September 2015 Issue  Volume 16  Number 9

Product Evaluations, Reviews, and How-To's

Office for Mac 2016: A First Look at Accessibility

For millions around the world, Microsoft Office is a must-have productivity suite. It's used by most workplaces--it is, after all, called Office--and by students everywhere. There are many alternatives, from Open Office to the iWork suite for Mac, but if you are working with a document which uses advanced Office features, or is highly formatted, it may not look the same if you import it into a different productivity suite, or export and save your work into a MS Office compatible format.

For many, familiarity with MS Office for Windows was enough to keep them firmly attached to their Windows PCs. There was a 2011 version of Office for Mac, but it lacked support for Apple's built-in screen reader, VoiceOver.

Recently, Microsoft unveiled Office for iOS, which runs on iPhones and iPads. Anyone with one of these devices can review Office documents, spread sheets, and PowerPoint presentations, though to save or share a file you'll need a subscription to Office 365. Office for iOS, which we reviewed in the May 2014 issue of AccessWorld, offers limited VoiceOver support. Microsoft has made numerous accessibility improvements since the publication of that article, however many if not most iOS users still prefer to use Pages, Numbers, Keynote, or Notes.

More recently, Microsoft introduced Office for Android, but as is the case with the iOS version, touchscreen reader accessibility is still very much a work in progress.

Until now, Mac VoiceOver users who need to use Office had only two viable choices: creating a Windows Bootcamp partition, or a virtual Windows machine using VM Fusion, and running Office from there. From personal experience I can assure you that constantly switching in and out of Windows can be cumbersome at best, which is why I was excited when Microsoft announced the availability of MS Office 2016 for Mac, including VoiceOver support.

Thousand-page manuals have been written to help users learn MS Office, and there are several excellent books describing how to use VoiceOver with a Mac, so I won't presume to do either here. Instead, I will describe how to obtain and install Office for Mac 2016, identify what screen reader help is and is not yet available, discuss some of the similarities and differences between this version of Office and the Windows version, and conclude with a few personal observations that may help you decide if Office for Mac 2016 is right for you.

Installing Office for Mac 2016

Currently, the only way to obtain and run Office for Mac 2016 is to subscribe to Office 365. There are several options. The most popular are Office 365 Home, which allows up to 5 installations on PCs and Macs, and Office 365 Personal, which allows only a single installation, on either a PC or Mac. Both versions allow for multiple mobile installations on iOS, Android, and Windows Mobile phones and tablets

Once you have purchased an Office 365 subscription, or assuming your already have one, log onto the Office setup website, where you can check your current installations, disable one or more of them, re-enable a preexisting installation, or create a new installation. There is an "Install" link that, when clicked, changes to "Installing." I had assumed that, as happened when I installed Office for Windows, I would be prompted what to do next. But a few seconds later the link reverted to "Install," with no audible prompt or explanation. Only after retrying this several times did it occur to me to check my download folder, where I found multiple copies of an office installation .pkg file. Opening this file began the full installation.

The entire Office for Mac 2016 suite includes Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, and OneNote, and requires approximately 4.5 GB of free disk space. Microsoft Access is not included. The complete download and installation took just under ten minutes. Microsoft Word opened at this point, offering me the opportunity to activate the installation with my Office 365 e-mail login and password. Had it been my first installation, it would have asked for my activation code.

Navigating to Help

Like other Mac OS X applications, VoiceOver users can most easily access an app's menu bar by either pressing VO + M or by performing a two-finger double tap at the top center of the trackpad. Once there, current Microsoft Office users will feel comfortable with all the familiar command tabs. For example, in Word, along with the Apple and Word tabs already familiar to Mac users, you will find: File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Tools, Table, Window, and Help. Let's focus on this last, as it is likely one of the first stops you will make in Office.

Each of the various Office apps includes a help system Keyboard Shortcuts article, which can also be accessed on the Web by following the links below.

VoiceOver specific help varies from fairly comprehensive to entirely nonexistent.

Outlook includes a "Using Outlook with Voiceover" article on the main presentation screen. The article begins with a summary of VoiceOver, then offers detailed descriptions on how to accomplish various Outlook tasks, such as composing or replying to an e-mail, or entering an Outlook calendar event.

PowerPoint also includes an article describing how to use the app with VoiceOver, but you have to search for it by entering "Accessibility" into the Help search box.

If you search the Word Help screen for either "VoiceOver" or "Accessibility" all that appears is a brief mention that VoiceOver is supported.

There is a "Turn on Accessibility Options for OneNote 2016 for Mac" mentioned in the OneNote Help screen, but the only information provided is how to turn VoiceOver on and off, and how to access the Mac's accessibility options.

Excel Help includes no mention of VoiceOver. This is especially disconcerting, considering Excel is perhaps the most problematic of the Office apps from an accessibility standpoint.

