2004 Conference Proceedings

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IMPROVING ACCESSIBILITY THROUGH USABILITY STUDIES OF VOICE-OVER IP PHONES

Presenters
Kh. Eghtesadi
D. Burton
AccessWorld Solutions
American Foundation for the Blind
11 Penn Plaza, Ste. 300
New York, NY 10001

K. Boucher
P. Mertz
Cisco Systems, Inc.
170 West Tasman Drive
San Jose, CA 95134

Summary

Over the past few decades, phones are becoming more complex and feature-rich due to advanced technology for users. While new features offer unique options and functionality, their complexity also creates accessibility barriers for people with disabilities. Voice over IP (VoIP) offers the latest technology that provides capabilities and flexibility to remove these barriers. VoIP represents a system that runs voice applications over a data network. It provides a unique telecommunication capability in the internet age by exceeding the standards of traditional telephony.

IP phone technology contains rich application interfaces that provide the opportunity to enhance accessibility. It provides features such as caller identification, directory information, lines status, and conference calling. The flexibility of IP phones creates numerous options to provide accessibility without affecting system cost.

To assure the usability of IP phones for disabled users, Cisco Systems has set forth specific processes which include conducting accessibility studies. As such, Cisco engaged Access World Solutions (AWS), the consulting arm of the American Foundation for the Blind, to evaluate the accessibility features of Cisco VoIP hardware/software phones and provide recommendations for making these products more accessible.

This paper will describe VoIP and its benefits from an end-user perspective and show how the design features of VoIP improve accessibility and productivity in the workplace beyond traditional phone systems.

Overview of VoIP

Over half of the fortune 500 companies are deploying VoIP phones and over 10,000 organizations have deployed the technology with millions of IP phones acquired. VoIP is becoming a mainstream technology.

Traditionally, voice traffic is carried via circuit-switched networks (private brand exchange [PBX] networks) or networks made up of private lines and time division multiplexers (TDM's). Data networks have traditionally been separate from these voice networks. VoIP offers the possibility of a converged network which integrates data, voice, and video onto a single IP-based network. This technology offers significant operational and productivity benefits to organizations:

  1. Reduced operational expenses - A converged IP network reduces the number of networks to manage.

  2. Unified messaging capability - Users can send and receive faxes from their desks and reply to e-mails by phone.

  3. Mobility - Home, branch, roaming, and traveling workers can access the same features as those working at corporate offices. Roaming users can even keep the same phone number by using the IP phones.

  4. Extensible Mark-up Language (XML) applications - These allow third parties to create value added-applications (e.g., time cards) on the IP phones.

  5. A standards-based, non-proprietary solution - Unlike traditional voice solutions, VoIP is based on non-proprietary protocols and is built using industry standards. This open interface means that organizations are not dependent on their PBX vendor to develop needed special applications or features. Instead, they can deploy a third party vendor who has the application that meets their needs today. Organizations with accessibility requirements can then mix and match the best-of-breed applications and use different vendors to suit their end-user needs.

  6. Architecture - allows the reliable transportation of TTY services through the network.

Considering these benefits, VoIP brings an opportunity to improve the productivity of everyone in the workplace - including people with disabilities.

Accessibility of Cisco IP Phones Portfolio

To improve the accessibility of IP phones, Cisco Systems has been working closely with providers of assistive technologies and with research and consulting organizations such as AWS. AWS conducted an accessibility assessment of the IP Phone 79XX Series and SoftPhone to provide recommendations to further enhance accessibility features of these products.

IP Phone 79XX Series

The Accessibility Evaluation by AWS consisted of a two-stage process. First an accessibility overview was conducted to identify key features such as tactual identification and arrangement of buttons, access to display information, presence and configuration of soft keys, visibility of screen, and display contrast ratio and adjustability. Secondly, a thorough accessibility evaluation was done according to a defined real-case task list. User interface, features, functionalities, and usability of the hardware/software products were evaluated based on these real-case scenarios. Recommendations were made for future accessibility improvements of the Cisco IP Phones.

Accessibility features of the phones include the following:

SoftPhone

The IP SoftPhone is a VoIP software communications application for a laptop or desktop PC. SoftPhone takes advantage of the usability of a PC and controls the hardware IP phone. In addition, it functions as a standalone software IP phone. SoftPhone provides a flexible user interface and context-sensitive controls. It has multiple features and functionalities that allow a blind and a low vision user to operate the phone.

The SoftPhone application was also evaluated in conjunction with the JAWS™ screen reader. A blind user evaluated the product to assess its operation with this screen reader. Upon evaluation, AWS provided recommendations for further accessibility enhancements of this product.

Key accessibility features of SoftPhone are:

Conclusion

In any workplace, the phone is a basic tool that a majority of workers rely on for their day-to-day work functions. VoIP is creating sophisticated productivity enhancements that move the phone beyond just a communication device. As such, it is critical that even the newest technology maintain accessibility. From a disabled end-user's perspective, VoIP provides key accessibility features. These features allow all people, including those with disabilities, greater productivity in the workplace.


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