Access to Personal Financial Information
Spotlight on Personal Finance Accessibility
For a person with a disability, one of the most fundamental life goals is developing and maintaining the ability to live as independently as possible. For people with vision loss, one of the most formidable barriers to independence has historically been the ubiquity of printed material, which affected everything from employment opportunities to the ability to find a can of beans in the grocery store. And even after that can of beans was located, it still had to be paid for with printed money or a written check.
For most of us, personal finance is an extremely private matter. We would prefer not to share our wallets, our checking and credit card statements, utility bills, and the like with casual friends and strangers. Before the advent of accessible desktop and mobile computing, however, this is exactly what most people with visual impairments had to do.
In paying for that can of beans with a $20, the person with vision loss had to trust he was being given the correct change, and ask the cashier to identify the $5 and $10 bills in order to fold the denominations differently to stow in his wallet. Utility and other bills had to be read aloud by a sighted helper, then checks needed to be written and envelopes addressed. Bank statements were not readily available in braille, and balancing a checkbook required unique and innovative skill sets, not to mention determination.
Accessible, "talking," computers gave people with vision loss the ability to monitor and manage their personal finances: from simple text files that kept a running total of checks written, to the American Printing House for the Blind's Money Talks--a software package that kept searchable registers for multiple accounts and printed checks on demand.
With the emergence of the web in the mid-90s, financial institutions began offering public-facing Internet presences. Indeed, today, a financial institution without such a presence would not be viable. Initially, these web resources were touted to the general public as a free convenience: "Check your credit card purchases without having to phone the bank," and "Track your retirement account without waiting for the next quarterly statement." For those with visual impairments, however, these new tools were more than simple conveniences; they were the keys that unlocked significant personal independence in all things financial.
Early personal finance portals often included significant barriers to low vision and screen reader accessibility. Website layouts could be overly complex and confusing. Links and controls were not labeled, and using a physical mouse was often mandatory; there were no keyboard alternatives to accomplish critical tasks such as navigating frames or completing a data form. Many of these problems turned out to be screen reader issues that were fixed with new releases with updated feature sets. But the web developers also did their share to improve and enhance accessibility.
With funding from J.P. Morgan Chase, the American Foundation for the Blind recently completed a multi-month survey of the accessibility of various online personal finance resources. We evaluated the websites and iOS/Android apps for several categories of online personal finance resources, including several large banks, online brokerages, financial research and education portals, and personal finance account aggregators. Since we have not yet shared our findings with the evaluated companies, we will not disclose individual company names here, but suffice it to say each evaluated service was among the largest and best known in its category.
Overall, accessibility for personal financial websites and mobile apps has improved dramatically over the past five to ten years, and, more importantly, accessibility is still improving. It was obvious that most, though not all, of the companies we evaluated have placed accessibility high on their priority lists. The larger, older, and more established a company is in its category, the more emphasis seemed to have been placed on accessibility. Newer companies were considerably more likely to exhibit accessibility issues, and there was at least one company, a relative newcomer to the personal finance aggregator industry, that demonstrated no awareness at all that an individual with a visual impairment might wish to make use of their services.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
For this project we examined personal finance websites and mobile apps. However as you read on, you will discover that much of what we evaluated and report on here are the very same criteria you yourself use when judging a website or mobile app's accessible online and mobile experience.
Nearly all of the tested desktop websites made extensive, and, for the most part, effective use of navigational elements including headings, landmarks, and anchors, which can be quickly navigated using screen reader hotkeys. Heading level numbers generally designated appropriate landing points.
For most websites, buttons and other controls were usually properly labeled. There were a few exceptions when a control changed its status, such as a "Search Now" button losing its label or failing to update after text has been entered in the search field.
"Skip Navigation" and "Skip to Content" links were widely used, making page navigation with a screen reader even quicker.
Most text entry forms were well constructed so a screen reader user could access and complete them. Tab orders were correct, and fields were properly labeled.
Tables are the best way to display groups of information such as lists of transactions or price and volume information. They were used appropriately in most cases by the evaluated websites. In those few cases when they were not, the information was difficult and laborious to navigate.
With a few notable exceptions, PDF data entry forms were well structured with proper tab order and form labels. They could be accessibly navigated, read, completed, and in many cases submitted online using an electronic signature and a desktop or mobile screen reader.
None of the evaluated sites used CAPTCHAs, which are formidable barriers to accessibility. Most offered a choice of e-mail, text message or phone call for new account or device verifications. These methods are both convenient for sighted users and completely accessible to screen reader users.
We noted several strategies being employed to make graphical chart and graph information accessible. One financial aggregator mobile app used a touchscreen reader accessible combo box to indicate pie chart categories and percentages. One of the tested brokerages used a proprietary smart text feature to describe security moving averages and other indicators with generalized descriptions such as: "The 50 day moving average is moving up, which is a bullish signal."
Most sites that presented chart information also allowed users to download the information in an accessible CSV file. This is useful, but even more useful would be a button beside each chart or graph with the feature label: "Display raw data in table format." For low vision accessibility all charts and graphs should be displayed in a vectorized format so they will scale up clearly when the page is resized.
All of the evaluated companies offered mobile apps for both iOS and Android. (The Windows mobile platform was not evaluated.) With a few exceptions, we discovered these apps to be quite accessible using the built-in touchscreen readers VoiceOver for iOS and TalkBack for Android. There are several reasons for this:
VoiceOver and TalkBack are both built-into their respective operating systems. The controls are embedded in the operating system itself, so additional hooks and workarounds are rarely needed, assuming the developers do not stray far from standard best practices code development.
