Article nominally updated with some new links, September 2012.
In this 2 August 2010 Mobile Monday Sydney presentation I
Briefly cover the current state-of-play in mobile device accessibility;
Demonstrate and discuss Apple’s VoiceOver accessibility software for blind and low vision users that is built into iOS devices such as the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad;
Explain how and why it is a good move to ensure your iOS apps are accessible;
Finish by speaking about the benefits of including more audio and human voice content in your mobile apps for all your users.
In this presentation I am principally focusing on Apple and VoiceOver, but accessibility is gradually improving for Android devices. It’s still early days, but this 2010 Android Accessibility Documentation covers the fundamentals.
Recent advances in Android accessibility such as with Jelly-bean are promising, but in 2012 the huge majority of vision impaired users are using iOS devices for their mobile computing and telecommunications.
Until early 2012, there was also Oratio a (rather expensive) commercially-available screenreading solution for current BlackBerry® devices. Now Blackberry offer a screenreader for some of their products.
Back in 2010, commercial Screenreaders for Symbian Series 60 phones were in wide usage, and there are commercial screenreading products for Windows Mobile devices as well.
But in the mobile space, ‘hands down’, Apple has demonstrated an ever-growing commitment to equal access and has delivered the most comprehensive access to any portable devices in history, and at no extra charge for the user.
Until now, the lion’s share of blind people with accessible mobile devices have used Symbian (Nokia) devices, but online discussion trends indicate that this is rapidly shifting to iOS devices, especially as older phones and contracts expire.
VoiceOver is Apple’s innovative screen-reading technology, which gives users control over their devices without having to see the screen. VoiceOver does this by acting as an intermediary between an application’s user interface and the user’s touch, providing audible descriptions of elements and actions in the application. When VoiceOver is active, users don’t have to worry about accidentally deleting a contact or calling a phone number, because VoiceOver tells them where they are in the user interface, what actions they can take, and what the results of those actions will be.
VoiceOver and Zoom are free and are built into every iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPad Touch and iPad device. Zoom is a sister screen magnification product to VoiceOver, for use by people with low vision.
This unwavering commitment to in-built accessibility by Apple is unprecedented.
VoiceOver or Zoom can be turned on by entering Settings > General > Accessibility, and they can be configured so either can be easily turned on and off just by quickly pressing the home button three times.
Because all these iOS devices rely heavily on a touch-screen for the user to select and interact with application controls, when VoiceOver is turned on, the set of standard gestures is changed to avoid accidental selections when the screen is being explored by touch. As an example, in order to activate a control (eg unlocking the device) the user first selects the control so that it is audibly announced and then performs a double tap gesture anywhere on the screen to activate the previously selected control.
If the user needs to perform an original gesture (a non VoiceOver gesture), they can perform a double-tap and hold, at which point a standard gesture can be performed on the device.
Note that VoiceOver and Zoom cannot be used simultaneously; only one can be activated at a time, but this will change in iOS 6.
The VoiceOver and Zoom documentation can be found as a Bookmark within Safari under iPad User Guide or iPhone User Guide, depending on the device.
AccessWorld recently posted an excellent in-depth iPad and VoiceOver description and review
From a Usability view-point, the VoiceOver user interface is not nearly as elegant, efficient and intuitive as is the visual interface. This isn’t a criticism per se, but there are just some things that a flat touchscreen cannot do to promote efficient input – especially in noisy environments.
In effect, a VoiceOver user is having to develop Touch-Ear Coordination skills, in place of Eye-Hand Coordination for sighted users.
Prior to the release of Siri and compact Bluetooth Keyboards, This has had major implications for entering text efficiently and accurately. You need to find each letter on the screen, hear it announced, and then perform an action to enter it. This process is Much more frustrating for most blind people than T9 or touch-typing on a physical keyboard.
A new app called Fleksi allows something closer to word prediction than iOS text entry, and has been widely acclaimed by blind iOS users. At present, though, you need to open fleksi, enter your textual information and then send it to supporting apps or copy it to the clipboard, to use elsewhere.
\this Visually Impaired Touchscreen Accessibility article makes a few extra points.
The future may hold some interesting improvements here, such as
Shape Shifting Device Interface patents Apple recently registered and.
All of the in-built Apple apps in iOS are accessible to VoiceOver and Zoom. Other Apple apps such as Pages and iBooks are also quite accessible
The real message here is that for Apple, accessibility is not thought of as a ‘nice-to-have’ feature, it is a fundamental dimension of device and application usability. In effect the largely artificial line people have drawn between usability and accessibility has almost been erased by Apple’s recent products and design standards.
Many, though certainly not all third-party apps are automatically accessible to VoiceOver, and in most cases developers can make relatively minor programatic changes to make their apps more accessible, without impeding the user experience for sighted users.
