Digital Library Accessibility and Usability Guidelines (DLAUG) to Support Blind and Visually Impaired Users


The DLAUG is a set of accessibility and usability guidelines created for digital library (DL) developers to support blind and visually impaired (BVI) users who rely on screen readers to interact with DLs. The DLAUG was developed based on the types of help-seeking situations identified by several BVI user studies that investigated BVI users’ interactions with existing DLs; it was further enhanced based on feedback from key stakeholders of DLs, including users, scholars/experts, and developers. The DLAUG is organized by help-seeking situations based on the frequency of occurrences of the situations and their impact on BVI users’ information search process.


An estimated 2.2 billion people in the world live with significant vision loss (World Health Organization, 2020). Blind and visually impaired individuals comprise a group of users who rely on screen readers to interact with digital libraries (DLs). BVI users have unique needs, face diverse challenges, employ distinctive strategies, and have their own preferences in their interactions with DLs. To design DLs that meet the needs of BVI users, DL developers must first understand these special needs.

BVI users encounter unique help-seeking situations in Web interactions. A help-seeking situation is characterized by a problem that arises during a user’s interaction with a DL, which motivates them to seek some form of assistance in order to complete an information retrieval task. Although a few studies investigate BVI users’ problems and coping strategies, a systematic examination of their help-seeking situations and associated factors in diverse DL environments has not yet been conducted. This creates a gap in research on BVI users’ help needs for effective DL interactions. Addressing this gap is the first step toward building a BVI user-friendly DL.

DL research has primarily paid attention to accessibility and usability with the most commonly used guidelines focusing on Web accessibility. The problem is that these guidelines do not address many of the interaction problems and help-seeking situations that BVI users face in their use of DLs.

Stages of the creation of the guidelines

The intent of the project is to develop The DLAUG based on BVI users’ special needs. It consists of four stages. At each stage, feedback from consultants was incorporated into the project.

At Stage 1, a thorough and comprehensive search and review of literature from the past 20 years was conducted along with related document analysis to identify a list of help-seeking situations that BVI users encounter in their Internet interactions. Two types of document analyses were provided to: 1) address help-seeking situations and needs of BVI users in DLs and 2) identify existing design guidelines on accessibility, usability, and utility in digital environments and their limitations. Simultaneously, two types of analyses were conducted to identify the current status and problems with the existing guidelines as they relate to accessibility and usability.

At Stage 2, sixty-four participants were recruited representing BVI users across the U.S. with a variety of characteristics. Thirty-two of these participants completed the onsite study, while another 32 participants finished the diary study. All participants searched multiple DLs representing different types of content and design. Data, derived from a series of user studies, including previous BVI user studies conducted by the research team (Xie, et al., 2015; Xie, et al., 2018; Xie, et al., 2020; Xie, et al., 2021), were used to identify the help-seeking situations that BVI users encounter in DLs and their associated help needs, and to develop the draft of the guidelines.

At Stage 3, the in-depth survey was conducted with 150 participants who represented three groups of stakeholders (DL developers, accessibility and usability scholars/experts, and end-users) to assess the importance, clarity, relevance, usefulness, and feasibility of guidelines. The findings of the survey further refined the DLAUG.

At Stage 4, thirty DL developers used the guidelines to assess five of the leading DLs and test the feasibility of the guidelines. In addition, the outcomes of the assessment were applied to evaluate the current status and conformance levels of these DLs in terms of whether they meet the conformance criteria for accessibility and usability for BVI users. Four focus groups, comprised of 7-8 participants each, were then be formed to discuss the problems of the guidelines as identified in the assessment process. Based on suggestions and feedback, the DL design guidelines were modified. Moreover, feedback from advisory board members was also solicited before finalizing the guidelines.


The DLAUG created by this project is based on the types of help-seeking situations identified by several BVI user studies that investigated BVI users’ interactions with existing DLs.  The inclusion criteria are: 1) The DLAUG is developed for each individual type of help-seeking situation encountered by BVI users in the DL environment during user studies and 2) The DLAUG focuses exclusively on supporting BVI users who rely on screen readers to interact with DLs.


The DLAUG’s primary audience is DL developers, and it facilitates them to enhance accessibility and usability of DLs to support BVI users.  At the same time, The DLAUG is also for DL researchers, experts, teachers, and graduate students who are interested in digitization, DL development, DL management, DL evaluation, and accessibility issues in the DL environment. The secondary audience could also include researchers and practitioners who work on the accessibility and usability of electronic information retrieval systems.

