2000 Conference Proceedings

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Non-Visual Groupware Client: Notes Reader

Non-Visual Groupware Client: Notes Reader

Hironobu Takagi, Chieko Asakawa and Takashi Itoh
takagih@jp.ibm.com, chie@jp.ibm.com and JL03313@jp.ibm.com 
IBM Japan Ltd., Tokyo Research Laboratory
1624-14, Shimotsuruma, Yamato-shi, Kanagawa-ken 242-8502, Japan

Recently, groupware systems have come to be widely used in the office environment for tasks such as mail exchange and document sharing. Each groupware system has unique client software that must be used to access the system. The client has rich functions and a highly visual user interface. As a result, it is very hard for blind users to access groupware nonvisually by using screen readers, even though they need to do so in order to get better job opportunities. In general, they use screen reader software to access application software. Screen readers have functions for reading out menus, buttons, and other graphical user interface (GUI) components. In the United States, a blind user would be able to access such a client by using a screen reader.

However, operating a screen reader is terribly complicated for such users, because clients have highly visual interfaces that include not only standard buttons and menus but also customized GUI components. Thus, with a screen reader, it is not easy to access a groupware system. In Japan, there is no screen reader that can access any groupware client, and no MSAA-compatible screen reader, so Japanese blind users cannot access any groupware clients.

Groupware in general should be very easy to use. For sighted users, it is not at all difficult to operate and even computer novices can easily learn to do so. On the other hand, blind users are often required to know a lot about computers. This is a serious problem that prevents blind people from expanding their job opportunities.

We therefore decided to develop Lotus Notes(R) Reader with the aim of providing easy access to groupware. Notes Reader is a self-talking Notes client that allows users to access groupware quickly and easily without knowing how to operate the original Notes client. In order to realize a nonvisual easy interface, we selected prerequisite functions to access standard databases, such as mail databases and discussion databases. As a result, our user interface is very simple and easy to learn. Our system allows users to operate through databases by using a keyboard or a numeric keypad. They do not need to use a mouse, and can thus easily read and write documents without using screen readers.


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Overview of the System

Basic Design Concept

Notes Reader reads out all its GUI components, and they can be operated through a keyboard. A user can change the focus by pressing the Tab key, and select by pressing the Enter key.

For ease of use, we selected prerequisite functions from the full-featured Notes client, omitting functions for administration and database design.


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General Functions

As functions for managing databases, Notes Reader allows users to select and replicate databases. In the initial dialog box , users can select a database from a list box simply by pressing the Up and Down arrow keys. The list is stored in a personal configuration file, which contains the name and location of each database. Under the list box, there are four buttons for database management: "Open," "Cancel," "Open replica," and "Replicate." Users can select a button by using the Tab key and execute the associated operation by pressing the Enter key.

In the initial dialog
    box Note:See info above


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Reading Database

After a database has been opened, a document list dialog appears. At the top of the dialog, there is a combo box for selecting a view. In this combo box, all views contained in a database appear and a user can then select a view by pressing the Up and Down arrow keys. The concept of "view" is a unique feature of Notes, which provides various document listings. A mail database has an "inbox" view, an "outbox" view, a "by person" view and so on. A typical discussion database has an "All Documents" view, a "By Author" view, a "By Category" view, and so on. We take the "inbox" view of a mail database as an example. The subjects of incoming messages are listed in the list box, and users can then select which messages to open. To confirm the author or date of a selected message, the user can have them read out by pressing Control key plus the Page Up key or the Control key plus the Page Down key. The user can jump to each unread message by pressing the Control key plus right/left cursor key.

In the initial dialog
    box Note:See info above

A document view dialog appears after a document has been selected. The dialog has a header text field, a content field and an attachment list box. A user can change the focus by pressing the Tab key, and can have the text read out line-by-line or character-by-character by pressing cursor keys. Notes Reader also uses a logical layout of the numeric keypad to allow users to read and navigate the contents of documents. Single numeric keypad keys (4, 5, and 6) are assigned for reading the previous, current, and next sentence.

In the initial dialog
    box Note:See info above


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Writing Documents

Notes Reader has functions for writing documents. A user can compose a new message by pressing "New Mail" button in a mail list dialog box. A new memo dialog box then appears. It also appears when the user selects the "Reply"/"Reply History"/"Forward" buttons in the mail view dialog box. There are five fields in the dialog box: "To," "Cc," "Bcc," "Subject," and "Comment." In the "To," "Cc," and "Bcc" fields, Notes Reader provides an automatic address lookup function. If the Enter key is pressed while the cursor is in one of these fields, Notes Reader searches for a similar address to the input text in the field. As a result, it is easy for a user to retrieve a required address.


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Rich text reading

In the document view dialog, if a selected document contains rich text information, Notes Reader express this information in the following two ways.

This capability makes it easy for users to notice changes in font size, font color, and font decorations.

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Seamless access to attached files

When documents that include attachment files are opened, these files are listed in the attachment file list on the document view dialog. These files can be saved on the local hard disk by pressing the Enter key. To provide seamless access to Microsoft Word, PowerPoint(R), Lotus WordPro(TM), and Freelance files, Notes Reader can cooperate with Document Reader (submitted to the same conference). That provides simple a common interface to documents of all the above types.


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Current Implementation and Limitations

Notes Reader is based on the Notes C++ API developed by Lotus. This API provides direct access to a Notes Domino(TM) server, and Notes Reader is thus independent of the original Notes client. For text-to-speech capability, Microsoft Speech API (SAPI) is used. Notes Reader uses standard SAPI tags, so it can handle most of SAPI-compatible text-to-speech engines. In addition, when a braille display is connected, the system is also capable of braille output.


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Conclusion and Future Works

Notes Reader provides the essential functions of the original Notes client. It allows users to access standard databases quickly and easily by using a keyboard and a numeric keypad. As mentioned above, it is impossible for blind users to access the Notes client in Japan. A blind user in our office, however, has been using Notes Reader every day to access a mail database and a discussion database.

We have two plans for future work. One is to provide a function for summarizing a mail list and the contents of each message in the list. Such a function will allow users to find out a target message quickly and easily, and to understand a long message in a short time. Another is to provide a function for editing rich text information. This will enable blind users to communicate more smoothly with their sighted colleagues.

 


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