Sunday, August 2, 2015

Guiding app developers in ensuring accessibility

The Accessibility Testing Criteria that the App Quality Alliance (AQuA) has been working on, are published and ready to be used by all app developers who would like to ensure that their apps are accessible to persons living with vision, hearing, speech, cognition or mobility impairments. Feedback from a number of organisations of persons with disabilities, mobile industry, app developers and accessibility experts has been very valuable in developing these Testing Criteria.

“We are pleased to publish our first set of Accessibility Testing Criteria (for Android*). There is nothing like this out there in the industry and the reaction we have received tells us that this should be a great help to developers who want to make their apps widely accessible to all. The Testing Criteria are designed to guide developers to test their app from the point of view of people with restrictions in vision, hearing, dexterity or cognition and to test the developers' assumptions about their users. Some 20% of the world have some sort of restriction in ability and AQuA’s Accessibility Testing Criteria opens up that audience to every app that passes the tests,” says Martin Wrigley, executive director, AQuA.

Mobile accessibility is important given the impressive figure of one billion people (according to WHO) wo live with some sort of disability. But we also talk about a huge potential market for app developers. According to a report by Chris Lewis**, people with disabilities and their families and caretakers dispose of an annual budget of about 3.5 trillion dollars that they could potentially use on assistive and accessible technologies.

A good understanding of the motivation behind the Testing Criteria as well as its contents and intended use, can be gained by listening to the recording of AQuA's webinar. It explores the target market in terms of the number of people who have accessibility needs, dives deeper into how to use the Accessibility Testing Criteria and pulls out some examples of the specific tests.

The Testing Criteria have been broken down in different sections:

  • usage with limited vision (including usage without vision)
  • usage without perception of colour / minimising photosensitive seizure triggers
  • usage with limited hearing (including usage without hearing)
  • usage with limited manipulation or strength (including usage with limited reach)
  • usage with limited cognition 

The Testing Criteria then further look into a set of functional areas including navigation (how you move around within the app), control (how actions are executed within the app), feedback (how the user is informed that an app has started for example or that the app is doing something), display (how the app is laid out), any adjustments or settings (how the user can change to a high contrast display for example), and external devices (how the app can interact with switch controls etc.).

Download the Accessibility Testing Criteria: http://www.appqualityalliance.org/Accessibility_Testing_Criteria 

* Accessibility Testing Criteria for other platforms will follow.
 ** "Digitising the disabled billion. Accessibility gets personal." Chris Lewis, Lewis Insight, March 2015: https://chrislewisinsight.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/digitising-the-disabled-billion-accessibility-gets-personal-2015-final.pdf

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Spotlight on… the accessibility of apps

Only last year when we attended app developer events, we were astonished to hear intense discussions about how to reach more customers, how to expand market share, how get more users focusing solely on server capacity, stability of the app and so on….  without accessibility ever coming up. However, if apps are not accessible they are effectively not usable for a large group of users that might live with some sort of disability. The statistics are impressive: the WHO estimates that over 1 Billion people in the world are or will be effected by disability. And while a majority of this people live in developing countries, there are also a large number of persons effected by disability in developed countries, influencing according to LewisInsight a spending power of over $3.5 trillion, and more than $8 trillion when combined with the spending power of friends and family around them.

Accessibility in apps made easy - AQuA’s Testing Criteria 

Accessibility in apps does not have to be complicated. All major OS platforms provide accessibility guidelines for developers, but still for newcomers to the topic, it can be intimidating. To help overcome this hurdle and help developers perform a simple check of their app to see whether basic accessibility requirements are fulfilled, the MMF teamed up with the App Quality Alliance (AQuA) to develop App Accessibility Testing Criteria.

These Testing Criteria are meant to be a checklist that app developers can work through step by step. Some of the checkpoints are for example:

  • Verify that audio feedback of multiple elements is not confusingly similar
  • Display schemes and content should avoid using known photosensitive seizure triggers

A first version of the App Accessibility Testing Criteria has been published for Android and is still submitted to public consultation; take a look and download it here. Once finalised, the Accessibility Testing Criteria will also be adapted for other platforms.

If you have questions, want to learn more or have constructive criticism or ideas for ameliorating the Accessibility Testing Criteria, we invite you to register for the free AQuA webinar on Tuesday 30 June 2015 at 5pm CEST / 4pm BST.


Report by LewisInsight: http://chrislewisinsight.com/2015/02/26/disability-accessibility-and-the-emerging-digital-world-a-personal-and-professional-perspective/digitising-the-disabled-billion-accessibility-gets-personal-2015-final

App Accessibility Testing Criteria: http://www.appqualityalliance.org/Accessibility-Testing-Criteria

AQuA webinar: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/2697317894127187714


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Mobile Innovation: Smarter Living for All - M-Enabling Summit 2015

A lack of information about existing mobile accessibility solutions among those who would benefit the most from these features (persons with disabilities and seniors) is still the major issue. That is the conclusion from policy makers and representatives of persons with disabilities from Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Australia sharing their experience on promoting mobile accessibility in their countries at the M-Enabling Summit 2015 that took place 1-2 June in Washington.

