In late 2012, AFB Tech was contacted by Angle LLC, a company developing an app for reading newspapers on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. Named Earl, after an uncle of one of the developers, the app is designed to be easy to use for everyone, especially those who might be less savvy with today's technology. We took a look at early versions of the app in the AFB Tech labs and found it to have promise, and we, of course, sent back a report detailing what we liked and what we would have liked to see added or improved. We then ran into the team behind Earl at the recent International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in San Diego, and they gave us a full version of the app that was released this February. We brought the app back to AFB Tech for a full evaluation.This article describes how Earl works and details the findings of that evaluation.
Using the Earl App
Earl is a simple auditory-based app for reading newspaper articles on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch device. Although it certainly works with the VoiceOver screen reader, you do not have to have VoiceOver running to use Earl. It's designed to be used by anyone, including non-techies, so you don't have to know all the ins and outs of VoiceOver to use Earl. You use your own voice to command Earl, and it has its own speech synthesizer, independent from VoiceOver, for guiding you through the app and reading newspapers. In addition to using voice commands, several onscreen gestures are also available for controlling Earl, detailed later in this article.
When you first launch Earl, a Quick Guide screen opens, which provides you a basic overview of how to use the app. Earl's visual interface is very simple: it doesn't have text, buttons, or controls. Only the Earl icon appears onscreen, and you double tap the screen to give Earl a voice command. Before giving a voice command, Earl's voice will prompt you with the options that are currently available. If, for example, you are on Earl's Newspapers page, its speech synthesizer reads your list of available newspapers along with numbers corresponding to each one. You then double tap anywhere on the screen, wait for an ascending two-beep tone, and speak the name or corresponding number of the newspaper you want to read.
Using Earl to Read a Newspaper Article
To read a newspaper article, you first say the command "Newspapers," which will bring up your list of newspapers. That list will include the three default newspapers (the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today) as well as any other newspapers you have added to the list. You add newspapers to the list by giving the command "Favorites" and following the prompts to add your selections from over 300 newspaper titles across the globe.
Once you have selected the newspaper you want to read, the app will read through a list of the different sections of the newspaper. After choosing a section, it will then read a list of article headlines, and when you choose one, it will begin reading the article.
To get to the Settings screen, you give the voice command "Settings." Earl's voice will begin to speak the settings options available on that screen. You then give a voice command to choose a setting to adjust and continue in the same manner as described for reading a newspaper article. You can choose Earl's voice and adjust its speech speed. You can also reset the app to its original settings and choose whether or not the Quick Guide information is spoken every time you launch the app.
Earl offers five iSpeech synthetic voices (in order): US male (Earl), US female (Arlene), UK male (Derek), UK female (Helen), and Australian female (Julia). The speed of these five voices can be set to slow, medium, or fast. The slow setting reads roughly 175 words per minute, the medium reads roughly 250 words per minute, and the fast setting reads roughly 300 words per minute.
Without a subscription, you are limited to reading three articles per day. If you subscribe to Earl you have access to unlimited articles. A one-month subscription costs $9.99, and a one year subscription costs $99.99.
To subscribe to Earl, give the voice command "Subscribe," and you will proceed to a webpage to complete the process. The subscription process is fully accessible with VoiceOver.
Documentation and Help
What we would normally call a product's documentation or user guide is all nicely contained on Earl's Help screen, which is accessed by saying the voice command "Help." The Help screen consists of nine items. you access the Help screens the same way you access Earl's other screens. They are in order as follows:
- Quick Guide
- Selecting Content
- Reading Commands
- Navigating Screens
- Customizing Settings
- Adding Newspapers
- Gesture Alternatives
- Subscribing to Earl
- Customer Support.
On the Customer Support screen, you can call or e-mail Earl customer service and browse the customer service website. Earl's customer support telephone number is 866-811-2343, and their customer service e-mail is email@example.com.
Choosing any of these options will close Earl, so VoiceOver or sighted help may be needed.
Several voice commands have been discussed in this article, and Earl's Help screen has an option for learning all of them. Here are some of the available voice commands with their resulting actions:
- "Start." Start speaking.
