March 2013 Issue  Volume 14  Number 3

App Accessibility

A Guide to the Barnes & Noble NOOK App: Another Accessible Option for Reading Books on your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad

Access to books is an extremely important issue to those of us in the blindness community, and AccessWorld has devoted many articles over the years to the issue. This time, we take a look at the recently released NOOK app for the iOS platform from Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble is a bit late to the party when it comes to the accessibility of its e-book platforms, but it has definitely made an effort with the latest release, version 3.3, of the NOOK app. Although the NOOK tablet device is still inaccessible to people with vision loss, the accessibility improvements in this app are worth an investigation. This article provides a description of how to use the app with information included about the accessibility of the various features and functions of the app.

Barnes & Noble's NOOK app works with your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, and it is available for free in the Apple App Store. The app is a tool for accessing e-Books purchased from Barnes & Noble's Website or via the B&N Bookstore app, which we will also briefly discuss in this article.

Welcome Screen

When the app is opened for the first time, a welcome screen appears, consisting of the name of the app as well as some promotional text highlighting features of the app. Although that promotional text is not spoken by VoiceOver, it's not essential to moving forward. This screen's sole purpose is to link the app with your NOOK account, allowing you to always have your entire NOOK e-book collection at hand. You will only have to do this one time as long as your account remains logged in. The process consists of entering information, such as your country, and accepting the terms and conditions.

There are a couple of accessibility problems with this process. The first involves the checkbox for agreeing to the terms and conditions. When checking or unchecking the checkbox, VoiceOver reports the opposite of what actually happens. However, when simply using VoiceOver to read the status of the checkbox, it correctly reports its status. Secondly, the combo box where you select your country is inaccessible, so help from a person who is sighted may be needed. After the initial sign-in process, the app offers a tutorial for using the app. The tutorial uses headings and bullets while teaching the fundamentals of using VoiceOver with the app. The tutorial is helpful and well done, and the only minor issue is with Voiceover in that the bullets appear as separate elements, forcing you to swipe again to hear their corresponding text.

The Library Page

The Library page could also be referred to as the home page because it is where you would naturally begin to use the app. It lists all the books and magazines you have downloaded to the app, and you can simply double tap on a title to open a book. The Library also has a "Settings" button, a "Search" button for searching through your book titles, and a "Sync" button to download new books or magazines purchased from the Barnes & Noble bookstore.

Everything on the Library page is accessible with VoiceOver except for some minor details. There is an untagged NOOK graphic near the top of the screen that is ignored by VoiceOver, but that does not affect the usability of the app. Also, although VoiceOver does properly indicate when one of your books is a sample book, that indication disappears after you have opened the book and returned to the Library. Strangely, the indication reappears if you open a different sample book and return to your Library page.

The "Search" button on the Library page only searches through the books and magazines in your collection and does not search for new books to purchase. You use the Barnes and Noble Bookstore App to search for and purchase books, and we will discuss that app later in this article.

The Screen When Reading a Book

While in a book, the order of items on the screen is as follows: the book title, Add Bookmark (or Remove Bookmark if one already exists), Back to Library, Table of Contents/Bookmarks/Notes, Text Options, Brightness, Search, Information, and Page Information. All of these items are accessible with VoiceOver.

On the Table of Contents/Bookmarks/Notes page, there are three tabs across the top: Table of Contents, Bookmarks, and Annotations. Each of these tabs has an accessible text field and button for going directly to a particular page. In the Table of Contents tab, it lists the chapters and/or subsections of the book. You simply double tap on one of them to be taken to that chapter or section in the book. In the Bookmarks tab, it lists all your bookmarks. The bookmarks also include the page as well as contextual text. Lastly, the Annotation tab lists all your annotations (notes) throughout the book. They are listed, just as the Bookmarks, with the page number as well as the contextual text.

When selecting the "Text Options" button while reading a book, you are brought to a page for adjusting several settings, but the page can be confusing. Across the top of the screen are buttons for "Size," "Theme," "Line Spacing," "Margins," "Justification," and "Lock Rotation." Visually, the settings choices corresponding to each of those buttons also appear on the screen. However, with VoiceOver, you have to first activate one of the buttons to access its corresponding settings, and you can then swipe to the right to get to those settings. It can be confusing if you touch other areas of the screen instead of immediately swiping to the right because you may encounter settings that are not related to the button you have chosen. It is then also difficult to get back to your chosen settings because you have to explore by touch to find them instead of swiping back to them.

The size settings allow you to choose among six different font sizes. The sizes are extra small (7 point), small (11 point), medium (16 point), medium-large (20 point), large (24 point), and extra-large (28 point).

Reading a Book

Overall, Barnes & Noble has done a good job designing the reading experience on the NOOK app with several navigation options available to VoiceOver users. VoiceOver can read continuously through a book with brief pauses to indicate a page change. You can also slide your finger down the screen to read line by line. Additionally, the iPhone's rotor gesture, used to jump from element to element, allows you to read by characters, words, lines, or headings. You can also use a three-finger swipe left or right to move by page or use the Table of Contents/Bookmarks/Notes pages to quickly navigate to those elements of a book.