The ability to navigate on a touchscreen is much quicker than moving heading by heading, or link by link, on a desktop computer. Swipe gestures can then be used to refine the position.
The mobile platform puts a premium on elegant and simple page design, since sighted users prefer this sort of experience. This simplicity also accommodates low vision and blind users.
In general, we found the iOS apps more accessible than their Android counterparts. This may be due to Apple's "First mover" advantage. The latest versions of Android are much improved in their accessibility features, but new features are not always backwards compatible between Android releases.
Flash content still shows up on websites without proper labeling or an accessible HTML5 alternative. For example, the flash market ticker on one of the investment research sites interfered with other screen reader accessibility, and the control to toggle it off was unlabeled. All Flash content should be replaced with HTML5 elements.
Live regions, such as auto-refreshing real time stock quotes, did not auto-speak. They need to be properly coded so a screen reader can detect and voice them.
Screen reader tips, such as "The following is a table displaying account transactions," can be useful, but sometimes they are too long, and positioned such as they would repeat with each press of the Tab or Down Arrow keys, and their verbosity can become a hindrance to accessible navigation. These tips should be beta tested with an experienced screen reader user.
Very few of the evaluated sites included sitemaps on every page. Sitemaps are quite useful to screen reader users and can help them quickly find site areas of interest.
Some of the evaluated websites used low-contrast color palates, extremely small fonts, and/or text within images (which is never accessible). Other pages did not scale well using browser enlargement. Websites that used responsive design scaled more effectively.
Chat features on most sites were only partially accessible, requiring considerable screen review to follow a chat session conversation. Only one website included a completely accessible chat platform.
Several of the mobile apps developed for both iOS and Android had issues where the one-finger swipe gesture designed to move from screen element to element failed to find focus on certain controls, such as the "Done" button after paying a bill using one of the banking iOS mobile apps. The icon or control had to be located and activated using the less preferable "Explore by Touch" method.
Most iOS apps had their buttons and controls properly labeled. Most of those which were not had descriptive names that usually signaled their purpose, such as "Framework Tier One Menu," which appears in one of the brokerage iOS apps. Nearly all of the evaluated Android apps contained some unlabeled icons and controls. Most had no descriptive names, and displayed as unlabeled, such as "Button 39 unlabeled" for the same brokerage's Android app control. Some elements could be identified from context; others were harder to decipher.
Some apps display an inaccessible splash or other welcome screens. If sighted help is available to navigate beyond these opening screens the app usually becomes accessible, however.
Increasingly charts and graphs are used to convey critical information. New algorithms and other methods to more fully caption the presented information need to be developed and used. A graph caption stating "A chart of your monthly spending" fails to provide the same level of information to a screen reader user as it does to a sighted user, and is thus not fully accessible. This is a tough issue and we're not sure what the best solution is for providing access to graphical information, but, as we stated above, a good first step is to make sure the raw data is available in a table format.
One critical accessibility issue that needs to be acknowledged and addressed in the personal finance industry (among others) is technical support. It is obvious that many of the evaluated companies have devoted significant time and financial resources to making their offerings accessible. Unfortunately, much of this work is being undercut, often even negated, by the company's customer service and technical support representatives.
If a sighted user contacts the company because, for example, he or she is having trouble accessing account info, help will be forthcoming and useful. If that same user reports to the representative that a screen reader is being used, the response is likely to be "We don't support screen readers," or, quite commonly, "Your screen reader must be causing the problem."
One of the banking sites reviewed included an extremely detailed Accessible Banking statement, with tips for using their services with a screen reader. However a number of e-mails and phone calls failed to turn up any department, or single individual, who could help with an accessibility issue.
Any company that boasts their work with accessibility should have a dedicated accessibility customer service or technical support e-mail address. Two of the evaluated companies featured just such a contact address, however during this evaluation not a single response to an inquiry was received from either company.
These e-mail contacts need to be both offered and monitored. Additionally, all customer-facing employees should be given at least minimum training as to what a screen reader is, how it works, and why it does not need to be turned off to fix a site or app issue. These employees should also have a specific department or individual to whom customers who initiate contact because of access issues can be forwarded. Even if accessibility support is only available during daytime business hours it will be a vast improvement over the current situation, and would not only enhance the experience for blind customers, it would also provide the company a "real world" window into which accessibility features are most used, and what is needed to improve service for the average customer with moderate accessibility skills.
Web and mobile accessibility is a moving target. As these platforms develop and mature, new accessibility issues arise. PC and mobile screen reader developers strive to keep up, but full accessibility also requires the participation of groups that set new standards, such as HTML5, and developers and the companies who hire them.
They say recognition of the problem is half the battle, and in this sense, at least, all but one of the personal finance companies we evaluated is well on their way. They have devoted both time and money to addressing accessibility concerns, and it is our hope they will continue to do so. It is also our hope that they will begin a much needed dialogue between their developers and their other employees, and between these employees and customers who rely on various accessibility technologies.
In the following months AccessWorld plans to publish a series of articles on specific personal finance categories and site/mobile app accessibility. In the meantime: Do you have concerns about personal finance accessibility you feel are not being addressed? Do you prefer doing your banking and other finance tasks using a computer or a mobile app? We'd love to hear your comments and observations.
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