When Olga Baldassi received a Galaxy S III for her birthday, one of the first apps she installed was Total Commander, a program for Windows, Apple, and Android that adds functionality to file management commands (cut, paste, etc.). "I'd used Total Commander on my Windows machine for years, and I even had it on my HTC TyTN running Windows Mobile," she says. Unfortunately, when Olga tapped the icon to start Total Commander on her new Android phone, she discovered the buttons at the bottom of the screen were unlabeled. "Talkback kept saying, 'Button, button, button,'" she recalls. "Without those labels, the app was all but useless to me."

It's happened to nearly every smartphone or tablet user who relies on built-in voice or braille support. You hear about a great new mobile app. You download and install it, and only then do you discover your awesome new app leaves a lot to be desired on the accessibility front. The app may be totally inaccessible. Perhaps there's a single critical feature that doesn't voice, and you are almost certain it could easily be fixed.

VoiceOver for iOS offers several ways to help make the inaccessible accessible, including user-labeled elements and Direct Touch, a feature that allows users to interact with the screen without requiring the pass-through gesture. TalkBack, TouchBack, and SoundBack for Android are making significant advancements with each new release. Third party Android screen readers are also available, including Spiel and Mobile Accessibility for Android that can help solve many accessibility problems. There are times, however, when your only recourse is to give up on a new app or reach out to the developer and hope he or she is willing and able to make the necessary modifications.

That's what Olga Baldassi did. "I sent a support e-mail explaining the problem, and the very next day there was a new beta available with every button properly labeled," she reports.

Perhaps your own app advocacy has proven less than successful. Below, we'll offer up some suggestions to help you more effectively communicate with developers and help them improve accessibility for you and other screen access users. First, let's step back and take a brief look at where things go wrong.

Why Apps Won't Talk

At present, Windows Phone 8 has no screen reading capabilities, and the story remains unclear for Blackberry version 10. As for iOS and Android, "Far and away, the most common accessibility issues involve unlabeled elements, such as buttons, form fields, and checkboxes," says Pratik Patel, accessibility consultant and author of the upcoming eBook, Designing and Developing iOS Apps with Accessibility. Another accessibility issue is the use of customized, non-standard interfaces. "In the current Netflix for iOS app, they highlight graphics by covering them with a button," Patel explains. "VoiceOver thinks you're pressing a button, but when you do, nothing happens."

Sometimes the problem is caused by a developer actually using a standard interface. Many Android apps allow users to choose a more accessible browser, such as Firefox, when the app calls up a web view. "Others, like the Facebook Android app, invoke the standard Android browser, which is not yet fully accessible," Patel notes.

The good news on the Android front is that, since voice and braille access are not part of the operating system, they can be improved and updated more frequently, whereas VoiceOver for Apple products must await a new iOS release to fix bugs and introduce new features.The bad news is that, currently, there are at least three different versions of Android (Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich, and Jelly Bean) that offer different levels of accessibility and sometimes even different ways to accomplish the same task. Also, there are hundreds of different Android devices. For many there is no upgrade path, and the manufacturer has added custom interfaces and apps with features designed to improve the sighted user experience, which too often limits voice and braille accessibility even further.

Determining the Problem

If you encounter an app that appears inaccessible, check with others to make sure they are experiencing the same issues. Friends and colleagues are a great place to start, but for a wider user base, consider subscribing to an Internet news list devoted to mobile accessibility. The Eyes-free and Viphone lists are great resources when you have questions about an iOS or Android app, and signing up is easy. Simply send a blank e-mail to either the Eyes-free group or the Viphone group and reply to the brief confirmation e-mail.

Once you've signed up, you're in touch with hundreds of users and more than a few developers who may already have figured out a solution to your accessibility problems. Perhaps there is a menu option that needs to be enabled to improve accessibility. Maybe there are unlabeled buttons, and another subscriber can tell you what each button does in the order they appear. There may also be workarounds you weren't aware of or a different app that does everything you need that is already 100 percent accessible.