The first day opened with keynotes speeches and panel discussions with speakers of mostly technical background. From discussions around the Internet of Things and how it might serve to make the lives of persons with accessibility needs easier, to the efforts by major mobile phone manufacturers to make their mainstream devices accessible and wireless carriers to offer services such as text relay nationwide, passing by the presentation of a smartphone that can be operated entirely without touch developed by an Israeli startup, technological developments for accessibility do not seem amiss.

Kevin Carey, Chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in the UK, challenged his panel by asking how to leverage the economic aspect of making all these pits of generic technology work for accessibility. One possible answer to this was given by Lama Nachman from IntelLabs who was part of the team working on the upgrade of Stephen Hawking’s communication system. In a fascinating talk about how they worked with Stephen Hawking to adapt the system to his needs, she explained that in the process the team realised that they often did not need to invent new features from scratch but that they could build on accessibility features that existed in other contexts (such as predictive text in mobile phones). Her short answer to the question how to make generic technology work for accessibility was therefore “integrative systems” - systems that integrate already existing accessibility solutions and bring them to the persons who need it most. Intel also decided to make the system they developed for Dr. Hawking open-source so that more researchers and technicians around the world might work on adapting it for people suffering from motor neurone disease and quadriplegia.

Trained assistance versus crowd-sourced help

The afternoon session on Assistive Mobile and Wearable Solutions for Blind and Low Vision discussed the fast expanding sector of mobile apps and services available to users with visual impairments.

An interesting discussion ensued about a payable service that TCS Associates is working on where an app would connect blind users to "visual agents" for remote visual assistance versus free services such as BeMyEyes that connect blind users with sighted volunteers that lend them their eyes via the smartphone camera. The visual agents of TCS Associates receive specific training to best help low vision and blind users and they can build relationships over time with the persons they help more often, which makes helping them more efficient as needs are better understood and can be anticipated. BeMyEyes on the other hand crowd-sources help and puts someone in need of assistance in touch with a random volunteer willing to help. Both system clearly have advantages and disadvantages and only the personal preference of the user can decide which one is better for a given situation. But both solutions empower blind people and allow them to finally “just be friends with their friends” instead of feeling the need to use their eyes, as one woman from the audience put it.

The closing session was dedicated to the US Federal Communications Commission’s fourth annual Awards for Advancement in Accessibility (FCC Chairman’s AAA) which recognises and honours innovative achievements in communications technology that benefits people with disabilities. We were happy to hear that the Award for Augmented Reality went to one of the apps listed in GARI: BlindSquare. The app uses GPS and a compass to help blind travellers navigate routes, discover points of interest in the environment and network with friends around venues of mutual interest.

More information on the FCC Accessibility Awards: http://globalaccessibilitynews.com/2015/06/03/winners-of-us-annual-awards-for-advancement-in-accessibility-announced
More information about BlindSquare: http://www.gari.info/findapps-detail.cfm?appid=200 
More information about Intel working on Stephen Hawking’s communication system on wired.co.uk: http://bit.ly/1JKkUrP

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mobile accessibility: step by step

Mobile accessibility is tricky as it needs for three dimensions to work together: hardware, software and third party applications (apps). While the hardware has evolved to the point that a great number of mobile phones and tablets integrate accessibility features by default, and also the major mobile software platforms cater for basic accessibility, apps still seem to lag behind. Out of the thousands of apps in the app stores, only a minority is accessible.

Is your app accessible? Soon, it will be easy to check  

To help remedy this problem and raise awareness amongst developers about the importance of making their apps accessible to all, including persons with disabilities, the App Quality Alliance (AQuA) and the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF) are working on a set of Accessibility Testing Criteria for apps. The Testing Criteria will allow for app developers to run through a checklist that can help them verify whether their app is accessible to persons with vision, hearing, speech, mobility or cognitive impairments. 

Some of the tests check for example if the app can be used with screen readers like TalkBack, if audio prompts are available for all content (including pictures, graphs….) or if on the other hand the app can be used entirely without audio, if the app offers different contrast levels, if the app offers alternative inputs for navigation for persons with mobility issues or a simple mode for persons with cognitive impairments. 

The Testing Criteria are currently submitted for stakeholder feedback. If you would be interested in getting a preview and test the criteria for yourself, please get in touch at sabine(.)lobnig(@)mmfai.info. 

About AQuA
The App Quality Alliance (AQuA) is a global association focused on helping the industry continually improve and promote mobile app quality, across all platforms. It is led by the Core Members: AT&T, Motorola,  and Microsoft, , who work together on projects of mutual interest, thereby minimising the work needing to be done by each one. AQuA also acts as a referral and endorsement body, accrediting the quality of players (specifically developers and testing service providers) within the industry, and also their apps. http://www.appqualityalliance.org 

About the MMF
The Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF) is an international association of telecommunications equipment manufacturers with an interest in mobile or wireless communications, including the manufacturers of mobile handsets and devices, as well as the manufacturers of network infrastructure. The association has a scientific purpose. Its members include Alcatel OneTouch, Apple, Cisco, Ericsson, Intel, LG, Microsoft, Motorola Mobility, Motorola Solutions, Samsung and Sony. www.mmfai.info 

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: https://nfb.org/

Access Technology Blog: https://nfb.org/at-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.


Resources:

AQuA Testing Criteria: http://www.appqualityalliance.org/the-deliverables

Mobile App Usage Increases In 2014, As Mobile Web Surfing Declines: http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/01/mobile-app-usage-increases-in-2014-as-mobile-web-surfing-declines