics Products for People with Vision Loss

Featureless control panels and embedded small visual displays (SVDs) are becoming more and more common on a wide range of household and electronic devices, making it increasingly difficult for people who are blind or visually impaired to find products that they can use independently. Older products typically used easier-to-feel control buttons and knobs that made settings easier to change and confirm. Newer products, however, often use touch screens and non-tactile controls as well as SVDs that display critical information.

In order to explore what types of products are most inaccessible for people with vision loss, AFB conducted a telephone survey focusing on that topic, along with how people with vision loss manage to use interfaces, what types of interfaces they would prefer products to have, and whether offering accessible interfaces would make a difference in their buying habits. The survey also asked respondents about Web activity and accessibility.

This survey is part of a larger project to develop an accessible interface for a variety of products. The information gathered from this survey will be used by AFB to determine which product types and accessibility barriers are most in need of improvement.

Study Methodology

Study information was collected via telephone surveys. The surveys included three screening questions about blindness and visual impairment, and only those individuals who reported experiencing significant vision loss were asked the full set of survey questions. The screening included the question "Are you blind or unable to see at all?" and if a respondent said "no" to that question he or she was asked, "Do you have any trouble seeing even while wearing glasses or contact lenses?" In addition respondents were asked "do you have any usable vision?"

The final sample consisted of 400 respondents with vision loss including 275 respondents randomly selected from a larger list of people who self-identified as visually impaired in previous national surveys (the "Community Group") and 125 individuals who were selected from lists AFB maintains of people with vision loss who had previously had some type of contact with AFB (e.g., CareerConnect mentors, AccessWorld readers) (the "AFB Group").

We recognized that individuals in these two groups might be quite different from one another. We expect that respondents from the AFB lists are generally people who have proactively sought out AFB at some time in the past, and would therefore be somewhat familiar with the vision services field. On the other hand, we expect that those who were found through random national surveys are much less likely to be associated with vision service agencies or to have received services. In order to determine whether the groups were too different from each other to justify reporting their answers in a single data set, we analyzed each group separately on a series of background questions that were given at the start of the survey. This analysis made clear that the two groups were extremely different from one another on important personal characteristics. On average the Community Group was much older (the average age was over 75 years, versus 50 years in the AFB Group), more likely to be female, half as likely to have graduated college, much less likely to be working, and more likely to be earning a lower income. Regarding visual impairment, most of the Community Group had low vision, while most of the AFB Group was blind, and individuals in the Community Group had, on average, experienced visual impairment for a much smaller proportion of their lives. Because the two groups differed so dramatically on these important background variables, a decision was made to report the findings for the two groups separately.

Survey Questions

All those who passed the initial screening were asked whether they had received training or services to accommodate their vision loss, either through services in their school, by a professional in their home, at a comprehensive blindness adjustment center, or some other way.

Next, participants were asked whether, as a result of their vision loss, they experience at least some degree of difficulty using controls or displays for any of their household appliances or electronic devices. Those who said they did experience difficulty were asked which was more difficult for them, household products or electronic products.

Individuals who reported that household appliances gave them the most difficulty were read a list of 12 common household items and were asked which they found difficult to use because of their vision loss. The household items list included:

  • Washing machine
  • Stove
  • Oven
  • Microwave
  • Clothes dryer
  • Dishwasher
  • Exercise equipment (e.g., treadmill)
  • Small cooking appliances (e.g., toaster)
  • Food preparation appliances (e.g., blender)
  • Coffee machine
  • Portable heater or fan
  • Refrigerator

Those who said electronic devices were more problematic for them than household appliances were read a list of 15 common electronic devices and asked which they found difficult to use due to their vision loss. The electronic devices list included:

  • Television
  • Remote controls (e.g., TV)
  • VHS/DVD Player
  • Heater/air thermostat
  • Stereo/sound system
  • Cable/satellite box
  • Mobile telephone
  • Digital camera or handheld camcorder
  • DVR
  • XM or HD radio
  • MP3 player/iPod
  • Home telephone
  • Security system
  • Gaming system (e.g, Xbox)
  • eBook reader

Next, individuals who said they had difficulty with either household or electronic products were asked to identify the barriers to accessibility that they encountered for these products. They were given a list of reasons why they might have had problems using the products, and were asked whether each was a cause of their difficulty. The reasons listed included:

  • A lack of physical identifiers
  • A lack of speech output
  • Small lettering on the labeling
  • Poor color contrast on the labeling
  • Small lettering on the SVD
  • Poor contrast on the SVD
  • Low brightness on the SVD

Participants were then asked whether they'd be more likely to buy or use products that are made more usable for people with vision loss. The participants were asked whether they use visual, non-visual, or a combination of both visual and non-visual methods to use these products, and, based on their answer, were provided with a list of potential design solutions to increase access. Respondents were then asked which accessibility options they would prefer to use to access controls and displays on products.