At the bottom of the screen, there is a navigation slider for quickly jumping several pages at once, but you cannot use VoiceOver to access that slider. However, VoiceOver can read the icon at the bottom of the screen, indicating the page number and the total number of pages in the book.

A powerful feature of the NOOK app is its Search tool, allowing you to search for any text in a book or magazine. The "Search" Button at the top of the screen brings you to a new screen with a text field and the onscreen keyboard. You enter your search string, and it delivers results by listing each search result along with its page number and contextual text. When a search result is selected, it goes to the page chosen with the text you searched for highlighted in yellow. However, VoiceOver does not begin reading at the text you have found. You have to navigate through the page to find your search term.

The Bookmark tool also works well. While reading, VoiceOver does not indicate that a page has been bookmarked, but you can always learn if there is a bookmark on the page because the "Add Bookmark" button changes to "Remove Bookmark" when a bookmark is in place. You can also go to the Bookmarks tab on the Table of Contents page to find your bookmarks as discussed earlier in this article.

Other functionality is also available when reading a book. If you double tap and hold on a word, a window pops up with four options: "Add Note," "Highlight," "Find," and "Look Up." Choosing "Add Note" allows you to write a note that would then appear in the Annotations tab on the Contents page. Choosing "Highlight" visually highlights the word which you double tapped. However, the highlight is only visual, and VoiceOver does not indicate that the highlight is there. Double tapping "Find" brings up a window with the other occurrences of the highlighted word elsewhere in the book along with contextual text and page number. "Look Up" brings up the definition of the highlighted word. If you look up a word for the first time, it will take you to a screen where it asks you to download a dictionary in the language of your choice. However, the process of choosing a dictionary and downloading it is inaccessible and sighted assistance may be needed.

Textbooks, Images, Page Perfect Books, and Footnotes

For those of you who are students looking for a platform to read your textbooks, the bad news is that the NOOK app does not yet support textbooks at all, regardless of whether you are using VoiceOver or not. If the NOOK app does eventually support textbooks, it will be interesting to see if all the elements of a complicated textbook will be designed to be compatible with VoiceOver.

Although VoiceOver does say the word "image" to indicate that you have encountered a photo or graphical image while reading, none of the books tested include any descriptive tags for their images. Barnes & Noble also sells what is called "Page Perfect" books with a layout that is designed to mirror the print book, including all images. However, although VoiceOver did read the text in the "Page Perfect" books tested, it ignored the images completely.

As for footnotes, they cannot be accessed while reading continuously, but they can be accessed by touching them at the bottom of the page. That sounds easy, but it can be difficult to find the footnote icon on the screen.

B&N Bookstore App

Although you cannot use the NOOK app to purchase books, Barnes & Noble has another app called B&N Bookstore, which is used for purchasing books. However, it has not been designed to be compatible with VoiceOver. The accessibility issues are too numerous to detail in this space, but it is safe to say that the Bookstore app is a real train wreck. If the people at Barnes & Noble do ever get around to making the Bookstore app accessible, there is one feature we found to be interesting and, potentially, very useful. It allows you to take a picture of a book with your iOS device and immediately purchase the book without having to search through the catalog.

Although the B&N Bookstore app is not accessible with VoiceOver, the process of searching and buying books online was accessible. We tested the process with VoiceOver and Safari on an iPhone as well as with JAWS and Window-Eyes on a PC using Internet Explorer and Firefox, and we had no problems with the entire process. Once a book is purchased online or via the B&N Bookstore app, all you have to do is go to your NOOK app and activate the "Sync" button on the Library screen, and the book will show up on the Library page.

Low Vision Accessibility

With its options for choosing the text size, font, and theme along with the brightness-level control, the NOOK app does a good job of accommodating readers with low vision, especially those using the iPad with its larger screen. The NOOK also works well with the iOS devices' built-in Zoom feature, so you can make the text as large as you need it to be.

For people with low vision using VoiceOver, the latest versions of the iOS operating system do allow you to use VoiceOver and Zoom at the same time. There is no cursor to follow along with the speech when reading continuously, but when navigating by one of the rotor elements, the entire line containing the element is bordered by the VoiceOver cursor. However, when navigating by line or words with the rotor during testing, the VoiceOver cursor bordering the line would sometimes disappear.

The Bottom Line

Although Barnes & Noble definitely has some work to do to improve accessibility and usability, the NOOK app is certainly another effective tool we can use for reading books on our iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. We would like to see access to textbooks as well as access to photos and other images with future versions, and we would like to see improvement to the accessibility of the B&N Bookstore app. Of course, we would also like Barnes & Noble to begin to address accessibility on its NOOK tablet device.

Product Information

Barnes & Noble Nook app and B&N Bookstore App
Price: Free
Available from:
Apple's App Store on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch

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