Tactile Schematics

Schematics are an integral part to learning electronics. They are drawings of the relationships between components in an electronic device and are used to build circuits (as simple as a project made at ITP to the complexity of a laptop). While sighted readers rely on schematic images to understand how electronics work, low vision and blind readers rely on circuit descriptions. No graphical representation has yet been able to compete with circuit descriptions.

Using participatory and human-centered design with 5 blind and low vision participants through NYU’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), a set of design standards and best practices were developed to illustrate how to design a readable tactile schematic. These standards were then applied to the 50+ schematics from the Physical Computing site. The standards and best practices and book of tactile schematics were made available for download by the public.

Advisors: Tom Igoe and Amy Hurst

The Site: tactileschematics.com

Course: Thesis

Brief: Demonstrate creative strategies or purposeful innovations in digital media, along with the ability to document this work and its implications in written form.

Role: design research, accessibility UX, experience design, 2.5D design and print production, project management

Documentation: My thesis blog can be found here.

 

A tactile demonstration showing usability of the schematics before and after the redesign, with hands exploring a circuit.


Pain Point:

Circuit Descriptions

The recording below is called a circuit description. It can be read with a screen reader (the example I’ve provided) or a Refreshable Braille Display. Blind and low vision learners rely on them to understand circuits.

 

Ok, now can you draw that circuit? I’ll wait! This is the circuit the screen reader was describing. As you heard, it’s tough to understand a circuit from a description if you’re a beginner and no graphical representation has yet been able to compete with it. This pain point became the inspiration for my design research.

 

Thesis Question:

How can we make electronics more accessible to people who are blind or low vision?

 

Competitive Analysis:

Educational Tools

There are options for low vision and blind readers with different learning styles: verbal descriptions or interactive simulations for auditory learning, Braille translations for reading/writing learning, blind Arduino workshops for constructivist learning, and tactile graphics for kinesthetic/tactile learning (the focus of this research).

Educational Resources

Tactile graphics are one element in a larger toolbox. The Blind Arduino Project develops and shares techniques for low vision users to build electronics projects. The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library hosts Arduino workshops with the Dimensions program, using tactile methods to learn hardware and software. The Smith Kettlewell Technical File was a publication for low vision electronics enthusiasts and used standardized verbal circuit descriptions instead of diagrams.

 

Personas:

The primary are the low vision or blind learners who want to use tactile schematics to understand electronics, the personas for which are reflected below. The secondary are the sighted designers who want to help convert visual schematics to tactile schematics.

 

User Flow:

Close up of hands tapping a schematic on an iPhone.

Close up of hands tapping a schematic on an iPhone.

Eric opens up the Physical Computing site on his phone to see what homework is due. He uses his screen reader to navigate to the lab and listens to the circuit description of how the Arduino should be set up.

Swell Touch Paper being fed through a Swell Form Machine.

Swell Touch Paper being fed through a Swell Form Machine.

He prints the schematic on Swell Touch Paper and runs through a Swell Form Machine. The black Braille and outlines of the schematic puff up.

Hands tracing an imaginary circuit on a desktop.

Hands tracing an imaginary circuit on a desktop.

He sort of understands the circuit descriptions, while tracing the outline of how it might look with his finger on the table. However, he keeps having to play it over and over again, listening word-for-word and he’s not sure if he’s clear on it.

Hands exploring a tactile schematic.

Hands exploring a tactile schematic.

He feels the raised surfaces and builds a mental picture. He gets his Arduino out and hooks it up, periodically reaching over and double checking with the tactile schematic to make sure he has the right pin connections.

Hands tapping a smartphone screen and downloading a file.

Hands tapping a smartphone screen and downloading a file.

He continues listening and hears that there also is a tactile schematic available for download. He tabs over to the link to download an SVG of the schematic and is relieved to have another resource.

Finger pressing a button on a breadboard with a piezo.

Finger pressing a button on a breadboard with a piezo.

The piezo buzzes when he presses the button and he can’t wait to show his teacher and classmates that it worked.


Experience Map:

TimeframeHomework is assignedHomework is startedHomework is unfinishedHomework is overdue
ActivitiesOpens class site and finds the lab dueCan't understand the circuit descriptionHas to keep replaying the circuit descriptionGives up and moves on to the remaining content
Touch PointsPhone/laptopPhone/laptopPhone/laptopPhone/laptop
Emotion LineOptimisticCuriousFrustratedHopeless
Pain PointsNeeds to keep up with the demanding course loadHas limited resources for understanding circuitsCircuit descriptions are hard for beginnersFeels like none of the options are for him
Ideas for ImprovementAdd other learning style resources to class siteLink from class lab to resources presented in another formatSchematics are converted to tactile schematics as SVGsHave resources available ahead of the lab due date

2.5D Design:

Original file:  Analog In  as downloaded from the  Physical Computing  site. It is tiny, there’s text, and some of the lines are gray so they won’t puff up in the Swell Form Machine.

Original file: Analog In as downloaded from the Physical Computing site. It is tiny, there’s text, and some of the lines are gray so they won’t puff up in the Swell Form Machine.

Version 1: First iteration of  Analog In . The entire layout is much too cluttered, the gray text color contrast ratio is 3.03:1, which is not accessible, the Braille plus sign is incorrect, and the size of the components aren’t yet optimized using HCD.

Version 1: First iteration of Analog In. The entire layout is much too cluttered, the gray text color contrast ratio is 3.03:1, which is not accessible, the Braille plus sign is incorrect, and the size of the components aren’t yet optimized using HCD.

