by Cliff Schmidt
In an earlier post, I announced our latest Talking Book operating system, version 1.50. One of the two main goals of this release was to significantly improve the usability by people with little or no formal education. I mentioned there that we did this by focusing on consistency, conversational instructions, and concealing complex operations.
In April of 2009, I pondered a potential problem with our user interface: the Left/Right buttons change categories (e.g. “health” or “agriculture”); the Up/Down buttons change messages within the selected category and immediately begin playing each message. Once a message is played, the Left/Right buttons would suddenly control jumping backward/forward within the recording — they would no longer change categories. To change categories, the user would have to press the Home button to return to the Welcome message and then use the Left/Right buttons to change categories.
Over the last two years, we have reluctantly lived with this inconsistency because users wanted to rewind or jump forward when necessary and they eventually learned to understand this system, although it might take an hour of training for some of them. With this latest release, we decided that we want people who need Talking Books the most (those who are least educated) to be comfortable with the most essential operations as quickly as possible, even if some other useful features are not as obvious.
With the new Talking Book version 1.50, the Left and Right buttons consistently change the subject/category, whether the user has just found a new category or a message is being played. But this means that rewinding or jumping forward within a message now requires holding down the Left or Right buttons – not just tapping them. Users will only know to do this if they listen to the built-in user manual or if they are trained or taught by a peer. However, we think it’s more important that they can easily find a message on a subject they’re interested in with this simple instruction: “press the Right arrow to change subjects and then press the Up arrow to listen to messages”. No further training should be required to get started.
Another example of our “consistency theme” is what we did with audio user manual. Previously, when a Talking Book was turned on, it would offer two options: press the Right arrow to choose a category, or press the Home button to learn how to use the Talking Book (the audio user manual). But the Home button was also a way to return to the Welcome message at any time…unless you’re already at the Welcome message, and then you go to the user manual. Here again, we were assigning two functions to a tap of the Home button: returning to the Welcome message and getting help.
With this new version, the Home button will do one thing: return the user to the Welcome message. The user manual is now just another category on the device like “Health” or “Agriculture”. The user just presses the Right arrow to find the “Talking Book” category and then the Up arrow to listen to messages about the Talking Book.
Finally, we are applying consistency to the location for newly recorded messages. We used to allow users to insert their own message between any two existing messages in a category. They would simply find the message they wanted their message to be next to, and then press the record button (the asterisk “*”). But we found that many users didn’t intend to do this and had trouble finding where their recording went.
With this new release, a new recording is always the first message in its category. Some users may still want to control the order of new messages; we have a solution for them that won’t confuse the other users – more about that in a future post on configuration options.
In earlier Talking Book operating systems, when a user would browse through each subject, the device would say something like, “Health. To listen to messages in this category, press the Up arrow. To try a different category, press the Right arrow.” We found that many users didn’t understand what “in this category” means. Sentences like this are not part of everyday conversation. For instance, if I wanted to invite you to my group discussion on politics, I wouldn’t say “Politics. To participate in a discussion in this category, join my group.” Instead, I might say something like “If you are interested in discussing politics, join my group.” When we changed Talking Books to speak this way, users who had trouble understanding the old instructions understood this new version perfectly.
Concealing Complex Operations
In every community, there are people who are less comfortable with technology and people who want to learn and use the most powerful features. For the former group, the essential operations need to be simple and obvious, without any unnecessary distractions. For the latter group, the advanced operations need to be possible. Every technology team designing a mass-market product has to find a way to serve both needs. (Recall Microsoft Office’s early attempt to solve this problem by showing an abbreviated list of only the most common options in each drop-down menu until the user explicitly requested to see more options.)
Impoverished rural villages are no different in this respect than any other community: some users need simplicity and some want power. To impact the most people, we need every Talking Book to offer both simplicity and power. Our approach to this problem is to hide the powerful but non-essential operations by requiring a button to be held down for 1-2 seconds to activate the feature.
I gave one example of this above when I explained that rewinding or jumping ahead during playback requires holding down the Left or Right arrow, respectively. This allows a simple tap of those buttons to consistently change the subject.
Here’s another example: a user increases or decreases the volume by pressing the + and – buttons. This is an essential feature that every user needs to be comfortable with. However, our technology also allows playing a message back slower or faster than normal. This can be very powerful for people who need a slower playback to understand a different accent or for those who want to scan ahead to find something they have already hear — but these aren’t essential features. Therefore, we require users to hold down the + or – button to access them, as explained if you take the time to listen to the audio user manual (which the power users do).
Each Talking Book can include audio instructions in multiple languages. Users can change languages by pressing the black circle button during the Welcome message; each press would rotate to the next language. But accidentally pressing this button caused more than one user to suddenly find their familiar language replaced by a language they didn’t understand at all. Therefore, we’ve changed this feature to require a holding down the black circle to prevent this sort of problem.
Finally, we’ve been asked by our partners to include a number of configuration and convenience features, which will be described in a future post. These features are not useful to the majority of users, but they need to be available on every device and in every system language. There are far too many of them to assign a “button hold” to each one. Therefore, we created an “expert mode” that allows experts (or “power users”) to be able to browse lots of powerful features with a single button tap. To access the expert mode, a user must hold down the Up arrow for 1-2 seconds during the Welcome message.
We have already received early positive feedback about these changes, and we look forward to evaluating whether Talking Books are impacting more people through this focus on consistency, conversational instructions, and concealed complex operations.