For more than a year, AFB TECH has tracked the accessibility and usability of controls on appliances. The resulting articles, published in AccessWorld, tell a story of diminished usability and the increasing difficulty in finding appliances that are usable by people who are blind or have low vision. The laundry room is a case in point. The electronic controls that operate today's high-tech front-loading washers and their dryer brand-mates often leave those who use nonvisual methods behind.

What's New?

Two recent products appear to reverse the trend toward inaccessibility. The recently redesigned Whirlpool Duet HT full-size washer and dryer, along with a revamped version of the Sears Kenmore HE3 and HE5t washers and matching dryers, include controls that make these appliances remarkably usable. Both brands have introduced controls that use tones of different pitches, in combination with easy-to-feel buttons and turn knobs. Whirlpool's Duet models have been among the most accessible front-loading washers and dryers, and the Kenmore full-size, High Efficiency (HE3 and HE4) were also more usable than other brands that AFB TECH evaluated. The new controls make these two already usable product lines even more useful and accessible.

Listen Up

Using a modern front-loading washer or dryer is a two-step process. The first step is to select a cycle by turning a knob or pressing a selection button. The second step is to make the desired changes to the cycle by pressing buttons on a control panel. Duet washers have always included a pointer-style main selection knob and easy-to-feel cycle-modification controls that beeped when you pressed them. The challenge has been how to know which settings are changing and what the settings are. For example, if you selected Regular cycle and wanted to change the spin speed, you had to know that when "Regular" was selected, the spin speed was at the fastest setting. You also had to know how many speeds there were and then had to count beeps as you pressed the spin-speed selector. The use of the matching dryer, while more convenient than many, was still far from intuitive when specific changes needed to be made. The new design is the first, of which we are aware, to allow nonvisual selection by using different tones to represent the available choices.

How They Work

The Kenmore and Whirlpool controls allow you to identify options by listening. If, for example, five spin speeds are available on the Regular cycle, five different tones will be heard as you repeatedly press the Spin Speed button. The highest tone indicates the fastest speed, and the lowest tone represents the slowest speed. When you cycle among the speeds, it is a simple matter to learn how many are available. Similarly, using the dryer is much easier than with earlier controls because tones inform you that changes are being made and cue you as to how many choices there are. This simple but important advancement increases the certainty that you have set your appliance as you intended and provides a much higher level of confidence to those who use nonvisual methods that the washer or dryer will behave as intended.

The Duet Controls

Although both the Whirlpool Duet HT and Sears HE3 and HE5t use tones, there are some important differences in their designs. The Duet HT retains the pointer-style main selection knob that was introduced with the first-generation models. The knob has a solid feel and clicks as you move from cycle to cycle. An illuminated pointer has been added to make it easier to see which cycle is selected. An "index tone" sounds as you turn the pointer to the Normal Casual setting, located at the 12 o'clock position. Normal Casual is Whirlpool's default cycle. The buttons that are used to modify the cycles are easy to feel and are laid out in a logical arrangement beside the main control.

When you press the On/Off button to activate the Duet, you hear a series of quick ascending tones. The washer and dryer display the default settings for the cycle, which are indicated by the position of the pointer on the main rotary control. In the event that you lose track of your place while making changes in the cycles, turning the Duet off and back on returns you to the defaults for the selected cycle. The tones that are heard each time a cycle-modification button is pressed are organized in a descending pattern. The highest tone indicates the fastest speed, hottest temperature, and heaviest soil, and the lowest tone signals the slowest speed, coldest water, and lightest soil. A distinct error tone alerts you to a problem. A different tone indicates that changes in a particular setting cannot be made, such as in the temperature setting when the Sanitary cycle is used, because the temperature is automatically set. Several selectable options, including prewash, presoak, and extra rinse, can be turned on and off. Selecting these options produces two tones. An ascending or descending pattern indicates on or off, respectively.

The Sears Kenmore Controls

The Kenmore HE3 and HE 5t use a circular knob that has no pointer. The washer selector turns with a relatively positive click as you move from cycle to cycle. Turning the selector all the way around causes the unit to beep when the default cycle is reached again. The controls to start and stop washing are semicircular flat buttons that are surrounded by the main selector knob. These buttons are easy to feel and are separated by a thin groove in the smooth surface of the control. Selecting cycle particulars, such as the water temperature or the dryer time, is similar to that of the Duet HT. Tones of different pitches are heard as options are changed. Turning the unit off and then back on by pressing the On/Off button resets the washer to the default cycle.

