If documents could talk
Contributions of spoken and visual language in electronic documents
Conventional electronic documents present their content visually on screen but the information could be spoken, or the two modalities might be combined — e.g. when mixing text and graphics. If the relative benefits of aural and visual language depend on characteristics of the target audience (e.g. age and sensory impairments, language fluency, etc), parallel versions of documents may sometimes be desirable. The advantages of different modalities will also vary with a document’s communication goals — such as informing, persuading, answering questions or giving directions. Conceptual explanations may be better if read because readers can pause and re-read but procedural explanations may be better when listened to, especially if the document provides animated demonstrations accompanied by a spoken commentary. This paper overviews empirical studies suggesting that information modality can influence the document user’s three main clusters of activities, namely finding, understanding and applying the author’s message. This raises questions such as: Would it help if electronic documents let users customise the synthetic speech, perhaps selecting the sex of the speaker? When might a modality change imply changes to other linguistic features? If we do not write as we speak, will enhanced text-to-speech technology be sufficient for creating appropriate talking documents?
Keywords: graphics, animation, synthetic speech, talking books, listening,reading, electronic documents, text-to-speech, modality selection, procedures
Published online: 25 March 2002