Tuesday, November 10, 2015

First Exposures to Assistive Software Technologies

Note: This is the first blog post I contributed for the class blog compiled for my Assistive Technologies class at MIT, in Fall 2014. Read here for more posts.

Being a Course 6-2 (Electrical Engineering & Computer Science) senior, I'm constantly thinking about how technology, and especially software products, can be improved. This summer, I took an Accessibilities workshop to see how my company's products were being designed to be more accessible for people with disabilities. One of the first activities in the workshop was to open one of the company's software products on our smartphones with either VoiceOver or TalkBack enabled, close our eyes, and try to go through a basic user activity on the application. We were each paired with one other person. The second person would remain sighted and  hint to us what we were seeing if we were super lost. 
...there were many struggles. 
I chose to to open a Travel application and try to book a flight from my current city to London.

Here are some observations I made:
  1. The woman's voice in VoiceOver gets annoying really quickly. 
  2. On the travel app itself, there was no way to tell what the overall UI layout was. I wanted to scan through the interface with my finger and know what options there were.
    (ex. I wanted to pick my destination. So I clicked a few spots on my screen randomly to see if I achieved anything. Tap tap tap. "Well? Did I pick a city?" "Um.. no you just returned to the home page and then went back to the travel page and then picked a month." Oh jeez... this is gonna be painful.)
  3. It'd be really simple to add VoiceOver extensions unto the app so that a visually impaired user could hear verbal feedback of what they were doing, just like in the normal VoiceOver feature.
  4. Even better: What if the flight app could have a separate card-style user flow?
    Every step of the flight-booking process could be a separate "card," and you swipe through each step. That way, each step can be easily outlined through voice to a visually-impaired person. It would break down the page into a quick swipe+click selection flow so that there's not too many things to describe on each page to a user.
It's hard to make software applications accessible in big companies (or at least this particular one), because most teams just aren't thinking about accessibility in their first iterations of a product, and once they go in one direction, adding "accessibility features" just seems like an extra step. Also, in order to achieve a significant amount of accessibility among users, more personalization of features is usually needed. I think this is a shame; if they can think about accessibility earlier on in their product life cycle, they could easily create a different form of the product that doesn't lose features, but whose design can make it much easier for all users to use, even those who do not have disabilities.

These flaws in accessibility among software applications don't go unnoticed by users. For example, there seems to be a consensus (well, among the three visually-impaired people I've met and spoken to - I'll try to increase this sample size...) that VoiceOver is way better than TalkBack.

That's not to say that all software applications aren't great for people with disabilities. While I was at the Boston Abilities Expo, I met a very tech-savvy woman who was blind who shared with me all her favorite iPhone apps. TapTapSee is an app that allows a blind user to have a photo she took of something in front of her described to her in 5-10 seconds. She also speeds up VoiceOver to navigate her phone faster. Another app she recommends is BlindSquare, which describes the environment including POIs. She likes knowing the information that's around her and not missing out on things.

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 11.10.16 PMAlbeit slowly, I think the mobile app space is doing some great things for people with disabilities. (I know I mainly covered features addressing visual impairments though.) These are vast improvements to just a decade ago, when a blind person had to pay hundreds of dollars in premiums and carry clunky devices along that served a few purposes. Now, everything can be on their iPhone, just like everybody else :) (Well, that's the goal at least!)