- InfoEyes appears to be meeting the anticipated need.
- We appear to be getting questions from both print-impaired and sighted individuals.
- The information needs expressed are a good mix of topics related to print-impairments and general topics.
- Several repeat customers of InfoEyes already have emerged, which indicates that they are finding the service useful.
- Activity measured in terms of countable questions by the day of the week seems to exhibit the typical bell-shaped curve, with the peak on Thursday.
- Activity measured in terms of countable questions by hour of the day is beginning to indicate the usual peaks in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon hours, but it is too soon to tell. Because InfoEyes is a multi-state service across four time zones, and because all activity is recorded as Greenwich Mean Time minus six hours, this measure of activity by hour of the day is an approximation.
- Generally the InfoEyes service providers were a little disappointed in the amount of traffic. Because each participating library was covering only four hours per week, which dropped back to three hour per week as more libraries joined, the chances of getting much business while on the desk were slim. Some participating libraries were disappointed that they only received email questions during the first six months, with no opportunity to test and hone their skills with basic text chat and enhanced virtual reference service.
- InfoEyes created a new awareness--among the target service population, talking book centers and libraries serving the blind and visually impaired, mainstream libraries, and virtual reference services--about new service opportunities. Because most talking book centers have little walk-in traffic and do not staff a real reference desk, for many of the service providers at the participating libraries, providing online reference service via InfoEyes was their first substantial professional experience. In one regard this was refreshing, because the service providers did not bring to InfoEyes established procedures and preferences about reference service based on a reference desk-based service in a bricks-and-mortar library setting.
- We seemed to have raised vendor awareness of and sensitivity to accessibility issues for library software, e-resources, and online services.
Recommendations and Ongoing Challenges
iVocalize software is good for accessible, enhanced online reference interactions, but it was not designed specifically for this purpose, and it lacks a good administrative module. The QuestionPoint administrative module was ideal for this type of multi-state collaborative effort.
We need to do a better job of effectively integrating the iVocalize room with QuestionPoint.
The email and basic text chat modes of communication we currently are using with QuestionPoint are not especially accessible or cutting edge. We may need to move away from QuestionPoint in order to offer an interesting, cutting-edge VR service to the blind and visually impaired. The QuestionPoint team is encouraged to be in direct communication with GW Micro and Freedom Scientific, the makers of JAWS and WindowEyes, about the basic text chat screen refresh issue.
Modes of Communication (email, basic chat, enhanced)
For most of the first six-month period, three modes of communication were offered to users: email, basic text chat, and enhanced communications, including voice-over-IP and co-browsing. Throughout the first six months of the InfoEyes service the Advisory Council has discussed how many and which types of modes of communication could be offered.
After the end of the beta test period the InfoEyes Advisory Council decided to offer only two interaction options: email and enhanced. The majority felt that offering three options was confusing to both patrons and librarians.
The beta phase of InfoEyes was characterized by several major changes in software platforms, hours of service, etc. What effect does a software shift have on the momentum of the service? We may have too many switches of hours and software to build patron confidence. Even in the virtual world, lack of stability can deter customers.
The scheduled hours of service should be consistent and for a long period of time. We need to establish a regular schedule, perhaps even 24/7. When an online service goes to a 24/7 schedule, traffic may increase by an order of magnitude. Time zones do create problems in scheduling and desk coverage. Maybe we need some way to ensure there is no dead time between shifts.
For some participating libraries, the staff members involved in InfoEyes cannot make decisions about continued involvement, funding, etc. This situation can slow down the collaborative decision-making process.
Quality Assessment and Quality Control
The InfoEyes project has consciously decided to avoid as a group the question of quality of service. Eventually that question will need to be subjected to a group process. Currently we encourage individual participating libraries to assess the quality of service provided by the InfoEyes service providers from their institutions. From examining over 300 digital reference interactions, this reviewer could not help but notice the differences in the length and style of responses and interactions. Caution must be exercised, however, when trying to translate differences in communication style and the amount of information provided into a consistent, valid overall measure of quality of service.
Marketing and Promoting
After the first two months of the beta phase of the service, the level of patron traffic has been disappointing. A major goal of InfoEyes during its first year of full service is to increase the level of traffic. Some participating libraries are complaining that the level of traffic they are experiencing does not warrant the amount of time and resources they are investing in InfoEyes. An aggressive, multi-faceted marketing campaign is needed. Because the percentage of blind and visually impaired users who are comfortably online on a regular basis remains low, one aspect of the marketing strategy must be to directly reach those blind netizens and inform them about the InfoEyes service. Word of mouth may be the best marketing campaign for this service and this situation. We need to get the attention of the opinion leaders within this subpopulation, convey a clear, consistent message about the immediate and long-term benefits of a service like InfoEyes, and then encourage the growth of a group of regular users.
We need to market the service more than we have. We should strive to get at least a question an hour. We need to stress more effort on publicizing the service. We need to target our marketing efforts directly at end-users and at conferences for groups that provide services to blind users. Could NLS help us promote this service? Perhaps we should concentrate on the medical or education communities.
We have done a good job of publicizing InfoEyes on listservs, newsletters, etc. Spreading the value of the service by word-of-mount will be crucial, so we need to be patient. The summer months may partly explain the slow activity this summer.
Because external funding has not yet been obtained and the participating libraries cannot fully fund InfoEyes, perhaps InfoEyes should seriously consider seeking a merger with a larger, existing virtual reference service.
Consistent, Reliable, Accessible Service
InfoEyes has had a relatively turbulent beta testing phase. Many things have been tried, and some options have been abandoned. The website has been redesigned several times. In order for the service to take root and establish a substantial clientele, InfoEyes needs to become a settled service that focuses on consistently providing a reliable quality service.
Relationship Between InfoEyes and Mainstream Online Reference Services
The near and long-term relationships between InfoEyes and other mainstream online reference services remains very open and require continued investigation and discussion.
In order for a virtual reference service to be accessible to blind and visually impaired individuals, both the software used and the staff providing the service must be accessible. The software must work well in conjunction with major screen reader software programs, such as WindowEyes and JAWS for Windows. The use of frames and automatic screen refreshes tends to create access hurdles. Keystroke alternatives to all buttons and dropdown menus should be available. The use of voice-over-IP is not an essential component of an accessible virtual reference service, but experiences during the beta testing phase of InfoEyes indicate that it is a very helpful feature that is much appreciated by users. The expertise and approachability of the staff providing the service are as important as the accessibility of the software. Virtual reference software, systems, and services that are accessible to all citizens benefit everyone, not just individuals who happen to be blind or visually impaired.