duPont Hospital for Children and the University of Delaware
Vol. 2, No. 2 -- Winter/Spring 1997

TWO PERSPECTIVES: Consumer & Designer

Designing Products for Visually Impaired People

Ron Morford Ronald Morford is the Director of Assistive Technology of Automated Functions, Inc. He is blind and has a B.S. in Computer Science from Penn State and a M.S. in Technology of Management from American University. Mr. Morford designed and developed the VERT family of MS-DOS screen readers. He has aided in the design of the SmarTalk Speech Synthesizer, Game and Education Machine, and other products. He is currently working on a three dimensional screen reading system for the Microsoft Windows system.

Designing a product that is usable by a visually impaired person is not difficult. The needs of visually impaired people are not much different than those of fully sighted people. The key is to include the needs of visually impaired people in the early design instead of trying to alter it once the prototype or final product is finished.

The goal of any product designer should be universal access. If the product can be used by people with different capabilities, it will broaden the potential customer base. In addition, people without physical disabilities may find the product more useful or attractive since it could be operated using different senses.

The following are some guidelines that we use at Automated Functions in the product design process.

Tactile Symbols

It is inexpensive to place tactile symbols on hardware using plastic fabrication. The symbols can be created in the mold. When using off-the-shelf enclosures, an overlay can be punched at very little cost.

Fast Forward For example, Automated Functions designed a 5-ounce portable speech synthesizer called SmarTalk. We used an off-the-shelf enclosure and had the manufacturer punch an overlay. The icons for headphones and adapter plug were raised. In addition, we included the Braille dot pattern for SmarTalk at no extra cost.

Tactile symbols have to meet certain requirements so that they are truly useful to the consumer. Tactile symbols should be about one-and-a-half to two times larger than a normal size printed image. This is needed because the sense of touch is not as acute as the sense of sight.

Avoid same-size jacks or connectors

It is good design to have each input jack or connector be of different size or sex. This assists the user in making proper connections of cables or adapters.

Use large print with good contrast

The use of large print is helpful for low vision people. Large print may also be useful if the consumer is using the product where there is little light.

Give points of reference

Some products use a display screen to show different choices. Adding speech output is nice for visually impaired people, but it may be expensive. If you design correctly, you can avoid the use of speech output.

For example, a function should be available to move the focus to the beginning of the display. The visually impaired user can then count how many items down from the beginning is the proper selection. Without a reference point, the user who cannot see the display does not know where the focus is located.

Use beeps and tones

The use of beeps and tones provides audible feedback. The tones can be created to match the location on the display (e.g., highest tone at top, lowest at bottom).

Test it with eyes closed

Eyes Closed It is very useful to test a product with your eyes closed. If you can operate it, then you probably have a good design.

Consumer Example

Recently I went shopping for a 5-disk CD player for my stereo. The consumer electronics store had four models, all made by huge manufactures. Each models had the disk carousel numbers labeled in print. Three were flat, and one had raised numbers. The one with the raised numbers had a front panel with two sets of buttons. Five buttons were in the upper left corner and were used to make the disk selection. Eleven buttons were in the lower left corner and represented tracks 1 through 10 and the plus 10 function.

I purchased this CD player. It did not cost this manufacturer any more to raise the numbers on the carousel and to make an easy-to-use button orientation. I can independently operate this CD player while I could not operate the three others.

Products should be usable by disabled and non-disabled people. Following these suggestions will help in the design and development of products that can be used by sighted and visually impaired people.

If you have any questions or comments about this article contact:

Ronald Morford
Automated Functions
7700 Leesburg Pike, Suite 420
Falls Church, VA 22043
TEL: 703-883-9797
FAX: 703-883-9798