365 Days of Random

Random musings about nothing at all

VoiceOver

I am not sure if any of you out there are at all familiar with “VoiceOver” for Mac… but it’s been frustrating the crap out of me all day so it’s what today’s post is about.

VoiceOver is the built in Mac (OS X Snow Leopard) Screen Reader. It has been developed to assist visually impaired and blind people interact with their Mac computers… both desk top and laptop. It can be set up to some of the same gesture commands that VoiceOver for iPhone uses and from all the reading I did today it sounds like a pretty simple to use tool.

For the first time in the 18 months I’ve been using Mac I am totally and completely flustered by something they built. I read their user guide and their getting started guide. I wrote notes about the short cuts to use. I practiced on all the sessions they had within their beginners tutorials. I watched all the videos they had on their website for setting up and using it. I could not for the life of me figure it out.

One of my responsibilities at my job is Accessibility. I run our testing and client outreach programs. I am the internal contact for all things Accessibility (well my boss and I both are). Yesterday we got an email from our Client Support team that they have a client at Ryerson University in Toronto that claims that using VoiceOver with Safari or Chrome crashes her browser… but only when using our product. First of all I can’t see how that would have anything to do with it crashing… but that’s the report so off to ‘testing mode’ I go. Since 90% of visually impaired users are still PC users (because generally Accessibility support is concentrated on that platfrom) our internal testing processes focuses on PC based browsers (IE and FF and even to some extent Chrome) with the most popular screen reader tool (JAWS). Over the last few years I’ve gotten fairly proficient at using this particular screen reader and can assess the components of our product rather thoroughly in no time at all. VoiceOver however is not a tool I’ve ever tried to use. As this is the tool that our client was reporting problems with I decided to spend the biggest part of my day trying to learn the tool.

Seriously… I still can’t figure out how to navigate ANY web page… let alone my complex Web Based Application. Very little worked the way it was described in the documentation. I couldn’t manage to get it to DO anything… I’ve been working in IT and software development focused positions for a very long time and it’s not often that I struggle to learn how to use a new piece of software… especially not when I have the user guide sitting in front of me and I can flip through it to learn the convoluted key strokes required to access a list of page headings or move between sections. This was one of the most frustrating days I’ve had in a very long time.

Not only am I no closer to an answer for our client (who apparently HAS managed to figure out how to use VoiceOver) but I am still just annoyed at that darn program. I haven’t figured out a single thing about using it in the 5 hours I’ve spent playing around with it today. This does not bode well for me being able to provide some helpful information to either our support team or our development team (if there is something going on that we have to fix).

But, I’ve had enough of screen reader testing for today… Perhaps tomorrow I will magically figure out how to make VoiceOver do what it’s supposed to do. But I will probably go back to some normal JAWS testing first – since at least I know how to use that product.

June 28, 2011 Posted by | Accessibility, User Experience | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Accessibility

I am sure that to a lot of you this topic may seem to come out of left field. But it’s something (in my work life) that I am very passionate about. I have been focused on the accessibility of our products for the last 3 years and have learned so much. It’s knowledge that I love to share with others who are just starting to think about the impact this has on software development. No, by accessibility I don’t mean ACCESS to the product, system, page, etc. Well… I guess to some extent that is what it’s about. What I am talking about is the ability for users with disabilities (visual, motor, hearing or cognitive impairments) to use and interact with technology – hardware, software, web sites, phones, anything really.

I am sure you’re wondering why this has come up as today’s topic. Well, it’s because it was the last thing I was focused on at work today. And that’s because I was expounding on the value of accessibility to a candidate I was interviewing. I had asked him about his knowledge and understanding of accessibility and his answer and subsequent questions lead me down a road of expressing just why it’s become such a big deal for me. Our candidate admitted (like so many do these days) to some decent ‘conceptual’ knowledge of accessibility but very little knowledge of practical application. He’d never really built systems or sites that needed to be all that accessible. His further comments and questions were around his personal struggle to see where people’s passion for accessibility comes from. He has a friend that is very very interested and passionate about the subject. But he (our candidate) cannot figure out why – he doesn’t have a disability and he doesn’t have anyone in his life that has a disability or impairment. For Zach (our candidate) he got the ‘concepts’ but lacked the ‘why it matters’ feeling.

My response was that passion for this subject hits you like a freight train the first time you have a real hones to god personal experience with it. And by that I don’t mean some form of disability befalls you. What I am referring to is an opportunity to be touched by someone who DOES have some form of disability and yet is just as capable of accessing and using technology as you are. The problem isn’t in the fact that they have a disability, it’s in the fact that the TECHNOLOGY doesn’t consider this disability or challenge when they are developing it. They think solely about the person that can SEE the screen, HEAR the text and MOVE the mouse. There are a million different degrees of disability and all face different challenges when using technology. There is absolutely no reason at all why the technology should be something that is a barrier or road block to knowledge or success. During this conversation I shared my personal tipping point around accessibility. It changed the way I think and feel about building software. I challenge everyone out there who builds software, hardware or any form of technology to seek out opportunities to meet and interact with people classified as having ‘disabilities’. I guarantee it will change your perspective.

Here is my story. Last year I attending the annual meeting for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). I attended this meeting because my company was accepting an award for work we’d done in developing accessible technology. Throughout the day I listened to many Blind speakers share stories of their experiences. There were two in particular that stuck with me and made a huge impact. One was a 70ish year old gentleman who’d been blind his entire life and was an auto-mechanic. He had actually been a safety inspector for Ford and GM for years and he had built cars from nothing his entire life. He had learned to tell apart the parts by the way the felt and sounded. The second was a 30 something guy who was in his last year of residency at Medical School. He was studying to become a Psychiatrist but, as you know, to do this you have to undergo EVERYTHING that medical school entails. Surgery, Gross Anatomy, Diagnosis techniques, hospital rotations, the whole bit. This guy had done it all – he learned to identify muscles, tendons, tissue, nerves and bones by how they felt. He could diagnose a patient by listening to the sounds their body made and the way they moved. All his other senses where heightened to the point where not having his sight didn’t matter – he SAW everything that mattered. Listening to these two speakers, and seeing the students the NFB was awarding scholarships to that night and learning what they wanted to study was one of the most awe inspiring experiences I’ve ever had. It blew me away.

We talk about ‘accessibility’ being a categorization for people with disabilities – that’s a very polite way of saying it of course – but if we’re honest about it – many times people with ‘disabilities’ are no more or less capable of accomplishing anything than those of us without a disability. Frankly, I’d wager that a good percentage of them have had to step up in ways we never had and are better for it. A term I heard that day in Dallas (at the NFB meeting) has stuck with me ever since. These folks are not disabled, they are DIFFERENTLY-abled.

March 4, 2011 Posted by | Accessibility, User Experience | , , , , | Leave a comment