While taking Music Technology classes at NYU back in the late ’90s, I became curious about the use of audio in the computer user interface. Why wasn’t it used for more than alert beeps? At the time, the GUI (Graphical User Interface) was the big thing in computing, but I remembered my suite mate in college and wondered how blind people could use a GUI.
I found some research by Xerox PARC on audio interfaces. My slightly fuzzy memory is that they came up with the concept of rooms – audio rooms – for navigating a computer interface spatially. I also found the book Audio User Interfaces by T V Raman, a blind computer scientist who had created his own auditory user interface using Emacs. The description of his interface sounded nothing like the theoretical ones I had been reading about. Raman needed to be able to read technical documents including complex mathematical equations, and screen reading software couldn’t handle them. So first he wrote a program called AsTeR and then, when he wanted to be able to use the same functions for email, web surfing and other computer tasks, he created Emacspeak. With Emacspeak, audio cues and formatting gave context to words he heard read at a much higher speed than a sighted person would be comfortable processing. I realized that there was a important difference between designing for a hypothetical blind person (a blind version of me?) and designing for a real live person who navigated the world without sight.
My reading (and acronym) list grew: HCI (Human Computer Interaction), Alan Cooper, Computers as Theatre, SIGCHI (Special Interest Group for Computer-Human Interaction), Don Norman‘s Design of Everyday Things, UX, User and Task Analysis, so many ideas.
Then I went to work coding webpages and found that most of the people around me were unaware of most of these ideas and how they could make websites better. User Experience wasn’t the buzzword it is today and many agencies were just starting to create positions for Information Architects. After the dot.com crash, I was able to use my knowledge to improve processes at the Red Cross September 11 Program, but it would be several more years before I would move back to working on the front-end/design side of the Internet.