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Mobile accessibility: moving with the times

The popularity of mobile technologies has grown tremendously over the past few years, and many of us now conduct a large proportion of our web browsing on mobile devices. Apps allow you to do pretty much anything from your smartphone these days.

For users with disabilities, the great thing is that accessibility is deeply embedded into the operating system of many mobile devices, for example with the VoiceOver screenreader on the iPhone. Many users tell us that they now rarely use their desktop machines and do most of their browsing, banking and social communication on their mobile.

One story serves to highlight the importance of mobile accessibility. My former employer AbilityNet recently moved to new offices in central London and one of the charity’s regular accessibility testers, who is blind, was dropped off at the wrong address by his taxi. He called me and told me he was lost. Thankfully, he was able to use an accessible mobile map application to send me his location. It turned out he was about a mile away so I jumped in a taxi and went to collect him. This is a great example of how accessible technology solved what could have potentially been a dangerous situation.

But it is important to remember that accessibility does not happen automatically – it is something which needs to be considered and implemented at all stages of design and development.

Two of the main sets of accessibility guidelines which can be applied to mobile devices are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) and Mobile Web Best Practices (MWBP), both produced by the international Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium. However problems can arise not from the guidelines themselves, but from the level of knowledge and understanding needed to interpret and apply them. While WAI does provide supporting documentation, it is very long and, ironically, not that usable or easy to understand.

WCAG 2.0 were developed to be platform-neutral, but they are more easily applied and testable on desktop platforms as the technologies are more mature. It takes expert interpretation to determine which guidelines are relevant and appropriate to mobile platforms.

While MWBP 1.0 Statements may be directly relevant to mobile websites, many are not directly applicable to mobile applications or ‘apps’. MWBP statements are written from a technical and development perspective. There are fewer statements related to visual design or how an application behaves with user interaction. Ultimately, that is the main issue: mobile guidelines are not as user-centred as they should be.

Guidelines by definition are also quite general and broad so in some cases it takes expert knowledge and interpretation to relate an issue to a specific guideline.

In testing sessions at AbilityNet, users often report that the purpose of some icons is unclear, confirmation messages are not displayed on-screen long enough for them to read or on-screen elements such as buttons are too small or too close together, which makes activating them difficult. These are fundamental issues which could affect a wide range of users, but they are not covered by the main guidelines already mentioned.

You can find guidelines which cover these issues in other guideline sets, such as iOS or Android development guidelines, but we cannot expect designers and developers to refer to a number of different sets of guidelines – they simply do not have the time. What is needed is a comprehensive, useful point of reference for mobile accessibility and I would expect this to come from the WAI as they are part of the body which governs web standards.

One issue here is communication. If, as practitioners, we find that guidelines are not working, or we are finding issues not covered by guidelines, then we need to engage with the WAI. They cannot do anything about a problem if they don’t know it exists.

Looking to the future, mobile accessibility guidelines need to be based on empirical evidence of issues which impact users in a real situation. Some guidelines need be based on the results of testing sessions held with a diverse group of users over a period of time.

AbilityNet will continue to monitor the results of its user testing sessions, collate the issues found and publish its work for the benefit of the wider accessibility community. It has also started work on producing its own evidence-based mobile accessibility heuristics, and have spoken with the W3C about engaging directly with the WAI working groups to influence the guidelines of the future.

If we work together, we will solve the problem, but due to the length of time it takes to produce a stable set of guidelines, this will not happen overnight.

NOTE: Chris Bailey is accessibility lead user experience, customer experience at Vodafone Group Services and former accessibility and usability consultant at technology access charity AbilityNet. Last year the charity won an international award for its research paper ‘Investigating the appropriateness and relevance of mobile web accessibility guidelines’.

Customisable digital tube train map wins design award

A customisable version of the London Underground map for people with impaired vision has won best transport app in this month’s UK Mobile and App Design Awards, hosted by design100.

“Colourblind tube map” was created by digital agency 232 Studios – which also won best small studio – working with accessibility specialist Ian Hamilton, also known for his work on accessible video game guidelines (see previous story, this issue).

The app is based on the official tube map – “it took some tough licensing negotiations to allow that”, Hamilton says – and offers combinations of colours and patterns which are easier to read by users with different forms of colourblindness.