The Cursor Conundrum

Windows and OS X handle cursor movement keys differently. In Windows, the cursor always appears to the left of the character or word you navigate to, using the left or right arrow keys, with or without the CTRL key modifier. On a Mac, the placement of the carat depends on the direction of movement. If you are cursoring left with the Left Arrow key or with Option + Left Arrow (OS X uses the Option key instead of the CTRL key to move by word), the cursor is placed to the left of each character or word. If you use Right Arrow or Option + Right Arrow, the carat is placed to the right of the character or word. Press Option + Left Arrow followed by Option + Right Arrow and VoiceOver will repeat the word as the cursor moves first to the beginning of the word, then reverses direction and appears at the end of the same word. Using a Windows screen reader, however, pressing CTRL + Left Arrow and then CTRL + Right Arrow will first read the previous word, then the next, with the carat placed at the beginning of each word in turn.

For long-time Windows users Mac cursor movement may seem confusing at first, but after learning this different way of cursor navigation, many, if not most, users come to prefer it. Unfortunately, Office 2016 for the Mac uses a combination of these cursor navigation methods. Use the Left or Right Arrow keys and the cursor moves using the Mac method, placing the cursor before or after the voiced character, depending on in which direction you are navigating. Use Option + Left or Right Arrow to advance by word, however, and Office will place the cursor at the beginning of each word VoiceOver announces, no matter in which direction you move. Since most sighted Office users use a mouse to place the cursor, they may not even notice this arrangement. Long-time VoiceOver users will likely find navigation by word extremely distracting, however. Windows users who are migrating to the Mac may be confused and even frustrated when the unmodified Left and Right Arrow keys don't behave as they have come to expect. Eventually, they will figure things out, but they, like other Mac users, will have to remember that Office for Mac 2016 still moves the cursor by word differently than any other Mac app, which means developing two sets of muscle memories for the same OS platform.

Other Issues

I am mostly a Windows Office user, but if there were ever a reason for me to switch to using OS X full time it would be the auto save-your-work-as-you-go feature available in most OS X and iOS apps. Type a few words, or work for an hour without saving your work, then close the app without hitting Save, and when you reopen the app your work will be there with your cursor in the correct position.

For some reason, Microsoft declined to use this feature in Office for Mac 2016. I verified this by first typing a few words in both Pages and Word, then forcing both applications to quit. On relaunch, Word came up empty, while Pages displayed my text with the cursor positioned after the last character I had typed.

A second reason I use Word for Windows is the ability to create my own shortcuts. For example, I have Word set to use Alt + I to clear formatting from my selected text. Unfortunately, Office for Mac does not include this ability to customize shortcuts. Most OS X app shortcuts are created in the System Preferences Keyboard setting. I tried creating several app-specific shortcuts there, but I was unsuccessful with any Office app.

Word for Mac also has a tendency towards display errors after text insertions. Often, cursoring down to the next line after a text insertion would skip ahead a line, requiring that I move down another line and then back up to read the text properly.

Excel for Mac refused to run any of my Windows version macros, even though I had turned the Developer tab on in Settings. More distressing, I could not get VoiceOver to speak my cell location. I contacted the Microsoft Accessibility Help Desk, but they had not yet had time to fully train their representatives to offer support for not only a new suite of programs, but an entirely different operating system as well. Personally, I find this understandable. After all, how much support does Apple offer for iTunes for Windows?

I am an infrequent user of both PowerPoint and OneNote, but I was able to review a PowerPoint presentation and create a few slides accessibly. OneNote refused to finish loading to access my OneDrive account using my Mac Mini running Yosemite. My second Mini, running a beta version of El Capitan, loaded the app, and I was able to create a note, but in all honesty I find this app more trouble than it is worth to use with speech.

Final Thoughts

Just as Apple does not have the in-depth OS knowledge to create a completely accessible Windows app on the first try--again, think iTunes for Windows--Microsoft is going to have a hard time doing a ground-up rebuild of Office for Mac without some snags, both in the app itself and in implementation of accessibility. Considering that the first beta versions of Office for Mac 2016 did not include any VoiceOver support, it would seem that Microsoft did not build in accessibility from the ground up, which puts them at a distinct disadvantage. Also, when considering productivity suites for the Mac, remember that Apple has a tremendous advantage over Microsoft, in that if there is a feature that doesn't work accessibly with VoiceOver, Apple can change VoiceOver so that it does work. Microsoft has to work with VoiceOver as it is--it is as unlikely that Apple will make changes to VoiceOver to facilitate Office accessibility as it is for Microsoft to alter Narrator and develop extra screen reader hooks to accommodate a Windows version of iWork.

That said, my sense is that Microsoft is committed to providing VoiceOver support for Office for Mac 2016, and I look forward to receiving and testing accessibility updates. As for right now, if you have a current Office 365 subscription and have an available install I would definitely give it a try. If you prefer to work on a Mac but need to submit documents in Office format you might also consider installing Office for Mac 2016. You can create content in Text Edit or one of the iWork apps, then copy them into Office for final formatting.

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