Version 11: Final iteration of  Analog In , in which the layout has been rotated to avoid clutter, the text color has been changed to a 10:01 color contrast ratio, but still won’t puff up on the Swell Form, the Braille plus sign has been corrected, the symbols have been optimized from user feedback, and the slash mark adheres to upper right-hand corner conventions.

Version 11: Final iteration of Analog In, in which the layout has been rotated to avoid clutter, the text color has been changed to a 10:01 color contrast ratio, but still won’t puff up on the Swell Form, the Braille plus sign has been corrected, the symbols have been optimized from user feedback, and the slash mark adheres to upper right-hand corner conventions.


Prototyping:

Manual feed tray in a color laser printer ejected and loaded with Swell Touch Paper. Paper is loaded so that it prints on the sticky, coated side of the paper.

Manual feed tray in a color laser printer ejected and loaded with Swell Touch Paper. Paper is loaded so that it prints on the sticky, coated side of the paper.

Test printing helps determine the best heat setting for the paper and heater you’re using. Image shows close up of Swell Form Machine dial set to Medium.

Test printing helps determine the best heat setting for the paper and heater you’re using. Image shows close up of Swell Form Machine dial set to Medium.

Swell Touch Paper being fed through a Swell Form Machine. The paper is inserted, following the direction of the arrow, the carbon in the black ink reacting to the heat and puffing up.

Swell Touch Paper being fed through a Swell Form Machine. The paper is inserted, following the direction of the arrow, the carbon in the black ink reacting to the heat and puffing up.


Usability Testing:

In order to determine the optimal design standards and best practices for tactile schematics (labeling, scaling, layout, and contrast), a usability study was conducted through NYU’s IRB with 5 low vision and blind participants, ranging in learning style, finger variables (sensitivity and size), electronics experience, Braille literacy, and level of vision. Readers were presented with tactile versions of The Big 6, or the six schematics crucial to understanding Physical Computing, given informed consent, a series of tasks, asked to identify specific electronics components, and explain the schematic in their own words.

Hands exploring the schematic of an LED, Resistor, Regulator in Series during a usability test.

Hands exploring the schematic of an LED, Resistor, Regulator in Series during a usability test.

Hands touching common component symbols and reading the Braille label to the right of it.

Hands touching common component symbols and reading the Braille label to the right of it.

Hands pointing to elements and tracing large high contrast text labels of an Analog In schematic.

Hands pointing to elements and tracing large high contrast text labels of an Analog In schematic.


Testing Script:

Welcome (5 min)

Hi, my name is Lauren Race and I’m going to be guiding you through this usability study. So I’m just going to go over a little of what to expect for the next hour. You might know a bit about why we asked you to come help us with these schematics today, but I’m just going to do a quick recap. After that I will ask you some simple questions about your experience with electronics and ask you some questions about six specific schematics that I will put in front of you. Afterwards, I will follow up with some questions once the study is over.

We are designing tactile schematics for electronics and microcontrollers and want to see what it’s like for people to use them. There aren’t any mistakes in this study, we just want to identify areas of improvement for usability.

We want to know what you think so don’t worry about hurting my feelings. We want to make these better, so we’d love to know honestly what you think. As we go through this, I’m going to ask you to think out loud, whatever is going through your mind.

Informed Consent (3 min)

Is it okay if I take pictures of our usability study today for my thesis documentation? The pictures will be used to show my process for my final thesis presentation at NYU, which is public. Is it okay if I audio record today? It will be used only to help us figure out how to improve these schematics and won’t be heard by anyone but the design team working on it. It also helps me because I won’t get distracted by taking too many notes. Is it okay if I video record? The video will be used to create soundless gifs, a short repeating video clip, for my public NYU thesis presentation.

I have a simple consent form here that just says we have your permission to record you. This is where the signature line is, I have a signature guide here. Do you have any questions before we get started?

Introduction (5 min)

  1. Tell me about your experience with electronics?

  2. Tell me about your experience with tactile graphics?

Phase 1, Using the Site (15 min)

  1. Go to this site and have a look at the page.

  2. I’m going to send a circuit description to your email for you to listen with your screen reader.

  3. What is title of the schematic?

  4. Will you find the resistor?

  5. Can you tell what kind of resistor is depicted?

  6. Will you tell me many LED’s are shown here?

  7. Can you see if you can tell where is ground located?

  8. How would you explain the schematic back to me in your own words?

Phase 2, Using the Tactile Schematics (20 min)

  1. What is title of the schematic?

  2. Will you find the resistor?

  3. Can you tell what kind of resistor is depicted?

  4. Will you tell me many LED’s are shown here?

  5. Can you see if you can tell where is ground located?

  6. How would you explain the schematic back to me in your own words?

Follow Up Questions (10 min)

  1. Which is more clear to you? Which do you prefer, the circuit descriptions or the tactile schematics?

  2. How do you feel about the material you’re seeing here?

  3. What are your thoughts about the tactile graphics?

  4. Do you have any suggestions for the design of these graphics?

  5. Do you see any other uses in  your life for tactile graphics?


Conclusion:

  • There is no perfect solution for designing tactile schematics. It’s a process and all the things I made are a part of that process. The only thing I could do was make my process available to other designers with a Style Guide.

  • How do we evaluate tactile graphics? One project at a time? 

    • Because their effectiveness isn’t universal, I would always have to tailor them to the audience I’m designing them for. 

      • For example, one user might prefer Braille, one might prefer high contrast ratio text.

  • I had so many resources, participants, and advisors, and I still can’t be totally certain they’re as effective as circuit descriptions.

  • Can these tactile schematics go beyond simply understanding how a circuit works to actually hooking one up? 

    • This is the beginning stage of much larger scope of work to see if we can develop a non-visual workflow for building circuits.


Style Guide: