Thursday, March 19, 2015

"Mobile accessibility is touching every aspect of our life now"

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the US is very active in promoting accessibility of ICT, from mobile phones to the internet of things, passing by all that is mainstream information and communication technology. Motivated by the rapid technological development, the NFB has passed in July 2014 several resolutions that "call upon the developers of connected and connecting devices for the Internet of Things to extend their groundbreaking work to all users by providing speech and tactile feedback to put all users, including the blind, on an equal footing”. The NFB also clearly expressed their wish to work with the major companies in mobile communications in the creation and implementation of "policies, standard and procedures to ensure the accessibility of all apps […] and to ensure that accessibility is not lost when an app is updated”.

The MMF talked to Anne Taylor, NFB’s Director of Access Technology, Amy Mason and Karl Belanger, NFB’s Access Technology Specialists, and Clara Van Gerven, NFB’s Access Technology Content Specialist, about the accessibility of mobile phones, tablets and apps and what should be the next steps in moving mobile accessibility forward.

What does mobile accessibility mean for the National Federation of the Blind? 

Anne: Our approach is simple. We want to see equivalent use of products for both the blind and the rest of society, including deaf-blind people. We know that it is possible, because many manufactures have managed to do it and braille and speech support have become ubiquitous these days in mobile devices. I am not saying that every platform is equally accessible, but there is an opportunity for platforms that are inferior today to improve their interface as to not shut out blind users. Mobile is a very important area both in developed and developing countries.

So our approach is manifold: we do consumer reviews and educate the consumers; we share our feedback with the companies and have on occasion managed to get changes that resulted in better accessibility of the product.

In regards to barriers, I believe, only very few companies have really committed to design accessible products and in only a few companies accessibility is driven from a top-down approach. The issues is that many of the mobile operating system (OS) providers are very de-centralised and the development of new products starts from the bottom up. When this happens there is a risk of accessibility getting lost in the process - either intentionally or not. That is a huge barrier that we need to overcome. The companies should be able to say from the top-down that accessibility is mandatory and until we get that, we will continue to see fragmented quality in accessibility throughout the industry. Accessibility is also always the first thing to be cut when finance and money come into play.

Another barrier that is becoming more and more prevalent is open development on mobile platforms. This often results in app developers that have no idea about accessibility developing apps which are not accessible even if they run on platforms that are in general accessible. Then you see a lot of apps popping up in the apps stores and it is up to the users to do their due diligence and verify if the apps are accessible. That is a big problem, seen that 70% of the blind in the US are unemployed, and for them it is a risk to purchase an app not knowing if it is accessible or not.

Furthermore, accessibility is not maintained throughout the apps ecosystem. This is due to the fact that many app designers don’t really know anything about accessibility, and even if they know, the current apps authoring tools are not designed to warn or prevent against the uploading of in-accessible content. This lack of quality assurance is a big issue.

Amy: There is also the problem that a number of apps start accessible but then over time, due to software updates, they become less accessible or even in-accessible. In some ways, that is even worse, because you have come to rely on something and then it is gone.

Anne: That is why we are pushing hard to have some sort of accessibility rating of apps. The NFB has decided on a resolution calling upon the mobile OS providers to make accessibility a mandatory criteria for apps before they can be uploaded on an app store.

Another barrier, I would want to add here, is training. Because of the fragmented user interface within the mobile environment, interaction with the device is not standardised. For example, touch screen gestures on Android are different from iOS and different from Windows. There is a lack of training for consumers on how to use these technologies. Organisations like the NFB are trying to fill this gap.

Amy: Straight forward documentation is also missing. It would be important to have clear indications where you find the accessibility features and how to use them. However, for the moment information on accessibility features is a fragmented mess. In many cases, the user needs to know about the accessibility features so that he or she even has a chance to find them.

Anne: The pace of releases has gone up so fast that keeping accessibility documentation up to date is almost impossible.

