Reading and Subscribing to Blogs Through RSS: How accessible is this world to people with vision loss?
Terms like Really Simple Syndication (RSS), aggregators, feed readers, and blogs are cropping up on web sites and in news stories across the globe. But how many people really know what these Internet innovations are? And how easy is it for people with vision loss to access this new technology using a screen reader—such as Window-Eyes or JAWS? The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) set out to find answers as a follow-up to our May 2005 report on blogging.
Using JAWS V5.1 and the Alva 540 Satellite Braille display, two popular assistive technology products that provide access to information on a computer screen, AFB explored how easy it is for people with vision loss to read and subscribe to blogs—online journals that are frequently updated—through RSS.
Known commonly as RSS readers, feed aggregators, or feed readers, these programs check for, download, and organize new content from blogs and news sites, which is delivered through RSS. Users do not have to consume their blog content via an RSS reader, because they exist on regular web pages, written in HTML. However, many users find getting feeds of blog updates via an aggregator to be more efficient than checking blogs without knowing whether or not they have been updated. Think of feed readers as "Tivo for the Web."
For the evaluation, AFB looked at five well-known RSS readers including Bloglines, Feedster, NewsGator, FeedDemon and My Yahoo!.
What AFB Found
Overall, our evaluation revealed a lack of comprehensive how-to information aimed at novice bloggers. In addition, most tutorials assume users are able to access and see the instructional diagrams, applications, and web pages; text explanations were few. We also encountered instances where the help sections weren't helpful because they gave mouse instructions instead of keyboard instructions and often described buttons using visual descriptions, such as "yellow button on the left," which is not useful for screen reader users.
In determining the usability of blog-hosting services and RSS aggregators, we considered a service to be "accessible" if people who have vision loss could independently perform its essential functions. As documented in AFB's first report on blogging the most serious accessibility issue around blog-hosting services is the inability to create user accounts. This is due to automated pictorial verification—those abstract renderings of random characters that ask users to retype the word they see on the screen. Also known as a captcha or the "vision test," these are meant to keep spam programs out of the system, but unfortunately they also keep out people with vision loss. Captchas are extremely difficult for people with low vision to decipher and screen readers cannot read them because they are unlabeled graphics.
Our evaluation also found RSS readers to be difficult to work with. Some of the more serious problems included inaccessible installation procedures, menu bars that were difficult or impossible to access, and the inability to view the list of a user's own subscriptions.
Many of the flaws in these programs are common to web pages as well. Improperly labeled page elements and non-intuitive user interfaces make guesswork out of signing up for services, and can turn something as basic as installing a program into an impossible task for a person with vision loss.
Resolution of some of these problems centers on universalizing accessible design, and presenting users with a range of choices for executing the same essential function. AFB's web site contains useful tips on making blogs accessible to people with vision loss.
While it is possible for someone with vision loss to use several different blogging tools—read the evaluation below for a more detailed review of the services—we recommend novice users start with Bloglines.com to start a blog, subscribe to blogs, and read RSS. Users should also try NewsGator—another service that poses few accessibility issues for visually impaired users.
Why AFB Recommends Users Start With Bloglines
We recommend users with vision loss start with Bloglines because the service allows subscribers to create an account without encountering a graphic captcha (which, as mentioned above, is not screen reader-friendly); the user interface is fairly intuitive; and for the most part, the site is well labeled and screen reader-friendly.
In addition, it is possible for blind users to manage account preferences and set up personal blogs. Bloglines also allows the size of blog text to be increased or decreased—an attractive accessibility feature for low vision users who can read large print but not the standard 10 or 12 point fonts found on most sites.
In addition, blind users can independently download the Bloglines feed reader—known as the Bloglines Notifier—and install it on their system. Bloglines also allows users to activate an auditory alarm that indicates when new content has been added, which is particularly helpful for subscribers who are blind.
Though you can still read blogs the old-fashioned way—by typing in a URL and browsing through the content—most avid blog readers subscribe to their favorite blogs via RSS (Really Simple Syndication), which delivers new content to their computers in real time. To subscribe to an RSS feed, you need to sign up for an RSS reader or service. These may also be referred to as feed aggregators or feed readers. Aggregators download RSS feeds and organize the new content in a mostly text-based format, which is appealing and easy to access for visually impaired users.