Twitter is another valuable resource. Tweet your questions with the hash tag "#a11y". (There are 11 letters between "a" and "y" in "accessibility.") Then, use Twitter or your Twitter client to search for "#a11y", and join a worldwide community of users interested in reporting and solving accessibility issues.

Read Access Ana's excellent blog, Accessible Android Blog, a treasure-trove of searchable articles and links to other resources, including "That Android Show," Serotalk's monthly podcast covering Android news and accessibility. iOS users may wish to check out AppleVis, a repository for hundreds of blog posts and podcasts describing in detail how to use various iOS apps with VoiceOver and braille access.

First Contact

Still can't get that app working properly with speech or braille? "It's probably time to reach out to the app's developer," suggests Michael Hansen, an AppleVis team member. Your best starting point is usually the support e-mail address listed on an iOS help screen or the Android app's Play Store page.

"In most cases, it's not that developers don't want to add accessibility to their apps. They simply aren't aware of the need and how simple the necessary changes can be to implement," says Hansen.

Dos and Don'ts for Contacting Developers

Do: Be courteous and polite when drafting that first support e-mail.

Don't: Be vague ("Your app doesn't talk") or confrontational ("If you don't fix your app, I'm going to demand a refund and tell everyone I know not to use it!").

Do: Describe your issues clearly and concisely.

Don't: Forget that you are a part of a larger community. Leave a bad impression on a developer, and it will not only affect his willingness to help you but also any number of other vision impaired users who could benefit from accessibility improvements.

Hansen suggests you begin with something like, "Hi, my name is… I am a visually impaired user of a…phone or tablet, and I am trying to use your app with my device's screen reader or braille display. This is how accessibility works, and these are the problems I am experiencing that I believe could easily be fixed…"

Unsure of your communication skills? Click the "Advocacy" link at AppleVis.com, and you will find a developer feedback template you can cut, paste, and modify to enhance your support request. But remember, if you do get a response (especially if you get a positive response), your work is far from done. "It needs to be a two-way street," notes Hansen. "We need to encourage friendly developers and meet them halfway with the information and resources they need."

Invite developers to subscribe to the relevant newslists where they can dialogue with knowledgeable users who can offer insights and suggestions and help them solve accessibility issues. It can also be useful to point them to other resources they may not be familiar with. The Accessibility Developer Checklist is a good starting point for Android developers. For iOS, Apple offers the Accessibility Programming Guide for iOS: Making Your iPhone Application Accessible.

When the developers of Bossjock Studio (an iOS app that allows users to add music, pre-recorded promos, sound effects, and other audio elements to their recordings on the fly) learned its app was not VoiceOver compatible, the company enlisted the help of the visually impaired community. "They showed us how we could make simple changes we didn't even know were possible, then beta tested our updates," says company partner Dave Mansueto. "After we made the changes, they also spread the word, and during the weeks following the release of our VoiceOver compatible version, sales spiked up to 700 percent."

VoiceOver users also helped the app's developers improve their interface. "They encouraged us to keep things clean and simple," says Mansueto. "These are changes that benefit all of our users and not just the visually impaired."

Syntellia is another company that realized early on the benefits of working with the visually impaired community. What if you could type on a touchscreen without looking at the screen? That's the question Syntellia co-founders Kostas Eleftheriou and Ioannis Verdelis wanted to answer, both for themselves and for others. So, they began work on Fleksy, a typing app that uses advanced algorithms to predict the word you want even if you mistype every letter.

"It quickly became obvious that we needed more feedback," says Verdelis. "CSUN was approaching, and the opportunity was obvious." Eleftheriou attended the show and demonstrated Fleksy to hundreds of visually impaired users. "The feedback was incredible, both in terms of acceptance and also development-wise," he says. "Going in, we assumed too much, and we were surprised by how people type. Everyone has their own way of typing, but everyone stumbles on the same problems."