Another barrier is the responsibility of telecom service providers. The support system for accessibility is still segregated, that needs to change. As blind or vision impaired persons, we need to be able to go into any shop by any operator and get the same service as our sighted peers. Accessibility support needs to become a mainstream initiative.

Amy: Store personnel and sales reps have no training in accessibility. They often don’t even know if the devices have screenreader or any other accessibility feature.

Anne: Another issue on the operator side, is that their public content, their websites, their own apps are often not accessible. It is very difficult for blind consumers to manage their own account with an operator.

The NFB also publishes the Access Technology Blog. What is the scope and reach of your blog? How do you select the topics? 

Clara: The scope is pretty broad and is often based on questions that we receive, also on what we come across at conferences, and general items of interest. In terms of the reach, it depends on the topic. A while ago, we did a blog post on e-book accessibility and Kindle accessibility and things like that make it into mainstream sometimes. But for the most part, our audience is the blind and low-vision folks that have an interest in technology.

How do you evaluate today’s state of the art in mobile accessibility from the perspective of the blind and partially sighted community? Where do you see the greatest remaining barrier in mobile accessibility?

Anne: We feel that we have today more access on a day-to-day basis on mobile platforms than we had let’s say in the past five years. So much so that we even develop our own mobile apps. There are two you should be aware of: NFB-Newsline, an application where we distribute magazines and newspapers for the blind and print-disabled population in the United States. We upload around 300 publications of various types on a daily basis. The other application is the KNFB Reader, which got a lot of press. The ability to access printed text is still huge to us.

Mobile technology can bridge some of the access issues that blind people experience on a daily basis and we are also looking at new ways that technology can help blind people. For example, in the area of in-door navigation, image recognition, locating lost objects….

So the general feeling is very positive in regards to the accessibility of mobile computing. But we are very concerned about mobile computing in a professional and educational setting. In those two areas we are not were we need to be. Many colleges, universities and educational institutions have decided to adopt a mobile platform that was considered the most accessible one, and made the mistake of thinking because it was the most accessible platform everything else would then be accessible too. The procurement decision makers do not understand that apps on mobile platforms come from third party developers and need to be assessed separately for their accessibility. Also, the fact that Braille support is not ubiquitously provided across mobile platforms is a huge problem that prevents deaf-blind people to use their mobile devices in a professional setting. So the professional setting is a huge problem but overall we see tremendous opportunities in mobile accessibility going forward.

If you would like to have more information on NFB’s activities have a look here:

Access Technology Blog:

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Mobile World Congress: accessibility enters the stage

Two categories in the Mobile Awards, one mobile accessibility session on the main conference programme and a TV panel discussion on Mobile World TV - accessibility did get some room and attention at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week.

“Mobile Accessibility: The Business Angle for Improving the Quality of Life”

Chris Lewis kicked of the session on mobile accessibility with some impressive statistics: 1 in 7 people on earth are disabled. This is a huge number and while it gets lost in fragmentation, mobile technology now has become the unifying factor that can bring the market of 1 billion people with accessibility needs to the forefront. He was followed by three global technology providers - IBM, Google, Microsoft - explaining the importance and status they accord to accessibility and how they ensure internally that the engineers working on their products understand the needs of persons with disabilities.

Google gave a concrete example by demonstrating how TalkBack makes Android phones accessible for blind and visually impaired people, while Microsoft engaged the public by asking: “When you can neither hear nor talk, who are you?”. Answers ranked from “I’m under water.” to “I’m at a noisy airport.” and demonstrated in a beautiful way how disabling environments can be. IBM started from the core assumption that “accessibility is a business opportunity which is about understanding situational ability”. What people rarely realise is that IBM creates a lot of technology for in-house consumption and has for example years before it became mainstream created an in-house captioning service for deaf employees. IBM hired their first blind employee in 1914 by the way.

The presentations by the technology companies were nicely rounded up by the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF) presenting with GARI a source of information on available mobile accessibility solutions, and a presentation by Henry Evans who via a remote controlled robot and with a wonderful sense of humour demonstrated how smart technology is helping him to overcome the physical limits of his body.

Accessibility going mainstream

Strolling through 8 halls of showroom at the Congress displaying the newest smartphones and tablets, one thing becomes clear: accessibility has become an integral part of mainstream devices. Sure, the newcomers among device manufacturers may not have put much emphasis yet on making their devices accessible, but a look through the accessibility features on the devices of the more experienced brands shows that for some accessibility is now part of the personalisation menu - allowing the user to adapt the device to their individual liking.

Some of the features that picked our interest this year were:

  • interaction mode (allowing to activate/de-activate parts of the screen and make it possible to handle even large-screen devices one-handedly)
  • subtitels & captioning (allowing to display captioned video content)
  • shade mode (allowing to save battery life when the device is in voice control or screenreader mode)
  • glove mode (self-explanatory :-)
  • export/import of accessibility settings (allowing to share the acc. setting between devices)

However, as Chris Lewis stressed in his introduction to the accessibility session: "As we get digitally enabled, we need to educate people on how to use these technologies - especially older citizens…”. It would indeed be a pity if the people that can benefit most from these features do not know about them or how to use them.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Quality and Accessibility - two core ingredients for successful apps

We spend an increasing portion of our time everyday on our smartphones and particularly on apps. According to mobile analytics company Flurry, US Americans spend on average 2 hours and 42 minutes per day on mobile devices, 2 hours and 19 minutes of which they spend using mobile applications. Given these figures, it is fair to say that apps have conquered an important part in our everyday life. But concerns about the quality of apps, privacy and data protection as well as accessibility or rather the lack thereof are rising. As the app market is maturing, users have less tolerance for apps that do not adhere to minimum standards.

The App Quality Alliance (AQuA) is working on addressing this need by promoting good quality in app development. AQuA has issued testing criteria, which developers can access freely on the web and which can help them to avoid the most common pitfalls, like having their apps excessively using radio resources or having inefficient design heavily impacting data transmission. We have talked to AQuA’s Executive Director Martin Wrigley and AQuA’s Chief Quality Auditor Greg Jotham about some of the open questions in quality and accessibility in app development as well as trends for 2015.

What would you consider the minimum quality requirements in app development? 

AQuA has spent a number of years building a set of standard testing criteria to answer exactly this question. Typically developers are very good at doing the functional testing, ensuring that their app does what it is supposed to do. Functional testing usually starts with testing the smallest functional units, builds up during the development of the app to show the full functionality, and can be done using test harnesses, emulators, simulators, and live devices that may be freestanding or attached to the development environment in debug mode.

AQuA recommends that even after all of this functional testing, once an app is sufficiently complete it should be tested on at least one real device (and maybe more considering the platform and the range of targeted devices). In addition to functional testing on the device, the AQuA testing criteria covers all of those aspects that developers often forget. In essence this is a final QA test and it ensures that the app works well in the target environment.

Another aspect that is very important is to have these tests carried out by someone independent, someone who wasn’t immersed in the development. In the same way as it is hard to proof-read your own document, a fresh set of eyes will spot issues and problems that a developer may overlook.

How has app development changed over the last three years and what would you see as trend for 2015 and beyond?

App development is becoming increasingly professional and as an industry is maturing. No longer is it simply enough to have a great idea for an app, to succeed it must be both a high quality professional development and effectively marketed.

We are starting to see very successful professional development companies who deal with brands and other app commissioners, where it is more than simply the developer’s reputation at risk. This portion of the market is highly dependent on producing high quality, reliable apps.

The trend to Agile development is increasing, and experienced practitioners of Agile development realise that it can bring the development team much closer to the customer’s requirements, and that testing is fundamental to the desired quality result.

With all the ongoing discussions around making ICT accessible to persons with different disabilities, how come app developers have not caught on yet? 

Historically app developers have been chasing volume, the purchase of WhatsApp by Facebook shows the desirability of going for scale. The balance to that is that we read reports of the majority of app developers not even making their development costs back, let alone becoming fabulously wealthy.

In the way of all markets, range and scale is one way to achieve success, but as a market matures it becomes harder for new entrants to achieve that. One other route forward is to be more specialised and find customers that are not served by the mass market offering.

We are starting to see developers addressing more specialised markets, and the opportunity to reach out to customers with different disabilities will be one of those markets.

Information to help developers achieve this will be key to opening up activity in this arena.

What would be the best way to push accessibility in app development? 

There is plenty of information out there about accessibility on the web, but little for apps. To encourage developers of apps to build accessible apps, industry bodies such as the MMF and AQuA will need to assist by pushing information on both the market opportunities, and also the requirements needed in apps to access those markets.

A clear, coherent and authoritative message to app developers will help to start a trend toward producing apps.

What are AQuA’s priorities for 2015? 

AQuA has a series of projects for 2015 that are building on the core Testing Criteria. In 2014, AQuA produced their network performance testing criteria, and in 2015, AQuA will be producing a series of accessibility testing criteria. Other projects that AQuA is looking at are involved in mHealth and in-app security.  For both of these areas, AQuA is building a collection of organisations that are specialists in the topics and combining that with AQuA’s expertise in writing generic testing criteria that can be given freely to the developer community.


AQuA Testing Criteria:

Mobile App Usage Increases In 2014, As Mobile Web Surfing Declines:

Friday, January 30, 2015

The way forward in hearing-aid compatibility with mobile phones

A great number of people in our ageing societies have to deal with hearing loss. Hearing-aids are an essential tool in dealing with diminishing hearing capacity and demands are high to make them work in all hearing environments that people encounter in daily life. Most importantly, people using hearing-aids need them to function well with other devices of common use such as mobile phones. We have talked to Marcel Vlaming from EHIMA, the European Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association, to get his inside view on today's state-of-the-art and future outlook for hearing-aids and mobile communications. 

What do you see today as the biggest challenge of making hearing-aids work with mobile phones? 

Marcel: Hearing-aids should help persons to use mobile phones as easy as normally hearing people. Currently a hearing-aid compatible mobile phone will have a magnetic device built-in that communicates with the T-coil that is built-in many hearing-aids. Most phones will not have this magnetic device as it an extra in design and costs (see compatibility statements and T-rating). However many mobile phones offer Bluetooth connectivity. Therefore it is a big challenge that mobile phones will use new Bluetooth functionality to offer communication with hearing-aids. And for hearing-aid manufacturers to integrate a Bluetooth chip in their hearing aids, without size increasing too much and without battery consumption getting too high. For this reason, a new worldwide Bluetooth standard is under way, that may give first products in one or two years. Some first wireless hearing-aid products are available already, but these will not give general connectivity as yet.

This new Bluetooth wireless connectivity will give improved sound quality (low noise; increased audio bandwidth; stereo), easier use and an advanced appeal that even normally hearing users do not always use (compare to using a headset for phones and for music players).

Do you consider the US HAC rating scheme useful to consumers? Or what kind of information would consumers rather need to efficiently use their hearing-aids for mobile telephony? What kind of information should hearing-aid manufacturers and mobile phone manufacturers provide to help the consumer? 

Marcel: The HAC rating scheme is useful, but only the ratings T3 and T4 will have acceptable quality for hearing-aid t-coil use (see ANSI C63.19). In Europe the ETSI standard ES 200 381-2 must be used that allows phones to be classified hearing-aid compatible when a minimum T-coil performance is met (comparable to US T3 category). Phones that have improved performance may be denoted as T4 which means that they have improved signal to noise ratio for use with hearing-aid t-coils. All other phones should be denoted as non-HA compatible. Mobile phone manufacturers/vendors should be invited to publish more actively the HA compliance of their models. 