Using a screen reader, AFB logged onto five popular blog and feed aggregator services to determine their accessibility. Sites included:
Although slight variations exist, the essential functions that visitors can perform on these five sites can be broken down into the following categories:
1. Finding blogs and feeds.
2. Subscribing to blogs and feeds.
3. Managing subscriptions to blogs and feeds.
4. Reading blogs and feeds.
5. Leaving comments on the site-operated blogs, or creating posts for one's own blog.
6. Downloading tools.
Creating a Bloglines Account and Downloading the Bloglines Notifier
As reported in AFB's first blogging evaluation, signing up for a bloglines account is accessible for people who are blind. It is also easy to download Bloglines' proprietary tool called the Bloglines Notifier—a desktop tool that lets users know when new blog posts appear in the feeds they have subscribed to. It has both a visual and audible notification.
Bloglines does not provide easily accessible instructions on operating the Notifier tool, so certain aspects of its use were left to trial and error.
After downloading, an icon appears on the System Tray. Upon opening it, the following message appeared: "user ID is empty." After clicking the message, a dialog box appeared asking for an e-mail address, how often we wanted the system to check for messages, and whether we wanted sound to play when new items arrived. Once these preferences were saved, the message in the System Tray changed to include the number of new items waiting.
The site's search engine has a drop-down menu which gives subscribers the option to search blog-specific content, the entire web, or their subscriptions. The last option allows users to subscribe to a particular blog or feed by entering its URL into the engine's edit field.
The combo-box and edit field in the search engine are properly labeled. The "Go" button, however, is not properly labeled, but given its placement on the page, it is easy for users to understand its purpose.
Adding, Removing, and Managing Subscriptions
The process of subscribing to new feeds and blogs works well with a JAWS screen reader. The major usability drawback is that when a subscription is added, users lose the list of their current search results, and have to begin the search again.
When users click on the name of a feed or blog they wish to subscribe to, they can view a description that includes the number of people subscribed to the blog or feed, and the last time it was updated. If they like what they see, they can press the "Subscribe" button at the bottom of the page.
Once subscribed, the options section of the web site works well with JAWS. This allows users to make changes regarding the way feeds are displayed. The combo-box, or drop-down menu, in the section of the site that allows users to sort and re-order their subscriptions is also JAWS-friendly. However, some of the labels on this page are not read correctly when tabbing to them with JAWS, so it is necessary to disable Forms Mode—the setting which allows JAWS users to fill out forms on a site—and explore the page with the arrow keys. The reason for this is some of the items in the form were not labeled correctly—a simple thing for web designers to correct. For more information on making forms screen reader-friendly, visit our "Designing Accessible Web Forms" article.
Finally, unsubscribing from a feed or blog is also screen reader-friendly—including the verification dialog that appears.
Reading and Receiving Feeds
Once the feed or blog appears in the users' subscription list, users can read its contents in a separate browser window simply by clicking on its title. The radio buttons, the links to e-mail the post or save it as a clipping, and the combo-box for setting time frame preferences on this content page work well with JAWS.
Overall, AFB's evaluators liked the Bloglines service. The biggest usability issue was the sheer volume of content, which can be overwhelming, and make it difficult for screen reader users to know where and how to begin.
Getting a User Account
Signing up for a Feedster user account is easy and very accessible. Once users fill out a form on the web site, it is confirmed through a validation e-mail.
Downloading Proprietary Tools
Although Feedster does not offer its own proprietary aggregator, it provides tools and documentation for developers. The service appears to have an active developer community, and even hosts a contest for individuals to create blog-related tools.
Feedster's search capabilities can be used to search for content by keyword, content format (blogs, feeds, media files, etc.), and topic (politics, events, movies, etc.). When conducting searches, visitors can choose to search only within the feeds they have subscribed to, or they can search all available feeds. It is then possible to sort the generated results by date or relevance.
Adding, Removing, and Managing Subscriptions
Users can add feeds and blogs of interest to their Feedster subscription list based on content searches they have conducted. The associated confirmation screen works well with the JAWS screen reader.
When the "Add Feeds" option is selected, users are presented with, among other things, a list of recommended feeds and blogs. They are instructed to choose the ones they wish to subscribe to by checking a series of checkboxes. These checkboxes had no text associated with them, making it impossible for visually impaired users to read the names of the available blogs and feeds.