Other versions are designed to cater for other vision impairments such as cataracts, loss of contrast sensitivity and myopia, with features including increased contrast; reduced glare; large detailed high-zoom maps; customisable text size; and simple interfaces with no fiddly gestures

The app previously won a Judges’ Award in last December’s Transport for London (TfL) accessible app awards, with the prize money from this helping ensure it could be made available to both Apple and Android users free of charge, Hamilton told E-Access Bulletin.

“The iconic London underground map is relied on by millions of travellers every day, but its white background, small text and low contrast differences in colour can cause problems for people with many different types of impaired vision”, the app’s developers say.

“There is a black and white pattern-based map available, but only as a PDF… [but this] is actually left over from the time before colour printing became cheaply available, it isn’t actually designed for colour-blindness, so the first enhancement was to produce something that was actually tailored to that audience, that combined colour with pattern to create something ideally suited to people who see in a restricted palette.

“Additionally, due to our past experience working on video magnifier software, another use soon became apparent. A pattern based map is free from being constrained by colour choice, meaning those colours can be altered to suit the preferences of people with a wide range of different vision impairments.”

The approach taken to develop the app is an example of the benefits digital technology can bring to all kinds of impairments, the developers say. “The tube map in the station is a physical object that has to compromise to work for as many people as possible, but digital products do not have the same constraints. Interfaces can be customised, the best solution tailored to each individual’s need.”

The same basic principles are also applicable to all map design, they say, and there has been interest in the project from across the cartography community. “Using symbols and pattern as well as colour, or providing high detail imagery that can in turn support a high level of zoom; these are things that are applicable to all maps.”

Other winners of December’s TfL accessible app competition included London’s Nearest Bus, which helps people find what bus stop they are at and when the next bus will arrive; Station Master, which offers detailed train and station access information for tube and overground lines; and Tube Tracker, an app that uses text-to-speech and high colour contrast to ease access to live journey information.

Global mobile accessibility database set for overhaul

The world’s leading database of information on the accessibility features of mobile phones and tablet computers is set to be refreshed with extensive new information, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

GARI (Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative) was launched in 2010 by the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF), an international association of mobile telecommunications equipment manufacturers.

Initially covering just a few accessibility features for mobile phones, it has since been expanded to store information on more than 100 features of phones and tablet computers of interest to users with access issues relating to dexterity; vision; hearing/speech; and cognition.

Last year it was further expanded to include ‘apps’ (applications) that help to make mobile devices more accessible such as screenreaders, or help people with disabilities to perform everyday tasks such as TapTapSee, an app which can use a phone’s camera to identify objects and speak them out loud.

The resource – which covers all global regions – was developed with international disability organisations including World Blind Union, European Disability Forum, World Federation of the Deaf. It holds information in 12 written and spoken languages plus American Sign Language with a 13th language, Japanese, to be added shortly.

It was originally set up because accessibility information on consumer devices seemed to be getting lost on the way to the user, Sabine Lobnig, communications and regulatory officer at the MMF, told E-Access Bulletin. “Manufacturers had feedback from disability organisations that even if they do provide accessibility information for devices, this information does not usually arrive with the end consumer”, Lobnig said.

“Whether it is sold through a wholesaler, on the internet or wherever, information on accessibility is lost. So consumers end up with a device that could be accessible for them but they do not have the information.”

Another purpose for GARI is to act as an official compliance reporting mechanism for mobile manufacturers in countries such as Australia, Portugal and the US where legal accessibility requirements are already in place, she said. The system pulls in data to templates designed to meet the requirements of each country’s relevant law. In Europe, no such legal requirements currently exist at EU or national level, though an EU accessibility act currently in development might introduce them in future.

The GARI dataset available for organisations to embed in their own websites (free for non-commercial use); and acts as a platform where policy makers, industry and disability organisations can exchange information and work together on improving accessibility of mobile phones, tablets and apps.

Its main data store is reviewed every 12-18 months with the most recent consultation with suppliers and disability organisations being held in November 2013, Lobnig said. The results were then considered with new features set to be agreed by the GARI management team next week, she said.

GARI is free to use and developers list apps for free, though manufacturers pay to have their hardware products included.

Audio interaction for ‘Swype’ virtual keyboard app

The popular ‘Swype’ virtual keyboard app for Android smartphones, designed to allow users to type more quickly and effectively, has introduced audio accessibility features to its latest version in a move which will benefit users with impaired vision.