How will the new Bluetooth standard that the industry is working on, impact the experience of hearing-aid users in regards to mobile telephony?

Marcel: The T-ratings and ETSI ES 200 381-2 standard will become obsolete gradually when the new Bluetooth standard for hearing-aids is going to be used in phones. It is expected that most phones with Bluetooth will sooner or later support this new HA standard, together with the roll out and use of new Bluetooth chips.

The new Bluetooth standard is suitable not only for mobile phones but also for many mainstream audio devices. This means that hearing-aid wireless connectivity will get integrated in personal music players, televisions and other applications such as audio in theatres, cinemas, churches, public announcements and alarms. This development is expected to go along with mainstream Bluetooth audio developments that will get supported by variants of the new Bluetooth standard.

What would you consider the single most important action that the mobile industry could do to make mobile telephony more accessible for the hard-of-hearing community? 

Marcel: To support the new Bluetooth hearing-aid standard (i.e. from end 2016) and implement into products. Before that they should publish which phone models are hearing-aid compatible for T-coils.

For more information about EHIMA, please look at: 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Let your accessibility app be rewarded - Deadline 12 December 2014

Can your app help make the daily life of persons with disabilities a little bit easier? Does your app help overcome barriers? Does it facilitate access for senior citizens? Then you should definitely submit your app to the Global Mobile Awards.

In 2013, GSMA introduced for the first time a category for accessibility in the Global Mobile Awards, through some work done with the United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) organisation. UCP educates, advocates and provides support services to ensure a life without limits for people with a spectrum of disabilities, and approached GSMA with the idea of introducing an accessibility award. 

In 2014, the 20th edition of the Global Mobile Awards puts for the second time accessibility on the forefront, this year with even two categories: Best Mobile App, Service or Initiative for Accessibility & Inclusion and Best Device for Accessibility & Inclusion

The winner is...

Last year’s winner in the accessibility category was the app Turkcell My Dream Partner. The app is an IVR and mobile application service that enables blind people to access information in a fast and independent manner, free of charge. Through the use of speech to text technology it brings services, news, educational materials and navigation systems to blind people as well as enabling them to take notes on these subjects more easily. Turkcell, Turkey’s leading telecommunication and technology company, developed this app for Turkey, where only 5% of the 800.000 visually impaired are well educated due to the difficult access to education and information for blind people. Turkcell’s free-of-charge service My Dream Partner was launched in 2012 and has served the visually impaired with more than 350 thousand calls that add up to about 2 million minutes. The project is also considered to be exported and implemented in Ukraine.

Huge market potential

“We felt that we were underserving accessibility at the Mobile World Congress where we cover such a wide range of topics. Not only in the sense of need to serve, but it is a tremendous market opportunity to develop apps and services for a market that is potentially a billion people who are confronted with physical or mental impairments, not to mention the ageing population”, says Mark Smith, Marketing Director at GSMA, and responsible for the organisation of the Global Mobile Awards. 

A panel of independent judges coming from journalism, research, academia with expertise in the specific categories, assesses all submissions and decides on which apps are going to be shortlisted and in the end rewarded. 

The shortlist will be published by the GSMA during February 2015, and one winner in each category will be announced at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on 3 March 2015. The Mobile World Congress 2015 will furthermore feature sessions on inclusion and accessibility and open the floor to many interesting discussions. 

The Awards are a wonderful way to raise awareness about apps that help overcome barriers and can both help raise awareness in about the importance of mobile accessibility in general as well as help well done apps to gain traction. 

