Accessibility Lessons Learned from Blind Users Attending a User Research Study

Image Description: Illustration of square map page with a pin marking the spot. Image credit: Maiconfz on Pixabay

Equal Entry held a user research study on virtual reality accessibility for blind users in New York City. This involved nine participants who commuted from their homes to the NYU Ability Project in Brooklyn. It turned out that several could not find their way to the building.

First, we sent the following to the participants:

These provide navigation starting at the main entrance at 370 Jay St. The problem is they don’t have directions from the subway to the building. Subways are tricky because they have multiple exit points. You never know which subway the person will arrive in to give them directions to the right exit point.

The Challenges in New York City

Besides, blind users do not have access to signs inside the subway such as “southwest corner of Mott and Pell.” How are they supposed to know where the exit is? One person said they if they take a southbound train, they know they’ll be facing south upon their arrival.

However, in the case of the Jay St. Boro Hall station, it’s at the intersection of neighborhoods. It has major diagonal streets at varying angles. This makes it harder to map out instructions for people who could be coming from either direction on one of three different tracks. They won’t know which way they’re facing as they exit the subway.

Often, they’ll ask people for directions. The key is that they need to ask for things people know. For example, you could have a building name and a street address. People don’t necessarily know the building by name or exactly where the address is. Sharing both tidbits did not work because the strangers weren’t familiar with either one.

Another challenge about commuting in New York City is the tall buildings. They can sometimes affect a cell phone’s network connection. Because of this, the GPS didn’t work well on one participant’s cell phone map app. This is a big problem because they won’t know if something is on the left or the right. The map can only give them an approximate location.

Suggestions to Help Blind Participants with Wayfinding

The research team provided a contact phone number. A participant texted that number because it was too noisy to call. Users don’t want to wear noise-canceling headsets because they want to hear their surroundings. No one ever responded to the text. It’s important to provide at least two options for communicating and have someone monitor those during the appointment times.

An essential bit of information would be to provide the cross streets closest to the building. This was not in any of the documentation. A road could be miles long and people have no idea where it is from the address. Hence, listing the cross street can give them a better idea. Also, send a photo of the building’s exterior to participants. Sometimes people recognize a building from its exterior.

What about apps like Soundscapes, Be My Eyes, and Aira? Network lag and noises are still problems. One person said it’s awkward to hold the phone and walk with a guide dog. When they used Be My Eyes, they’d have to hold the phone, put it away, walk the next stretch, and pull out the phone again.

A great tip is to make a list of nearby places. Sometimes people know of the other buildings but not the target. Even though there are hundreds of XYZ coffee places around the city, people may know of the one on Jay St. near the building if the user shares this information.

Based on the feedback, here are the suggestions to ensure blind participants reach their destinations:

  • Tell them where to exit from the subway.
  • Include text-based directions from the subway exit.
  • Provide contact information and have someone monitor it, ready to answer right away. (Provide multiple options, such as calling, texting, and emailing.)
  • Provide an image of the front of the building to show sighted people. Sometimes people remember the look of the building and not its name or cross streets.
  • Mention the nearest cross streets.
  • List nearby places.
  • Meet them at the subway.

Do you have any other suggestions? Please share them in the comments.

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Equal Entry
Accessibility technology company that offers services including accessibility audits, training, and expert witness on cases related to digital accessibility.

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