If the respondents answered that they use only non-visual methods or both non-visual and visual methods to use the products, they were given a list of solutions including:

  • Braille dots/bumps for identification
  • Tactile controls
  • Speech output
  • Support for braille displays

If the respondents answered they use only visual methods or both non-visual and visual methods to use the products, they were given a list of solutions including:

  • Large print for the labeling
  • Higher contrast for the labeling
  • Higher contrast for the buttons and controls
  • Large print on the SVD
  • High contrast on the SVD
  • Brighter screen on the SVD
  • Low glare on the SVD

Respondents who had said at the beginning of the survey that they have no difficulty with household or electronic products were asked if the reason they had no difficulty was because they were using alternative techniques when using the items, and if so what techniques they were using.

Finally, since this survey focused on the usability of interfaces, AFB used this opportunity to ask questions about the respondents' Internet usage and what barriers they encountered on the Web. Regular Internet users were asked what types of information they use the Web for most often (including personal banking and finance, education, travel, "news, sports and weather," shopping, and social networking.) Individuals who said they use the Internet on a regular basis were asked whether they experience any barriers using the Web, and whether those barriers were due to their vision loss.

Results for the AFB Group

Three-quarters of respondents in the AFB Group have gotten formal training or services for their vision loss.

The vast majority of participants reported experiencing problems with electronic and household devices. Of those who said they experienced difficulty, the majority reported that electronic devices caused them more difficulty than household appliances.

For the household appliances, more than half the respondents reported having difficulty with stoves, ovens, washing machines, clothes dryers and microwave ovens. In the electronic devices category more than half reported that televisions, remote controls, VHS/DVD players, thermostats, stereo/sound systems, and cable/satellite boxes caused them difficulty. The most common reason for problems was difficulty in distinguishing buttons due to lack of physical identifiers and inability to use a device because there is no speech output.

For most items, the number of individuals who said they'd use or buy the accessible item was greater than the number who initially said they had any difficulty using it. For example, more than twice as many individuals said they'd buy or use accessible coffee machines, portable heaters or fans, or refrigerators than said they had any difficulty with those products to begin with. The number of respondents who answered this set of questions was very small, therefore these results are considered preliminary.

For those who use non-visual access for controls, speech output software was preferred over tactile controls and dots/bumps for identification. For accessing the information on SVDs, respondents had a strong preference for speech output software, as opposed to support for braille displays. Those individuals who said they use visual access for controls preferred larger text on labeling over high contrast, and this preference carried over to accessing the SVDs, where there was also a strong preference for larger text followed by high contrast between background and lettering, and lower glare.

Among those who said they had no difficulty with electronic or household devices, almost all said they used alternative techniques, the most often cited being memorization, dots/bumps for identification, and the assistance of another person. The number of respondents saying they used alternative techniques was very small, therefore these results are considered preliminary.

Almost all of the AFB Group said they used the Web on a regular basis (more than one time per week). Of the information categories listed, individuals selected education and news most often. About three-quarters of respondents said they experience barriers to using the Web. Of those who experienced barriers, almost all said the barriers were due to their vision loss. The most problematic barriers chosen by participants were unlabeled graphics or images, pages that change when trying to read them, unclear links, and online forms.

Almost all of those who said Web barriers are due to their vision loss said they use assistive technology on the Web, and about three-quarters indicated that they have had training in usable technology for the Web.

Results for the Community Group

Only a quarter of respondents in the Community Group reported having gotten formal training or services for their vision loss.

About a third of the respondents in this group said they experience difficulty with electronic and household devices. The majority of those who reported difficulty said that electronic devices caused more difficulty than household appliances.

For household devices, stoves and ovens were chosen by more than half the respondents as causing difficulty due to their vision loss. In the electronic devices category, televisions, remote controls, VHS/DVD players, and thermostats caused difficulty for more than half the respondents. As with the AFB Group, more individuals said they'd use or buy the products if made more accessible than said they had any difficulty using the product. More than twice as many respondents said they'd use or buy the following devices if they were made accessible than reported having problems with the devices to begin with: exercise equipment, small cooking appliances, food preparation appliances, coffee machines, portable heaters or fans, and refrigerators. Again, these results are preliminary as the number of respondents who answered this set of questions was small.

Those who use non-visual access for controls preferred speech output software over tactile controls or dots/bumps for identification. Respondents preferred speech output for accessing the information on SVDs over support for braille displays. For those who use visual access, larger labeling was preferred for controls, followed by high contrast, and for SVDs, respondents preferred larger lettering, followed by high contrast and lower glare.

