May 5, 2011

Apple’s iPad and iOS come with several built-in accessibility features that make the iPad relatively easy for disabled people to use. Unfortunately, many news applications were not built to take advantage of these accessibility features, rendering the apps ultimately useless for people who are disabled.

VoiceOver is the crown jewel of the iOS accessibility features (the operating system behind the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch), and it gives the entire operating system and every application access to screen-reading technology.

Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace R&D Center at the University of Wisconson-Madison, said in a phone call that iOS is the only mobile operating system to come with a built-in screen reader, and that this technology often costs hundreds of dollars or more on other computing platforms.

Testing out apps for accessibility

For this technology to work, apps must be built with accessibility in mind. I downloaded and tested several news apps with this and other accessibility features turned on and found The Daily, The Economist, The New York Times, Wired and USA Today apps to be unusable, and incapable of reading everything that their applications present with these features turned on.

VoiceOver allows users to tap the screen and a voice will let them know what they have selected. Tap a folder, and a voice reads the name of the folder. Tap an application and the same happens. Tap a button in an application or a text box, and theoretically the same should happen. Once users have found what they want, they double tap to select it. In VoiceOver mode, double tap functions as a single tap normally does.

In my testing, some of the icons and text were selectable, while others were not. I was unable to get any of the news apps to select and read the body of the text for me. The Economist does have audio versions of its articles that can be selected by tapping a button, and they work well. But they don’t follow the normal pattern of accessibility. Nonetheless, The Economist iPad app has built-in text-zooming and audio versions of articles, which is more than a lot of other news apps offer.

Oscar Grut, managing director of digital editions, said The Economist is beginning an accessibility review of its iPad and iPhone applications. As part of its review, it’s bringing in qualified consultants who can help identify accessibility issues for different types of impairment. The end goal is to make the iPad and iPhone applications more accessible to wider audiences., Grut told me.

Need for a back button, bigger text

In the course of my testing with VoiceOver on, I was completely disoriented several times and had to tap the home key to go back to the home screen and start over. And I could see what I was doing the whole time. One of the issues that causes disorientation is the lack of a back button or searchability within some of these apps (Wired’s app is the prime offender of this).

Imagine using a news website. You click a few links. Now you want to get back to where you were before, but there’s no back button. Clicking something and being shot to a different section into the Wired app without the ability to go back can be disorienting for someone with perfect eyesight. Using the VoiceOver technology on apps without a back button or breadcrumb trail when you’re blind? Forget about it.

“The lack of a back button is pretty egregious, as is the lack of search,” Raluca Budiu, user experience specialist at the Nielsen Norman Group, said via email. “Especially since the iPad screen is so much bigger than the screens of mobile phones and there’s plenty of space for incorporating these in the interface.”

There are some users who are visually impaired, but not so much that they need everything read to them. For these users, the ability to enlarge text sizes is critical. Some applications, such as Wired’s, do not allow text to be enlarged at all, while others, such as The New York Times’, USA Today’s and The Economist’s, offer a variety of text sizes.

“That is just plain not a good idea,” Vanderheiden said about not allowing text to be enlarged. “There is a huge portion of your readership that is going to have issues with that small text.”

Budiu said one issue that many applications have is that even when they allow the article body text to be enlarged, they don’t enlarge the headline, captions or navigational pages. The New York Times and Economist apps suffer from this issue, while the USA Today app enlarges all text on a page. None of the applications, however, allowed the navigational pages to be enlarged.

All of these applications also work with iOS’s built-in zooming feature, which magnifies everything on screen up to five times. After a certain point, though, the text starts to look pixelated.

iOS also has pinch to zoom, which is a feature built not just for accessibility; it does allow users to use two fingers to zoom in on text, photos and interface items. While this works beautifully on, it doesn’t work at all in The Times’ iPad app and worked in The Economist app for article text only.

One of the biggest accessibility issues with The Daily — something that able-bodied people would struggle with, too — is the need to rotate the orientation of The Daily to discover new features and content. It’s not intuitive, and it requires that a user hold the iPad in order for it to work properly. (I often rest the iPad on my lap while reading). People aren’t accustomed to rotating their computer screens or newspapers to discover new features.

“Often companies think that their app needs to have some cool, unique design element in order to be successful and are ready to sacrifice usability or accessibility for that,” Budiu said. “Unfortunately, fun depletes — that fancy carousel or that unique widget is going be less fun the second time the app is used, and even annoying by the fifth time.”

Grut said the carousel used in The Economist iPhone app has proved to be an accessibility issue, and it’s being rethought.

“It doesn’t work for the visually impaired,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure it works for everyone.”

Developing best practices to make apps more accessible

Vanderheiden said content creators may be intentionally creating applications with inaccessible text because of copyright infringement fears. Some content creators hope that by making it harder to select and access text they’ll be able to cut down on piracy. But will making a product harder to use really make a company more money?

“I really think they’re doing a lot of things out of fear, and if they would just slip over to another model they could thrive,” Vanderheiden said. “I mean iTunes doesn’t copy protect its songs anymore, but it’s just so damn convenient to just buy them.”

Budiu, however, says he doesn’t think these accessibility and usability issues were a conscious oversight. Rather, he believes that many companies and developers are not aware of best practices for usability. Vanderheiden thinks this is part of the issue, too, and said print-driven companies and developers may not think about making products for the disabled.

The good news for users is that all of these organizations, with the exception of the iPad-only The Daily, have websites that work great with the iPad’s accessible, built-in browser Safari. Budiu said her ideal news app would be “an app that is not about the app but about the news.”

An app all about the news, she said, would enable as many people as possible to use it and enjoy it.

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