Guidelines structure

The DLAUG is organized by categories and specific types of help-seeking situations under each category, including the following categories of situations:

A. Difficulty accessing information
B. Difficulty identifying current status, path, or cursor mode
C. Difficulty locating specific information, items, or features
D. Confusion about multiple programs or DL structures
E. Difficulty constructing or refining searches
F. Difficulty with Help
G. Avoidance tendency
H. Difficulty evaluating information
I. Difficulty with compatibility issues

The DLAUG is organized by the help-seeking situations according to the frequency of occurrences of the situations and their impact on BVI users’ information search process.

Under each type of help-seeking situation, the following components are presented:

Definition of the type of help-seeking situation
Factors that lead to the situation
Guideline or Design Recommendations to solve the situation
Rationale and Objective that provide a set of reasons behind the creation of guidelines
Techniques and Methods to comply with a specific DL design guideline
Recommended Features to implement a specific technique or method
Examples that show good and/or bad designs for a recommended feature
Related Resources that provide extra resources corresponding to the situation
See Also to link to the corresponding category or categories of situations that the current situation belongs to

The numbering of Techniques and Methods, Recommended Features, and Examples corresponds to the numbering under Guideline or Design Recommendations.


In order to prepare the audiences to better understand and use the DLAUG, a glossary was created to present the definitions of the key terms used therein. It consists of terms that relate to the situations, factors, guidelines, techniques, recommended features, and elements of DLs. The glossary is organized alphabetically and can be found in the Glossary section in the menu.


Appendix VI. Accessibility assessment tools

Types of help-seeking situations (Total 32, Unique 27)

A. Difficulty accessing information (5)

Definition: Problems related to detecting or recognizing an item(s) or receiving information.

A5/D6. Difficulty locating or accessing search features 

B. Difficulty evaluating information (2)

Definition: Difficulty making sense of search results, collections, or subject organization criteria; difficulty understanding the relevance of search results or identifying relevant collections or subjects.

B2. Difficulty assessing format of an item

C. Difficulty with help (5)

Definition: Difficulty understanding labels; problems understanding how to use a specific function; inability to understand help information.

C5. Difficulty understanding or using a specific feature

D. Difficulty locating specific information, items, or features (7)

Definition: Difficulty finding specific information or type of an item or format of an item or features.

C2/D7. Difficulty locating or understanding help information

E. Difficulty identifying current status, path, or cursor mode (6)

Definition: Problems identifying the current location, returning to home or a previous page, getting started or proceeding, recognizing page loading status, or monitoring searches.

E6. Difficulty recognizing pre-existing text in an input box

F. Confusion about multiple programs, DL structures, or search results structure (2)

Definition: Confusion resulting from complex DL structures or difficulties distinguishing the DL from other programs.

F2. Difficulty understanding results structure or layout

G. Avoidance tendency (1)

Definition: Avoidance of visual items, browsing approaches, in-depth exploration, or search input fields.

G1. Avoidance of format, approach, or features

H. Difficulty constructing or refining searches (3)

Definition: Difficulty formulating and reformulating searches.

H3. Difficulty tracking searches

I. Difficulty with compatibility issues (1)

Definition: Problems related to compatibility issues such as an incompatible browser and keyboard.

I1. Situations related to compatibility issues


World Health Organization (WHO). (2020). Blindness and vision impairment. Retrieved from

Xie, I., Babu, R., Joo, S. & Fuller, P. (2015). Using digital libraries non-visually: understanding the help seeking situations of blind users.  Information Research, 20(2), paper 673. Retrieved from

Xie, I., Babu, R., Castillo, M., & Han, H. (2018). Identification of factors associated with blind users’ help-seeking situations in interacting with digital libraries. Journal of the American Association for Information Science and Technology, 69(4), 514–527.

Xie, I., Babu, R., Lee, T. H., Castillo, M. D., You, S., & Hanlon, A. M. (2020). Enhancing usability of digital libraries: Designing help features to support blind and visually impaired usersInformation Processing & Management57(3), 102110.

Xie, I., Babu, R., Lee, H. S., Wang, S., & Lee, T. H. (2021). Orientation tactics and associated factors in the digital library environment: comparison between blind and sighted usersJournal of the Association for Information Science and Technology,