How Dry I Am

The clothes-dryer counterparts to both the Duet and Kenmore models share most of the control features of their respective washing machines. The Duet HT dryer allows drying by type of load—towels, jeans, and so forth—or by time. The Wrinkle Shield on and off is indicated by a pair of ascending or descending tones. In the case of the Kenmore, our evaluation of 10 dryers in three static displays at Sears's appliance departments revealed that the main selection knob has a much looser action than that of the washing machine rotary control. Since there is no sound to let you know that you have changed cycles, these controls may not be as usable as those of the HE3 or HE5t washing machines. AFB TECH will attempt to conduct a real-time evaluation of both the Duet and Kenmore dryers as soon as possible.

How Do They Stack Up?

AFB TECH has defined true accessibility to include the ability to learn which settings have been made and to track the progress of the device through a cycle. Although the designs of these controls do not provide a method to learn the progress of the controls, beyond the sounds of the device in operation, they are among the most usable controls on any major appliance of which we are aware. The Duet HT edges out the Kenmore offerings because of the pointer and the more solid click, which gives maximum certainty when used without vision. For this reason, we have placed the Duet HT washer and dryer, along with the Fisher and Paykel GL 15 washer and matching dryer, at the top of our list of Appliance Accessibility Top Choices for front-loading and top-loading washers and dryers, respectively.

Is Whirlpool Serious About Accessibility?

After we learned that Duet HT washers and dryers include an innovative strategy of using tones of different pitches to allow users who are visually impaired to change cycle settings independently, we wanted to find out a bit more about how and why the largest manufacturer of household appliances addresses accessibility. Thus, we telephoned Whirlpool's Benton Harbor, Michigan, headquarters to ask if someone could talk with us about these issues. The response from top Whirlpool staff members clearly signals that this company is serious about accessible design. We spoke with two key individuals: Pamela Rogers and Doug Beaudet.

Rogers is category director of Whirlpool Brand Laundry. As her title suggests, she is directly in charge of the development of all aspects of laundry equipment that is sold under the Whirlpool brand. In a telephone interview from her office, Rogers shared her thoughts and Whirlpool's intentions with respect to accessibility.

According to Rogers, the design of Whirlpool appliances is driven by consumers. Rogers clearly stated that Whirlpool seeks to meet consumers' needs and that a great deal of effort and many resources go into finding out which features are important. In terms of accessibility, including the needs of consumers who are blind or have low vision is very much a part of the design process. The use of tones in the new Duet design is a result of the desire for Whirlpool laundry equipment to be usable by all.

Although accessibility features are important to those who are blind or have low vision, Rogers also stated that these features are beneficial to all consumers. "A confusing control panel won't help anybody" she stated.

While the future is impossible to predict with certainty, Whirlpool intends to provide solutions that meet people's actual needs. The company has demonstrated technology that links laundry equipment to a cell phone. After we spoke with Rogers, it was clear that Whirlpool will not introduce high-tech innovations for their own sake.

Doug Beaudet is director of global usability interaction design for Whirlpool. His responsibilities include addressing accessibility and usability for all consumers. In a wide-ranging discussion that touched on many aspects of the issues of accessibility, he shared some of his thoughts with us. According to Beaudet, accessibility is best achieved by good design, not as an afterthought. The Duet controls, which reached stores in March 2007, demonstrate this philosophy. At the same time, Whirlpool is aware of areas in which improvements can be made.

Investigating the potential to include tactile marks in the materials that are used in control surfaces is of interest, as are other strategies. The use of plastic overlays with control cutouts is among the techniques of interest. This technique has not been widely used to provide nonvisual access, but may be worthy of increased attention by both manufacturers and people who are blind or have low vision as another strategy.

After we spoke with Rogers and Beaudet, we concluded that Whirlpool is making a real effort to address usability. The improvements in the controls of the Duet HT laundry equipment reveal a true understanding that accessibility and usability are important. This is incontrovertible evidence that this understanding is providing improved accessibility at Whirlpool. By setting the gold standard for laundry-room accessibility, the Whirlpool Duet HT laundry appliances have answered the question, "Is Whirlpool serious about accessibility"? The answer is, you bet it is.

Bradley Hodges
Article Topic
Evaluation Update