Reading and Receiving Feeds
As mentioned above, Feedster does not offer its own aggregator. It suggests that subscribers read feeds with a third-party aggregator, or that they choose to receive information via e-mail. The "XML" and "E-mail" buttons are properly labeled, making it easy for visually impaired users to set their preferences. Unfortunately, when blind users attempt to create an e-mail alert, they are asked to enter a number that has been automatically generated to match the currently displayed results list. Because this number appears as a graphic with no alt text, it is not possible for screen reader users to complete the verification process.
Although it appears at first glance that the Feedster user interface is simpler than the ones provided by some of the other blogging services, further interaction with it reveals some serious accessibility and usability flaws. For instance, we were not able to arrange to have the Feedster service deliver feeds and blog updates via e-mail, nor were we successful in attempts to synchronize Feedster subscriptions with those in our pre-existing aggregators. In addition, despite attempts to learn about the features of the service, we were unable to grasp such concepts as "Feed Papers" and "Claiming Blogs" because of poor documentation.
Not all of the site's features were inaccessible, however. The "Today's Feeds" option is a good example of how content can easily be viewed on the Feedster site. The screen that appeared worked very well with JAWS—with most checkboxes, edit fields, and links appearing and functioning as screen reader users might expect.
The first thing users encounter when visiting the NewsGator site is a collection of unlabeled graphical links. JAWS provides the file name for each, giving users a vague idea of the difference among these links, but a set of simple alt tags (text added to the image) would solve the problem. Adding this text would help sighted users, too, who could hover the mouse over the graphic to see the text.
Getting a User Account
Signing up for a NewsGator account is manageable for screen reader users. The input fields and checkboxes on the signup form were not labeled and testers had to explore the page to find the text, but that text was positioned in a predictable way. Even the submit button was unlabeled (something developers have to go out of their way to unlabel) but its associated image URL was https://www.newsgator.com/ngs/images/button_next.gif, so astute testers were able to guess its purpose.
After getting an account, we encountered an accessibility/usability problem as soon as we initiated a new session on the NewsGator web site. Although the service informed us that we were signed in, we were not able to locate a "My Account" link. Since we wanted to modify our user profile, we began looking for other ways to accomplish this task. Upon closer inspection, we found that one of the incorrectly labeled image links at the top of the page contained the word "Manager." Hoping this was an abbreviated form of "Account Manager," we selected it. Our instincts were correct, and we were then able to modify settings and information.
Feeds and blogs can be found by browsing through a list of suggested categories, by entering a URL into the search tool, or by using keywords. When one of the topics in the category list is selected, a list of available feeds and blogs appears. Below each is a "Subscribe" button. Once users have subscribed to a feed or blog, they are taken back to the point in the list where they left off, which is helpful for visually impaired users, as they do not need to spend time re-orienting themselves. It is also possible to easily delete items from a subscription list.
Reading and Receiving Feeds
Reading the list of added feeds is easy to do with JAWS. The title of each feed appears as a link, and the number of new items appears after it.
The Newsgator service provides a simple and easy-to-understand interface. It provides brief explanations of site features when they are implemented for the first time, offering more assistance than most of the services reviewed in our evaluation. The developers need to take an hour or so to label the site-wide navigation links and basic forms.
Downloading Proprietary Tools
On the site, users can download the Bradbury RSS reader, also known as FeedDemon.
During our evaluation of these sites, we encountered several accessibility issues when using FeedDemon. These included:
1. The content for many of the dialog boxes—movable windows displayed on screen in response to users selecting a menu option—in the installation of the product was not read automatically by the screen reader. Content could only be heard by pressing the tab key and moving from component to component. In other instances, the content of the dialog boxes could only be read using the JAWS cursor, and only the button controls were heard when the tab key was used. In these cases, the content was often read when we "Alt-Tabbed" away from the dialog box, and then "Alt-Tabbed" back.
2. During the set up, the content in the associated dialog boxes could not be read in the usual way with the screen reader. The buttons and other controls were coded in such a way that they could only be used with the mouse, not with the keyboard (blind users do not use the mouse, but normally tab from control to control within Windows dialog boxes such as these). This required that testers use advanced screen-reader features and skills to jump through hoops in order to find the buttons.