After the conference, the company began working closely with a number of visually impaired beta testers. In July of 2012, they released Fleksy for iOS, and with ongoing feedback and suggestions, they continued to hone and improve the app. In October of 2012, the company raised $900,000 from investors to continue their work, and this past January they snagged a CES Design and Engineering award. More recently, the company began beta testing an Android version of the Fleksy keyboard. They're also marketing to a far wider audience: anyone who wants to type up to 35 words a minute reliably and without needing to focus on tiny keys drawn on very small touchscreens.

The company also recently made Fleksy for iOS a free app. "The visually impaired community has supported and propelled us from an accessibility technology to a mainstream technology, and we want to reward and thank those who helped us along the way," says Verdelis.

When Companies Don't Respond

In a perfect world, all companies would respond as favorably as the developers of Bossjock Studio and Fleksy. Sadly, however, there will be times when your support requests will be denied or even ignored.

"Don't give up," advises Hansen. "Again, your advocacy work is just beginning."

Seek Alternate Contacts

Search the app website for others you can contact directly. "You may get lucky and find an e-mail address for the lead developer or the company's founder," Hansen adds.

With large companies like Netflix or CNN, your support e-mail may be read by technicians who have little or no day-to-day contact with the actual developers, so you'll have to find another way to reach them either directly or indirectly. Does the company have a Twitter account or Facebook fan page?` Reposting your help request via one of these public-facing venues may help focus attention on your accessibility issues.

Don't Get Discouraged

If you have sent in a support request and a new, updated version of the app appears without the needed changes, don't hesitate to send another request. Remind the developer of the issues and ask if fixes are scheduled for a future software release.

There are times when you will not hear back from a company or developer, but action is being taken behind the scenes. "We lobbied hard for Facebook to improve their mobile app," recalls Hansen. "We never heard back from them, but in the next release, several accessibility improvements suddenly appeared."

Facebook has now publically expressed an interest in improving the accessibility of their app even further. They set up and monitor a Twitter account (@FBAccess) where users can report problems and offer suggestions.

Strength in Numbers

If you find a better contact for an iOS or Android app, don't be shy about sharing it on the appropriate newslists, Twitter accounts, and other accessibility forums. Help others in their quests to coax needed changes from app developers, and advocate for others as you would have them advocate for you.

One easy way to add your voice is to join AppleVis.com's "Campaign of the Month." Each month the site managers select a different app with unresolved accessibility issues and create a form request. Click the button, and an e-mail will automatically be sent to the company on your behalf describing the issues and requesting they be fixed.

Also, don't forget to share your successes. If a developer goes out of his way to address access problems, be sure to alert others who may have given up on the app or who are using another app with less than total success. Be enthusiastic, both with your praise and your wallet.

When several users of the Downcast podcatcher player reached out to app developer Seth McFarland, he took note. He squashed a number of accessibility bugs and went on to add several new features to enhance the Downcast experience for visually impaired users, including VoiceOver-friendly gestures to refresh podcast feeds and mark episodes as played. He also added variable speed controls for video playback along with the ability to exit the app mid-video and have the soundtrack continue to play in the background.

Thanks to the steady stream of positive feedback and encouragement, it has turned into a labor of love for McFarland. "Downcast has been an incredible learning experience for me in many ways, and making it accessible to visually impaired users was one of the biggest and most important lessons," he reflects. "Apple's developer tools make it relatively easy to make iOS applications accessible, but with so many accessibility options to implement, I wouldn't have known the best ways to use them or even which ones to implement without feedback and suggestions from people who actually use those accessibility features in Downcast. I do get a lot of compliments from blind and visually impaired users thanking me for making Downcast so accessible, but the way I look at it, VoiceOver users are just using a different but no less important user interface, and they are just as important to me as any other customer who uses my app."

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Bill Holton
Article Topic
App Accessibility