Schematics are drawings of the relationships between components in an electronic device and are used to build circuits. While sighted learners rely on schematic images to understand how electronics work, Blind and Low Vision learners rely on circuit descriptions.
It’s difficult to understand a circuit from a description, especially if you’re a beginner. Electronics beginners can benefit from the spatial information schematics provide and learn the relationships of the components through touch. No tactile graphical representation had yet been able to compete with circuit descriptions.
I designed a set of standards and best practices for designing tactile schematics for non-visual circuit building, along with a free library of completed tactile schematics for download. The library of designed tactile schematics has been published as a resource in NYU ITP’s Physical Computing curriculum, accessed over 1,800 times, and used in two NYU Blind Arduino workshops.
Academic Advisors: Dr. Amy Hurst, Tom Igoe
Industry Advisors: Dr. Joshua Miele, Chancey Fleet
Platform: Tactile Graphics SVG, Responsive Web
Timeframe: Q4 2018 – Q2 2019
Constraints: I was completely new to tactile design, dealing with a steep learning curve while keeping up with a Blind student’s class progression.
Role: As Lead Accessibility Designer, I was responsible for preventing ableism through research, prototyping and evaluating, iterating and creating final designs, and developing tactile design guidelines.
- Verbal descriptions: these support auditory learning but exclude those those who learn through touch.
- Braille translations: braille supports those who learn through reading/writing learning, but not those who learn spatially.
- Blind Arduino workshops: Blind-developed and led workshops help those who benefit from constructivist learning, but they weren’t integrating tactile schematics up until this point.
- Tactile graphics: 2.5D graphics support those who learn through touch but had not yet been applied to electronics diagrams.
- Blind Arduino Project develops and shares techniques for learners to build electronics projects nonvisually. Our work sought to support tactile learners in these workshops.
- Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library hosts Arduino workshops with the Dimensions program, using tactile methods to learn hardware and software. No tactile schematics were being used at the time of this project.
- Smith Kettlewell Technical File was a publication for Blind or Low Vision electronics enthusiasts and used standardized verbal circuit descriptions instead of diagrams. The file was heavily geared towards experienced practitioners rather than beginners.
|Timeframe||Homework is assigned||Homework is started||Homework is unfinished||Homework is overdue|
|Activities||Opens class site and finds the lab is due||Can’t understand the circuit description||Has to keep replaying the circuit description||Gives up and moves on to the remaining content|
|Pain Points||Needs to keep up with the demanding course load||Has limited resources for understanding circuits||Circuit descriptions are hard for beginners||Feels like none of the options are for him|
|Ideas for Improvement||Add other learning style resources to class site||Link from class lab to resources presented in another format||Schematics are converted to tactile schematics as SVGs||Have resources available ahead of the lab due date|
Going from Auditory to Touch
It’s hard to understand a circuit from a description, especially if you’re a beginner.
Electronics beginners can benefit from the spatial information schematics provide and learn the relationships of the components through touch.
Prototyping & Iterating
Learning Tactile Graphic Production
- The overall graphic is tiny
- There’s text and no braille
- Some of the lines are gray so they won’t puff up in the fuser, which makes the lines feel broken
- There’s no way to tell how to hold the page
- The symbols are small and too close together
- I tried portrait orientation but it ended. up being much too cluttered
- I chose a gray for the text, but learned that the contrast ratio is 3.03:1, which is not accessible
- The braille plus sign I used was incorrect
- The size of the components aren’t yet optimized using iterative design
I recruited 5 Blind and Low Vision participants through my professional network. They represented a range in learning style, finger variables (sensitivity and size), electronics experience, Braille literacy, and visual acuity.
I conducted my research through NYU’s Institutional Review Board. I presented participants with tactile versions of the six schematics crucial to understanding Physical Computing. I gave informed consent before recording our sessions. I used a series of tasks, asking participants to identify specific electronics components, and explain the schematic in their own words.
- What is title of the schematic?
- What kind of resistor is depicted?
- How many LED’s are shown?
- How would you explain the schematic back to me in your own words?
- Which is more clear to you? Which do you prefer, the circuit descriptions or the tactile schematics?
Refining Final Designs
Optimizing for Tactile Discernibility
- I rotated the layout to avoid clutter
- I changed the text color to a 10:01 color contrast ratio, but still won’t puff up on the fuser
- I corrected the Braille plus sign
- I optimized the symbols with user feedback
- I followed conventions for the orientation slash mark, giving it a triple slash and placing it in the upper right-hand corner
Press & Exhibitions
Published in NYU ITP’s curriculum
NYU now has an accessible digital library of accessible tactile schematics for nonvisual learners. The schematics were published as a resource in ITP’s electronics curriculum.
Published at 3 academic conferences
We published 3 individual papers, first on tactile schematics design, then on their evaluation, and third on their implementation in nonvisual workshops.
Used in nonvisual electronics workshops
In March of 2020, we used the tactile schematics as a learning tool in Blind-led nonvisual soldering workshop taught by Dr. Joshua Miele at ITP. They were used to construct a continuity tester.
Disseminated by Blind and Low Vision makers
We shared the library of 50+ tactile schematics to our network on Twitter and were accessed over 1,800 times. Blind and Low Vision makers told us they were downloading the schematics and using them to assemble circuits.
There is no universal solution
We still need to do more research to determine if these are as effective as circuit descriptions and evaluate combining the two modalities.
Tactile graphic evaluation changes with each use case
How do we evaluate tactile graphic readability given the variability of usage? Because their effectiveness isn’t universal, I would always have to tailor them to the audience I’m designing them for. For example, one user might prefer Braille, one might prefer high contrast ratio text.
We need more non-visual circuit building workflows
Can tactile schematics go beyond understanding how a circuit works to actually hooking one up? This is the beginning stage of much larger scope of work to see if we can develop a non-visual workflow for building circuits.