More info on iOS app accessibility is available from the official Apple Developers guide on making your iOS apps work with VoiceOver
This 2012 accessibility article for iOS developers is a great walk through for developers to make their apps more VoiceOver accessible.
You might also want to check out A great accessibility overview and general instructions Accessibility for iPhone and iPad apps
The following is taken from the intro from Apple’s guidelines document:
Using iOS 3.0 and later, VoiceOver is available to help users with visual impairments use their iOS–based devices. The UI Accessibility programming interface, introduced in iOS 3.0, helps developers make their applications accessible to VoiceOver users… iPhone applications that run in iOS 3.0 and later should be accessible to VoiceOver users. iOS and the iPhone SDK support this goal by:
Making standard UIKit controls and views accessible by default
Supplying the UI Accessibility programming interface, which defines a streamlined process for making an iPhone application accessible
Providing tools that help you implement accessibility in your code and test the accessibility of your application;
If you’re developing or updating an iPhone application, you should read this document to learn how to make your application accessible to VoiceOver users.
Here is Apple’s answer:
You should make your iPhone application accessible to VoiceOver users because:
It increases your user base. You’ve worked hard to create a great application; don’t miss the opportunity to make it available to even more users.
It allows people to use your application without seeing the screen. Users with visual impairments can use your application with the help of VoiceOver.
It helps you address accessibility guidelines. Various governing bodies create guidelines for accessibility and making your iPhone application accessible to VoiceOver users can help you [or your client] meet them.
It’s the right thing to do.
It’s important to be aware that supporting accessibility does not impact your ability to innovate and create beautiful iPhone applications. The UI Accessibility programming interface allows you to add a thin layer of functionality that does not alter your application’s appearance, or interfere with its main logic.
I’d add to Apple’s list of reasons the following:
Many mobile apps actually represent a company or a service, so if they aren’t accessible then they are sending the implicit message that the business or service is closed to people with disabilities, or not in touch with their needs;
Because Apple iOS apps are all accessible, and because an ever-increasing number of third-party iOS apps are also accessible now, VoiceOver users have come to expect that your app will be accessible too.
Since people who are blind or have low vision are unable to access printed information, accessible content-rich apps present a fresh opportunity to publish the information in an accessible form.
Some content-rich examples are eBooks, apps to access daily newspapers and information-centric apps such as restaurant and travel guides.
Since delivering the presentation, the following article Killed off by apps, death of the web – is the open web dead? asks questions about publishers moving to apps for delivery of their content.
Many of the guidelines for accessible web design also benefit users of mobile devices including ‘alttext’ for images (some people may turn off image download to save bandwidth) and not using colour alone to differentiate items (some people have monochrome screens on their older mobile devices).
These and other access-friendly and adaptable mobile website design approaches are discussed in Mobile-friendly: The mobile web optimization guide
Also check out this excellent article on Accessible mobile site development in HTML 5
Regardless of the platform you develop for, there are many sound reasons why adding more audio and human voice content into your apps can be a great idea.
Consider these questions and whether contemplating bringing more audio could advantage your apps and your customers:
What was the iTunes AppStore’s No. 1 best-selling application for month after month? Interesting that its sound-making features totally eclipse its visual display.
Why is it that although mobile devices, in particular phones and iPads, are well-suited for playing audio, the core focus on app design is still so frequently focused on visual presentation via the display?
Increasingly organisations and businesses are deploying mobile apps. (You might say these are reflecting the ‘Face’ of the brand.) But what about the ‘Voice’ of the brand? How can Vocal Branding and sonic branding be employed in apps to strengthen and enhance the brand’s connection with customers?
Of course, if more voice and sound are going to be employed in apps, this needs to be done right and well! No one wants unexpected audio blaring out when they are at the library. Similarly, if the audio is incongruent with the visual aesthetic of the application, it will distract and frustrate users.
But… when Sonic Branding and Vocal Branding are implemented tastefully, respectfully and strategically, these portable multimedia devices have the potential to deliver extraordinary multi-sensory experiences for users. The result is a more immersive, engaging and satisfying user experience.
Tim Noonan is a voice consultant and lecturer, inspirational conference speaker and the founder of Vocal Branding Australia.
With a background in cognitive psychology and human factors, Tim has consulted to numerous organisations including St.George Bank, the Australian Bankers’ Association, the Australian Electoral Commission, the NSW Department of Health and Vision Australia as a voice user interface (VUI) designer for automated telephone services and other self-voicing products.
A professional listener, Tim is pioneering the emerging field of Vocal Branding – an expertise that arose from his extensive research and lifelong study of the human voice. Vocal Branding realizes the intrinsic capacity of the human voice to transmit emotion, and its extraordinary potential to create compelling, durable and trusted brand relationships.
Please Contact Tim to speak about accessible application development and to explore adding Sonic and Vocal Branding elements into your mobile applications.