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News from the National Academies
Date: Aug. 18, 1997
Contacts: Ellen Bailey Pippenger, Media Associate
Shannon Flannery, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; Internet <news@nas.edu>

[EMBARGOED: NOT FOR PUBLIC RELEASE BEFORE 5 P.M. EDT MONDAY, AUG. 18]

Publication Announcement

Time Has Come for More
Usable Information Systems

A steady stream of new computing and communications gadgets, services, and options heralds the growth of the national information infrastructure (NII). This sprawling web of communications networks and information facilities across the country includes the Internet, the telephone system, radio and television networks, libraries, publishers, and more. The NII promises benefits to everyone, everywhere. But today's technology -- although better than it was a decade ago -- is easy to use only for some people and difficult or impossible for many more. People with disabilities or in environments such as cars or factories that limit how they use their hands, as well as new users of computers and online services, provide illustrations of how much progress is needed to make the NII more "user-friendly."

A new report by a National Research Council committee explains how developing more useful and effective interfaces can improve access to the NII. Interfaces -- the hardware and software that facilitate communication between people and their computers -- are the gateways to the NII.

It is time to seek new paradigms for how people and computers interact, the committee said. Current computer systems, which arose from models conceived in the 1960s and 1970s, are based on the concept of a single user typing at a computing terminal. These systems have limitations, however. For example, using many applications simultaneously can be awkward, and inefficiency can ensue when multiple users with different abilities and equipment try to access and work on the same documents at the same time. No single solution will meet the needs of everyone, so a major research effort is needed to give users multiple options for sending and receiving information to and from a communication network. The prospects are exciting because of recent advances in several relevant technologies that will allow people to use more technologies more easily.

"This is a time when tremendous creativity is required to take advantage of the vast array of new technologies coming forth, such as virtual reality systems and speech recognition, eye-tracking, and touch-sensitive technologies," said steering committee chair Alan Biermann, chair of the Levine Science Research Center at Duke University, Chapel Hill, N.C. "But the point remains that we are still using a mouse to point and click. Although a gloriously successful technology, pointing and clicking is not the last word in interface technology."

The report encourages both government and industry to invest in research on the components needed to develop computing and communication networks that are easy to use. Applying studies of human and organizational behaviors to lay the groundwork for building better systems will be very important to these efforts. New component designs also should take into account the varied needs of users. People with different physical and cognitive capacities are obvious audiences, but others would benefit as well. Communication devices that recognize users' voices would help both the visually impaired as well as people driving cars, for example. It is time to acknowledge that usability can be improved for everyone, not just those with special needs.

In addition to developing individual components, the report also recommends research at the systems level. It encourages more progress in designing interfaces that support various types of individuals and groups working with networked devices.

Research should be conducted in five high-priority areas:

>Determining the needs of citizens. Psychological, sociological, and historical studies should be undertaken to determine what kinds of computer systems work best for different types of users. For example, the accessibility of successful large public systems, such as the Thomas system for congressional information or the EDGAR system for financial filings, could be examined. This and other studies would guide research priorities and target which technologies will work.

>Developing speech-recognition and natural language-processing technologies. These technologies seem particularly promising because of the broad need for such capabilities and recent progress in the field. Speech recognition and language processing offer a range of uses, especially for telephone applications and situations when hands and eyes are occupied.

>Designing adaptable technologies. Research and development should concentrate on making more versatile and adaptable computing and communication systems to meet the varying needs of users. An example is building devices that can be used on the road, in the office, or en route. Interfaces also should allow people to receive information from computers by sight, hearing, and touch.

>Developing theories and architecture for collaboration. The new opportunities offered by the NII will come to fruition only if technology can improve collaboration in computing and communication networks. More research in collaboration and problem-solving theories will help designers better understand people's experiences when they use systems. Important objectives include designs that allow users to recognize one another online, communicate easily across space and time, and participate in multi-group efforts. Various research communities have been building system prototypes, but more progress is needed before use by the general public can become possible.

>Testing design and evaluation process. Industry, under the pressure of competition, has tended in recent years to minimize user-testing in favor of quickly getting products to customers, sometimes within a matter of months. Marketplace success has become the test for how usable a product is. This trend will be accelerated by nationwide access to the NII. Better understanding gained by more testing and evaluation will help achieve new ways to interact with computing and communication systems. A more effective testing process also will help address the needs of individuals whose market buying power may be less than other groups.

While private industry will most likely take the lead in mainstream product development and short-term research, the report notes that the government also can play a role in ensuring every-citizen usability of the NII. This will complement government policies that address economic and other aspects of universal access. Federal agencies should encourage universal access to the NII by supporting research and requiring adequate development and testing of systems purchased for use at public service facilities.

The report draws from a late 1996 workshop that convened experts in computing and communications technology, the social sciences, design, and special-needs populations such as people with disabilities, low incomes or education, minorities, and those who don't speak English.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation. The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides science advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Copies of More Than Screen Deep: Toward Every-Citizen Interfaces to the Nation's Information Infrastructure will be available from the National Academy Press in September; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain prepublication copies from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above.)


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications
Computer Science and Telecommunications Board

Toward an Every-Citizen Interface to the
Nation's Information Infrastructure Steering Committee
                Alan W. Biermann (chair)
                Duke University
                Durham, N.C.

                Tora Bikson
                RAND Corp.
                Santa Monica, Calif.

                Thomas DeFanti
                University of Illinois
                Chicago

                Gerhard Fischer
                University of Colorado
                Boulder

                Barbara J. Grosz
                Harvard University
                Cambridge, Mass.

                Thomas Landauer
                University of Colorado
                Boulder

                John Makhoul
                BBN Corp.
                Cambridge, Mass.

                Bruce Tognazzini
                Healtheon Corp.
                Palo Alto, Calif.

                Gregg Vanderheiden
                University of Wisconsin
                Madison

                Stephen Weinstein
                NEC America Inc.
                Princeton, N.J.

                RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

                Marjory S. Blumenthal
                Director, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board

                John M. Godfrey
                Research Associate