REVAMPING TECHNIQUES FOR ADAPTING WORKSTATIONS FOR THE BLIND
Emmanuel SCHWARZ, Marine FERRE-BLANCHARD, Dominique BURGER
INSERM U483 – Inova
9, quai Saint-Bernard - 75252 Paris cedex 05
Les 3 Suisses is a tele-marketing company employing around 900 sale counsellors working in several Call Centres in France. Since 1996, Les 3 Suisses have equipped workstations with Braille terminals to be able to employ blind counsellors. A preliminary study, conducted in 1997 with the INSERM, evidenced some difficulties encountered by the blind counsellors mainly due to the fact that they could not perceive easily the global meaning of some screens whose coherence was lost once presented on the one-line Braille display. The Ulysse project was set up by Les 3 Suisses, INSERM and Agefiph to develop a new interface, optimised for Braille presentation, called Argos. The principle of this development was to design a flexible environment making possible to reconstruct, or revamp, the visual human computer interface (HCI) and to organise data differently for their non-visual presentation.
The current workstations are based on IBM 3270 terminals, connected to an IBM mainframe running a database containing product/customer data. The standard 3270 user interface is made of screens containing text items and input fields. Each of these items can easily be made accessible in Braille, provided the data can be accessed by an external device. The existing workstation used by blind counsellors was based on a MS-DOS PC, running a screen-reader software and equipped with a Braille terminal. An ASCII keyboard is used to input data and control functions by means of shortcuts that the counsellors have to memorise.
At the time the project started, six workstations had been adapted with a screen-reader software programme and a Braille terminal for six blind counsellors in four different Call Centres. A preliminary study was conducted with 4 blind counsellors and one with low vision working with no access technology but a larger screen display (21 inches monitor). Observations were made on the site during working sessions. Also free interviews were recorded. It clearly stated that the results obtained by the blind counsellors were comparable to those of their sighted colleagues. Nevertheless,
Revamping consists in changing the HCI without modifying the core application which, in fact, ignores the changes operated at the terminal level. Some time ago, this technique used to be very popular, when companies had to improve the quality of the HCI, possibly creating graphical interfaces without changing the core of their computer system. The solution to this problem is to use a desktop computer to generate a flexible interface with customisation facilities (Figure 1). Revamping makes possible to considerably modify the look and feel of the user interface. But not only the visual presentation of screens can be changed. Also the phrasing can be redefined, multimedia features can be added, or on-line documentation can be created. This approach was quite appropriate to adapt the 3 Suisses workstation as it was clearly not affordable to modify the database application itself.
Figure 1 : the principle of revamping
All the software development was made on a Windows PC platform. The interface with the host computer is an 3270 emulator manufactured by the company ICOM Informatique  using a standard communication protocol (UVTI). This protocol allows read/write operations on the emulator, as well as event notification concerning the information sent by the host computer.
As the core application has many screens and presents them asynchronously, a dynamic model has been adopted. The Argos software is made of three main modules : a recognition module, a translation module and a display module (Figure 2).
As soon as an event is received, informing that a new screen has been displayed, the Argos recognition module analyses the data, and tries to identify the screen model. The criteria to do that are strings of characters and attributes, or keys, stored in a special file. These keys are created manually. If none of the existing screens is identified, it is considered as a default screen. All these keys are contained in a linking base.
Once the recognition has been completed, the corresponding model and the actual data are sent to the translation module. This module generates a description of the screen in HTML. The model is written in standard HTML, to which some tags have been added to access the contents of the 3270 emulator, and to help describing the resulting page (loops,…).
This makes possible to reformulate and reorganise screens easily. For instance, the order in which information is displayed can be changed, useless elements can be suppressed or additional guidance can be added. To achieve this, a knowledge base contains the models of all the original screens generated by the mainframe application.
Both the linking base and the knowledge base are in a text format so that they can easily be modified to better address the preferences of the users, independently of the Argos software.
The Argos display module handles both Braille input/output and screen/keyboard input/output. The data are presented according to an hypertext model so that all the functionality is accessible by means of links to be activated in clicking buttons on the Braille terminal.
Figure 2 General architecture of the Argos system
The Argos software has been applied successfully for improving the workstation used by blind counsellors at 3 SUISSES. The number of screens in the core application is around 80. Each screen has been analysed with counsellors and the revamped screens have been designed accordingly. The adaptation process took around 4 months according to an iterative scheme where tests were carried out by end users to assess the validity of the interface reconstruction.
A procedure has also been defined in co-operation with the computer maintenance department in order to easily update the adapted workstation over the company network.
Figure 3 gives an example of how a screen was revamped.
Figure 3 : One of the original 3270 screens and its equivalent displayed with Argos software
The development and adaptation work were completed in February 2000. Then the Argos system was tested in real situation by three blind counsellors in three different Call Centres during 3 months. All the counsellors were expert in the previous system. During the first month the counsellors had the possibility to use both systems. During the two last months they were asked to use preferably Argos, except if they encountered major problems with it. Regularly, free interviews with the counsellors were organised. Additionally, several aspects were taken into account during these tests : duration of calls, number of calls per hour, commercial results.
The main result of this test period was that after three months all the counsellors used exclusively Argos, estimating that their efficiency had been improved. Recorded figures confirmed this impression :
Thus it was decided to generalise the use of Argos to all the 13 blind counsellors who work for Les 3 Suisses.
The full implementation of Argos in 8 Call Centres should be completed by September 2000. Accompanying measures like information dissemination and training are planed. Last but not least, it is expected that these results will encourage other Call Centers to employ blind counsellors either within Les 3 Suisses or in other companies.
The Ulysse project was funded by Agefiph (Agence pour la GEstion des Fonds pour l'Insertion Professionnelle des Handicapés).
 ICOM Informatique, 18 av. W Churchill, 94227 CHARENTON Cedex, France