Only about a fifth of respondents who said they had no difficulty with devices said they used alternative methods; a handheld magnifier was the most often cited alternative and was selected by more than half of those using alternative methods. As with the AFB Group, the number of respondents to this set of questions was small so these are considered preliminary results.

Only about a third of respondents used the Web on a regular basis, and they used it most often for news and shopping. About a third of participants said they experience barriers using the Web, and of those, about three quarters said the barriers were due to their vision loss. The most problematic barriers chosen by participants were online forms, unclear links, low contrast or small text, and finding the main content on the page. Of those who said Web barriers are due to their vision loss, only a third said they use assistive technology on the Web, and only a small number had received training in usable technology for the Internet.

Summary and Conclusion

Many of the large differences in the results for the AFB Group versus the Community Group are likely explained by the differences in their background characteristics. The AFB Group was much younger on average and included many more individuals who were blind as opposed to having low vision, and they were more likely to have experienced vision loss from a young age.

Individuals in the AFB Group were three times more likely than those in the Community Group to have had formal training or services for their vision loss, a likely result of their having greater levels of visual impairment. The vast majority of AFB Group participants said they experience difficulty with devices, while the majority of the Community Group did not. It may be that individuals in the Community Group not only have less severe visual impairments, but that they are relatively new to having vision loss and therefore access to devices may be something that they haven't thought a lot about. Those who have been blind for many years are likely to have experienced lack of access to appliances and devices many times throughout their lives and have given more thought to the lack of access. In addition, the Community Group is much older than the AFB Group and those individuals are more likely to own older products that use positional knobs to set and confirm settings, while the more modern equipment tends to use featureless control panels and embedded SVDs.

Community Group participants were more likely to cite problems related to low vision, such as difficulty reading small text and too much glare, while AFB Group participants more often cited problems related to blindness, such as lack of speech output and lack of physical identifiers.

Because of the difference in level of vision loss between the two groups, it's not surprising that the AFB Group was more likely to say they used memorization, tactile markers, and audio cues for access, while the Community Group relied mostly on handheld magnifiers. An unexpected finding is that individuals in the AFB Group were almost three times more likely to use the assistance of another person than were individuals in the Community Group.

Since the Community Group was so much older than the AFB Group, age is likely the reason that the latter were almost three times more likely to use the Web on a regular basis. The strongest difference between the groups was in their use of the Web for education information: individuals in the AFB Group were more than twice as likely as Community Group individuals to seek information on education from the Web. Age, again, likely explains this difference.

This study highlighted some of the household appliances and electronic devices that people with vision loss have difficulty using, the alternate ways they manage to use the product, what types of interfaces they would prefer to see on products, and whether product accessibility would influence their buying habits.

Respondents from both groups reported having more difficulty in using electronic products than household products. In particular, entertainment devices such as televisions, remote controls, and VHS/DVD players were identified as the most problematic. Among household products, stoves and ovens were the most problematic. To manage these inaccessible interfaces, individuals with vision loss tended to use memorization, tactile markers, audio cues, handheld magnifiers, and the assistance of another person.

The information collected from this survey suggests that there is a clear demand for increased accessibility from people who are blind or visually impaired for a wide range of products, in particular electronic entertainment devices. Devices such as televisions and VHS/DVD players have grown increasingly complex and often require complicated setup procedures, especially when trying to activate advanced features like audio description, which of course is used by many visually impaired users. The fact that remote controls are also included in the list of problematic devices further demonstrates the difficulty of using entertainment devices.

The results on this survey suggest that for blind and visually impaired users to be able to use electronics devices effectively, the products need to provide speech output with audio cues, as well as larger text and higher contrast for the labeling and buttons. Additionally, for household products such as kitchen appliances to become more accessible, they need to feature more tactile controls and more easily readable SVDs. Based on these results, AFB will focus on developing an accessible product interface that blind and visually impaired users can use to access the most problematic products.

As part of this project, AFB has already developed two applications for Android devices, the AFB Gesture Recorder and the AFB Gesture Viewer (currently available on the Android Marketplace), to explore the possibility of using a touch screen tablet as an accessible product interface. These applications allow individuals to create their own unique gestures to perform functions such as "Up" "Down" "Previous" and "Next" on any Android device. The applications have been included as a major element of the user interface for the Ideal Web Reader.

The data collected from this survey and the feedback on the Android applications provide AFB with valuable information on the types of products most in need of an accessible interface, and the preferred methods for accessibility by blind and visually impaired users. This information will allow AFB to develop an accessible interface for a variety of products that are currently inaccessible. Interfaces that are designed to be more accessible for visually impaired people would likely increase the use of household and electronic items by people with vision loss, would increase the likelihood of their purchasing these accessible products, and would likely have a positive influence on level of satisfaction with these products.

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Copyright © 2011 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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