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NLS: That All May Read

Patron Survey (2003)

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5.0 Discussion

NLS commissioned this survey to gauge subscribers' reading needs, increasing the chances of a good fit between the new playback device and the people who will use it. We have achieved this objective, however, only to the extent that the findings are generalizeable to the larger population from which the sample was drawn. In light of the disappointing overall cooperation rate, how confident can we be that the findings have accurately portrayed the subscriber population and not just the few hundred individuals we interviewed?

There is not just one answer to this question, but several. That is because the low overall cooperation rate obscures critical differences among the four age groups. Based on widely accepted survey standards, cooperation rates were acceptably high for subscribers in the 40 to 64 and 65 to 84 age groups. Together, these two groups make up approximately 60% of the subscriber population.

There is more reason for concern about the generalizeability of findings about the youngest and oldest subscribers because their cooperation rates were quite low (and primarily responsible for driving down the cooperation rate for the sample as a whole). Without question, one must be cautious about generalizing findings about these two groups to their counterparts in the larger population. One also must be cautious about assuming that descriptive findings about the sample as a whole precisely mirror the subscriber population as a whole. If computer usage is systematically different for people we interviewed than for eligible non-respondents, for instance, the population's rate of computer use—and especially the rates for the oldest and youngest groups—is likely to be somewhat higher or lower than in the sample. Systematic differences between respondents and eligible non-respondents would have to be quite large, however, to change the general thrust of the findings and the conclusions we have drawn from them.

Generalizeability is less of a concern when the purpose is to compare subgroups or look for patterns in the data. To the extent that our analysis has emphasized comparisons, the ability to generalize per se is less of a concern that it would otherwise be. Furthermore, the age-specific cooperation rates and age differences in the circumstances of non-response can be viewed as useful data in themselves. They provide additional clues to understanding subscribers and their equipment-related needs.

In light of our findings, for example, it makes sense that young adults were so difficult to reach. Compared to older adults they are healthier and so are probably better able to spend time away from home. In addition, the youngest adults are more likely to be employed; many of them must be away from home much of the time.

We can only speculate about why older subscribers, especially those of retirement age, refused to participate in such large numbers. It might reflect a general tendency to become more cautious as one gets older and more attuned to life's vagaries. For some retirement-age subscribers the cautiousness borne of life experience might escalate into suspiciousness as declining health, and the sense of vulnerability that can accompany physical decline, take their toll.

Even taking into account the difficulty we had securing the cooperation of the youngest and oldest people, the demographic profile of the NLS subscriber population seems clear. Subscribers are primarily white middle-aged and elderly people with serious vision loss and modest means. In many other respects, however, subscribers' characteristics and capabilities vary greatly.

Educationally, for instance, subscribers come from all walks of life. Some are in excellent or very good health and others' health is failing. Some need help using or learning to use their playback device, but many others do not. Some subscribers are computer-literate or use the most sophisticated adaptive devices available; others appear to have had little exposure to high-tech equipment beyond the almost-ubiquitous remote control. Subscribers' priorities for the forthcoming digital equipment vary. Some apparently want exactly what they have. Others consider advanced features like navigational aids very important. Despite the important characteristics that NLS subscribers tend to have in common, then, they defy stereotyping, just as the broader American population does.

This diversity, though all to the good, undoubtedly will make some design decisions harder to make than they would otherwise be. Emergent competition from other sources of playback devices and audio books complicates matters even further. Even in this competitive environment, however, subscribers continue to need and use the accessibility features their current NLS machine offers. Most subscribers, for example, use the large print or braille labels on cassettes and find raised symbols on keys very useful. The current machine also is accessible in that most subscribers find it easy to use in general and its controls easy to operate. Its accessibility features and ease of use probably help to explain why subscribers who have machines from NLS and other sources rely primarily on their Talking Book machine. Presumably, subscribers will value ease of use in the digital equipment just as much as they value it now, in their current machine.

As important as accessibility and ease of use are, portability and quality of the listening experience matter as well. There is a substantial demand for smaller and lighter players and for better sound quality at normal speed. In these respects, subscribers value the same qualities that would be important to any owner of a commercial playback device.

Even if NLS were to maximize the new device's accessibility, portability, and sound quality, however, some subscribers are likely to resist the digital machine, at least initially. Judging from the absence of a top-of-mind concern about the current machine, many subscribers do not perceive a need for the new technology. Another harbinger of resistance is generational differences in subscribers' exposure to and use of personal computers. For retirement-age subscribers, most of whom neither own nor use a computer, the digital device might be very intimidating. If we are right in thinking that the oldest subscribers' refusal to participate often indicates suspiciousness, resistance to the new equipment might be even more widespread than our findings suggest.

Lack of exposure to digital technology-and the resistance to the new playback machines it might spawn-almost certainly will cease to be a problem over time. Computer technology presumably will continue to penetrate homes, schools, and businesses, and computer technology and older technologies will continue to converge. In years to come, most subscribers are likely to have considerable experience with high-tech devices. Even in the nearer term, current generational differences in technology use suggest, demand will increase for features that increase readers' control and flexibility in reading. These features include word-spelling and navigational tools (e.g., a skip setting), reading material that is downloadable from the internet, and documents that subscribers can listen to in synthetic speech.

There is every reason, then, to be optimistic about subscriber acceptance of digital devices and media as time goes on. For the near-term, though, lack of familiarity with digital technology will compound what are currently problems for some. Some subscribers have had difficulty learning how to use the current machine, understanding how to use specific features (especially the side selector switch), figuring out what each control does, and finding the correct control. A truly accessible playback device will need to be easy to learn, not just easy to use, even for digital novices. It follows that the instructions that accompany the machine need to be as clear and straightforward as possible. They also should be easy to find and keep for future reference. Making the controls as self-explanatory as possible-and thus reducing the need for detailed instructions-will be helpful as well.

Good communication about what the new equipment is and how to use it will be vital to fostering acceptance, especially among subscribers who were born before or during the Second World War. In concluding this report, we offer a few suggestions.

There will need to be at least two different information campaigns, and possibly three. One information campaign needs to pique the interest of technologically savvy subscribers who are already interested in features like word spelling and navigational aids. Such features will not appeal, however, to subscribers who like their machine just the way it is. Information about important similarities between the old and new devices, such as ease of use or labeling, might appeal to this group; so might information about features that would be attractive to owners of any playback device (e.g., good sound quality, an auto-off function, or reductions in size or weight). This second type of information campaign might be more effective in counteracting indifference to the new equipment than in overcoming active resistance, especially among subscribers who are inclined to be suspicious or fearful of technology. These subscribers might need the most time to adjust to the idea of the new equipment; repeated preparation that begins well in advance of the equipment's actual release might soften resistance over time.

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Posted on 2006-05-30