3. Once the application had been installed and set up, it was not possible to access the menu bar in any of the conventional ways (such as by hitting the "Alt" key or "F10"). At times we were able to activate a given menu by locating it with the JAWS cursor and Braille display, and then using the cursor routing key on the Braille display to "click on it." Other times, this method did not work either, and we were forced to use the tool bar, a series of graphics that were located below the menu titles. Because these graphics were not labeled, we had to count them to determine which menu they would activate.
4. The user interface for FeedDemon contained numerous unlabeled graphics—so many, in fact, that it was often difficult to determine what functions the application performed or what users were expected and able to do.
5. A major accessibility flaw in the FeedDemon interface was the fact that it was not possible for us to use a screen reader or Braille display to view a list of available subscriptions.
Unfortunately, FeedDemon is inaccessible to blind users. Without employing both the JAWS cursor and the Braille display, we would not have been able to perform any of the program's essential functions.
Getting a user account
When visually impaired users attempt to sign up for a My Yahoo! account, they are directed to a form that instructs them to confirm they are a visually impaired customer, and to leave their e-mail address and comments so that a Yahoo! representative can contact them. A validation e-mail is then sent to the users, confirming that their message was received by Yahoo!, and promising that a company employee will contact them within the next 24 hours. Within that 24-hour period, yet another e-mail is received, asking users to either:
1. Reply to the message with their telephone number and convenient times for a Yahoo! customer service representative to contact them.
2. Call a toll free number "especially for blind and visually impaired customers" to set up their account with a Yahoo! employee.
Though we are pleased Yahoo! offers this option for blind users, it's a time-consuming process, which can be frustrating for someone who needs an account right away. One tester waited several days and was never contacted by a Yahoo! representative. In the end, our evaluators got sighted assistance from a friend and set the account up in a matter of minutes.
Once the account was set up, we received another e-mail from Yahoo! welcoming us to the service. The message contained our e-mail address and verification code, and we were instructed to go to the Yahoo! web site to activate the account.
The form where we were required to enter a user name, password, and verification code was accessible with JAWS, and we were able to set preferences so that the My Yahoo! service would automatically recognize us every time we opened the URL.
Learning how to find blogs and RSS feeds on the My Yahoo! web site was a definite challenge. We decided to select the "Search" link and perform a search for "find RSS feeds." One of the results was for the URL "news.yahoo.com/rss."
Once we opened this page, we were able to look for feeds using a couple of options, such as browsing by categories similar to those found in a newspaper ("World," "Sports," "Entertainment") or by searching by typing in text. When doing a text search we were able to choose whether we wanted Yahoo News, all news, photos, or multimedia.
When browsing lists of RSS feeds as categories, we found several issues. First, the "Add" button for each was an unlabeled graphic, so it was difficult to know which graphic corresponded to which category. Second, since the categories had not been differentiated by making them links or headings, we had to read the entire list, including the feed link and the unlabeled "Add" button to make our way through the list.
Another accessibility problem came when trying to identify whether files were available as audio or video clips. Because audio and stories with audio are identified by an unlabeled speaker icon, while videos are labeled "AP Video" or "Reuters Video" and appear with an unlabeled video camera icon, this information was not reliably delivered to visually impaired subscribers.
When using the search box, results were displayed with "Add" and "Preview" buttons. It was difficult to tell which button corresponded to each result and error was likely. Then, once we chose the "Preview" button, the preview was not read by the screen reader, nor was it displayed on the braille display; effectively, there was no preview feature.
Once we had selected and added feeds, we returned to our "My Yahoo!" page. Here, the page was extremely cluttered with material we had not selected. Our feeds were far down the page, in terms of screen-reader access (about line 200 of 300 depending on the news at the moment). One very nice accessibility plus was that sections of the page were labeled with headings, so we were able to navigate through the page with a JAWS feature for the purpose, getting us past the clutter and to the news feeds we wanted fairly quickly.
Making this new technology accessible to computer users with vision loss is easier than most think. The reality is an overwhelming majority of accessibility problems can be fixed by properly labeling forms when building web interfaces, and by providing alt text for images, especially those that are used as navigation links.
Because much of this new technology involves navigating forms, it is extremely difficult for users with vision loss to stay oriented on a web page when forms and graphics are not labeled. When a screen reader encounters graphics without descriptive text, it is impossible for users to understand what the graphic is trying to convey. But by following a few simple accessibility tips, web designers can quickly make their sites user-friendly to people who are blind or have low vision. For more information, visit our Designing Accessible Web Forms article or our tips for bloggers on making blogs accessible.