Users of the standard ‘Swype’ app type words by sliding a finger across a virtual keyboard in a continuous motion, beginning at the first letter and pausing briefly at each letter they want to include, before lifting their finger at the end of each word. The app then predicts the word, and correction features help the process.

In the latest version of Swype, users can activate it to work with Android’s ‘TalkBack’ and ‘Explore by Touch’ accessibility features so that individual letters and words are spoken out loud to users as they slide their fingers across the virtual keyboard.

Working in this ‘TalkBack’ mode also enables audio versions of the predictive text and correction features. For example, depending on what letters of a word have already been written, users can move their fingers to the top of the smartphone screen and scroll through lists of words suggested and spoken by Swype, navigated using circular finger motions.

Similarly, Swype suggests words to the user depending on what has been written, and will learn to recognise common choices. Other app navigation, such as switching to the symbols and punctuation menu, can also be managed using audio prompts.

The latest version of Swype also uses Dragon Dictation speech-recognition software to allow users to dictate text to the app rather than type. Swype can be purchased for a few pounds through the Google Play platform or Amazon Appstore.

Access to the Internet by Older People and Mobile Tips at Heart of e-Access 13

Access to the internet in homes for the elderly and developing inclusive services on smartphones and tablet computers are among topics on the agenda at e-Access 13, the UK’s leading event on access to technology by people with disabilities.

Delegates will hear about the Connecting Care project, looking at how care homes for older people can make the most of new technology to support their organisation, carers and service users. The project is run by Lasa, a technology support group for charities and public sector bodies, with funding from the Department of Health.

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Web Accessibility: One Million Steps: Boosting Access Awareness, One Website at a Time.

By Robin Christopherson

Recent research shows that the great majority of websites are still failing consistently to comply with even the lowest priority checkpoints of the accessibility guidelines set out by the international web standards body the World Wide Web Consortium. Despite a plethora of initiatives to raise awareness of this issue, from Citizens Online’s ‘Fix the Web’ campaign to Global Accessibility Awareness Day, the situation does not seem to be improving at a significant rate.

Little wonder, therefore, that one in six of us is still reluctant to venture into the online world and not surprising either that around half of those on the wrong side of the digital divide are disabled, and a similar number are aged 65 or over. The scope for mainstream technologies to transform the lives of this sizeable minority seems largely untapped.

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Accessibility Now Thriving in Mainstream Mobile Market, Campaigner Says

Accessibility functions on mobile devices are becoming mainstream and mobile manufacturers are now competing to make their devices more accessible, the president of international digital accessibility body G3ict has said.

Speaking at the M-Enabling Australasia 2013 event in Australia, Axel Leblois said accessibility has become a driving force in the mobile market.

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BBC Issues Draft Guidelines for Mobile Accessibility

A draft set of standards and guidelines to make BBC web content and apps more accessible when viewed on mobile devices has been released by the corporation following a year of testing and development.

The Draft BBC Mobile Accessibility Standards and Guidelines were announced in a blog post by Henny Swan, senior accessibility specialist at the BBC. Up to now the BBC’s existing accessibility guidelines have been used as a basis for creating accessible mobile content, Swan says, but it was felt that more specific mobile standards were now needed.

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The Story Behind the BBC Mobile Accessibility Guidelines

By Henny Swan.

The BBC has now published a set of draft Mobile Accessibility Standards and Guidelines to the wider web development community, a ground-breaking project which has been in development for a year now [see also – news, earlier in this issue of E-Access Bulletin]. While written primarily for BBC employees and suppliers to use, the corporation’s hope is that they might be useful for any individual or organisation building mobile web content and native apps.

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Digital Inclusion “About Everybody, Not Just Disabled People”

The concept of digital accessibility simply as a means of catering for disabled users is out-of-date: in the modern world, digital inclusion must be understood as the need to serve everybody, whatever their access method or device, a leading accessibility specialist has said.

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at technology access charity AbilityNet, told delegates at the recent national digital conference in London, ND13, that providers of digital content and services already need to adapt to new devices and access methods. With more people than ever accessing websites through mobile and other devices, we are in a situation where “everybody is disabled from time-to-time”, Christopherson said.

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