Deadline for submissions is Friday, 12 December 2014. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

At the intersection of wellness, health and accessibility

Two events took place in London last week, both discussing mobile apps. The first one was a workshop on health apps to meet patients’ unmet needs organised by PatientView. PatientView carried out a survey among international patient organisations about which features their ideal app would have to have. In the following discussions, it became evident that many of the wished for features are already covered by a variety of available apps: simple tracking and monitoring of the patients' condition, analysis of influencing factors, education on the illness, practical support for managing the condition. However, the most strongly emphasised feature - the ability to share the data with the treating physician and the attending nurses - is missing today.

Another largely debated aspect was not so much the security of the data as rather the authority over the data - patients want to have the power to choose what kind of data they are sharing and they insist on the right to know what the data is used for. Interestingly, the aspect of these apps needing to be accessible was only mentioned as an afterthought and did not trigger any further debate. 

What about prevention? 

An interesting point was made by a representative of the International Self-Care Foundation. He underlined the need for an app that helps people maintain their health rather than help them cure or treat disease. The International Self-Care foundation has a seven pillar model based on health-literacy, self-awareness, physical activity, healthy eating, risk avoidance or mitigation, good hygiene and rational and responsible use of products, services, diagnostics and medicines.

Given the popularity of lifestyle and self-monitoring apps, a more sophisticated app based on this model might indeed be able to help maintain and manage health in many people, as well as help people that already have a health condition to achieve or maintain the best possible level of wellness. 

Apps World Europe - accessibility not even on the sidelines 

The second and large-scale event last week in London around apps was the Apps World Europe exhibition and conference. It was disappointing to see that among the 300 exhibitors there was only one single accessibility app on display - Equaleyes which we are happy to have listed on GARI. Two days of presentations and panel discussions with 250 speakers - yet no mention of accessibility.

Even the panel discussion around Examining the importance of performance - improving the quality of app delivery through pre and post launch management strategies only focussed on data flow, server communication and developing across platforms, screen sizes and device generations, but did not at all consider the thousands of users that are never reached when the app is not accessible. This shows that the lack of awareness about the importance of accessibility in app development is still the biggest hurdle today.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

General public ignores reality of hearing loss

Almost everyone will be confronted with declining physical capacities when ageing, including hearing loss. According to the European Federation of Hard of Hearing People (EFHOH), around 51 million people are currently diagnosed with hearing loss in the European Union. And yet, there is a great need for further awareness of the situation of hard-of-hearing and deaf people because it is very often not well understood, said French Senator Claire-Lise Campion. In her speech at the hard-of-hearing congress organised by Bucodes SourdiFrance on 27 September 2014 in Paris, she emphasised the need for associations to raise awareness but also to be present with their user experience whenever solutions are implemented.

Accessibility - there is no one size that fits it all

Anne-Marie Desmottes, president of the Association des Devenus Sourds et Malentendants de la Manche made a point of emphasising the need for accessibility that is tailored to the person and the situation. Indeed, for someone who is hard-of-hearing, the accessibility mode of choice might be audio feed via telecoil or speech-to-text interpretation - or both; for a deaf person, it could be sign language interpretation; for a person that lost hearing later in life it might be only speech-to-text.

Mobile accessibility features - available today

Luckily, there are already a number of features that can help persons with hearing loss adjust to their condition, while still taping into the full potential of mobile communications. Some of the most relevant accessibility features for the hard-of-hearing include:

  • Improved Call Quality
  • Vibrating Alerts
  • Visual Indicators for battery status, network coverage etc.
  • Messaging Options (instant text, email, text phone etc.)
  • Video Conferencing
  • Hearing Aid Compatibility Settings
  • Adjustable Maximum Volume Control Allows you to change default volume control limit
  • Closed Captioning for Web Video or Streaming

These features can be further improved and supplemented by dedicated apps that focus on optimising the adaption of the mobile phone to the user’s individual hearing. This year’s winner of Window’s Imagine Cup competition for example is the Project AMP, the goal of which is to replace "expensive hearing aid frequency processing with Windows Phone 8 and a Bluetooth headset”.