- "Stop." Stop speaking.
- "Read Again." Read the entire current page again.
- "Move Up." Move up one paragraph or list item.
- "Move Down." Move down one paragraph or list item.
- "Next." Start reading the next article.
- "Previous." Start reading the previous article.
The following commands can be used when selecting an article to read:
- "Newspapers." Reads your list of default and favorite newspapers.
- "Sections." Reads a list of sections in the currently selected newspaper.
- "Articles." Reads a list of articles in the currently selected section.
- "Go Forward." Goes forward a screen, such as from Sections to Articles.
- "Go Back." Goes back a screen, such as from Sections to Newspapers.
Earl's designers also implemented onscreen touch gestures that more quickly activate some of the voice command functions. The gestures in the app are similar to some VoiceOver gestures, and here are the available gestures and their resulting actions:
- Two-Finger Double Tap: Start/Stop reading.
- Three-Finger Swipe Down: Move up one paragraph or list item.
- Three-Finger Swipe Up: Move down one paragraph or list item.
- Three-Finger Swipe Right: Go back one screen.
- Three-Finger Swipe Left: Go forward one screen.
Note: A two-finger scrub gesture is the same as the "Read Again" voice command, causing Earl to read the entire current page again, but that gesture only works if VoiceOver is on.
Earl performed very well during testing in the AFB Tech product evaluation labs. Testers found it very easy to learn to use Earl, and they also found the iSpeech voices to be easy to understand. Earl also does a great job of recognizing and interpreting voice commands. Of course, as Siri users know, voice commands don't always work perfectly, and sometimes Earl does misunderstand a command. However, if Earl doesn't understand a command, it says, "Sorry, I don't understand. Please try again." We also like that they added the gesture commands, especially the two-finger doubletap for starting and/or stopping Earl's speech. We at AFB Tech actually suggested that gesture command, and it is much faster than using the voice commands.
We were initially skeptical about an app that uses its own unique interface rather than designing an app that works with VoiceOver, but that skepticism turned out to be unfounded. The app works very well whether VoiceOver is running or not, and the two voices do not disrupt each other if VoiceOver is running. If a text message or phone call comes in, VoiceOver elegantly takes over control, and you can answer the call or respond to the text message.
As far as drawbacks for this app, we honestly did not find much. There were some times when Earl took a little extra time moving through the menus, and there were a couple of crashes during testing. However, these were not consistent and do not appear to be a major problem. Although we did not measure Earl's battery usage, we did notice a bit more battery drain when using Earl as compared to most other apps.
The Bottom Line
All in all, Earl performed very well in all aspects. The designers have done a tremendous job of serving their target audience of less tech savvy people. No previous experience with screen readers or smartphones is necessary, but Earl also works well for the techies among us.
Earl should be easy to figure out for nearly all users. Even tasks that might seem daunting to new users, such as subscribing to Earl and adding newspapers to the Favorites list, should be relatively easy to accomplish.
Earl's developers definitely did their homework, and we appreciate the fact that they came to us and to other people who are blind for design advice before launching the app. Too many product designers get an idea in their head to serve people with vision loss without talking to any actual people with vision loss, and the resulting product almost always is a reflection of that poor decision. The designers at Angle LLC definitely avoided that, and at the 2013 International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, they were hustling to get more feedback from conference attendees.
Our lab testers had only one bit of feedback for Earl's developers, and it is a suggestion regarding the two-finger double tap gesture for stopping speech. Currently, Earl says, "Stopped," and our testers would rather nothing be said. Their reasoning is that you may want to quickly silence Earl so as to better hear something else, so Earl should simply be quiet.
Other than that minor suggestion, our testers found Earl to be a great app for accessing newspapers. For people who would like easy access to a large selection of newspapers and do not mind paying for a subscription, this app is a solid choice.
Product: Earl newspaper-reading app
Developers: Angle LLC
44 West Broadway, Suite 220
Eugene, OR 97401
Support E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- App: $ .99
- 1-month subscription: $9.99
- 1-year subscription: $99.99
Available in the Apple App Store.