Apple’s AppleVis: A User’s Experience

Accessibility Consultant | Washington D.C.

As far as technology companies go, Apple has had a commitment to accessibility much earlier than most. It introduced VoiceOver to Mac computers in 2005 and to the iPhone in 2009. This commitment to accessibility created a large user base that relied on VoiceOver. It was in this context that AppleVis was launched in 2010, around the time the iPhone became accessible. The site seeks to support the visually impaired in taking advantage of and exploring Apple’s accessible products. Additionally, it seeks to raise awareness of accessibility in Apple products and works to continue to improve access. According to Michael Hansen, a member of the AppleVis Editorial Team, When AppleVis was launched,

Lots of people were getting their first iOS devices and trying apps, but there was as yet no centralized place for blind and low vision users to rate apps based on their accessibility and discuss their experiences.”

The site became this centralized hub through multiple features, which will be reviewed below.

It has an app directory where users can submit app descriptions and tell others whether the app is accessible or not. Other users can then comment on each app’s page when they encounter issues or when updates change the app. For an example, check out this recent entry for the popular QuickBooks software for the self-employed. This directory is especially helpful when purchasing mainstream apps that are not made specifically for visually impaired people and are not free. It is frustrating to find an app and not know whether it will be accessible before paying for it.

  • Forums where users can discuss or ask questions about any Apple-related product or app. Common topics discussed on the forums include asking users about accessibility bugs in apps, troubleshooting problems with apps by asking users if they’ve had the same experience, asking for app recommendations that perform specific tasks, and developers introducing new apps to the community. For me, these forums are especially useful when I encounter a VoiceOver bug or need an app recommendation, because regular forums on the internet will likely not have enough people that are familiar with accessibility features to help with my problem or to recommend an app that I will actually be able to use with VoiceOver.
  • blog that features highlights on what is new on the site each month, new iOS updates, and other technology-related posts (such as What? No Internet? Again? Living with Limited Data recent post on “living with limited data”).
  • podcast with app demonstrations, Apple news, interviews with developers and tips for users.
  • iOS & macOS Accessibility Bugs page with a list of every known accessibility-related bug on the latest update of all Apple Operating Systems. The Editorial Team tests pre-release versions of the software, then reports any problems to the site’s users.
  • Reviews of all kinds of hardware and accessories such as phones, speakers, cameras, cases, and chargers. These are particularly useful because most Internet reviews of products do not take accessibility in mind, which makes it impossible to know if the hardware will work before purchasing it.
  • Guides that contain “getting started” instructions for every apple product. There are also posts that teach users to perform specific tasks on Apple devices such as this recent post on changing vibration settings on the iPhone. I find these guides particularly useful because they allow me to set up and learn to use devices without asking someone else for help. Sometimes, I am unable to learn to use a device on my own not because the device itself is inherently visual, but because the instructions are visual (instructions like ‘to change the ring tone, click the blue triangle on the top left corner’). If I knew that the blue triangle was labeled “settings” by VoiceOver, following the instructions would have been doable without help.

Through all of these features – forums, app directories, blogs and reviews – AppleVis has become the centralized hub for visually impaired apple users that it was created to be. However, the way users have interacted with the site has changed over time. At first, users were posting a lot of entries in the app directory. Today, however, users engage much more with the forum. “Our best explanation for the decrease in new app entries onto the site is that the app landscape has matured and evolved, and a lot of the must-have, staple apps are already in our directory,” said Hansen. More importantly, however, the site has created a community that drives continuous accessibility improvements. Users do not just share information with each other – developers get involved as well. According to Hansen,

“Even three or four years ago, it was relatively rare to see a developer participating on the site in any meaningful way.  Now, it’s common to see app developers posting to our site–both in response to user comments about their apps, but also starting discussions proactively seeking accessibility feedback.”

By creating a community where many Apple users congregate, the site makes accessibility improvement much easier. It has become a resource for developers who may want to improve accessibility, but may not know where to turn to find every-day users of the app. Finding app users would be much harder without a centralized website that has a large number of users, because developers would have to search around the Internet and hope they find someone familiar with their app. This would slow down accessibility improvement efforts, especially for small developers that rely on user experience and feedback to make regular updates.

In the end, AppleVis empowers users with information – discussing bugs in the forum, sharing information about the accessibility of apps, testing new software – but much of the work of promoting accessibility still falls to individual users. According to Hansen, “Anyone can email an app developer and say, ‘Hey, I use VoiceOver, Apple’s screen reader for blind users.  Your app isn’t accessible with VoiceOver. Can you please fix it?’ And that’s where, I think, the real work in improving accessibility is done.  We strive to empower blind and low vision users by giving the community a platform, but our users are who have done the true work in improving access for everyone.” For more information about emailing developers and its effectiveness, check out my previous post Afraid to Tell Developers Their App is not Accessible?
Information, however, is very powerful. Sighted people have all kinds of forums on the Internet to discuss any product they buy, but it is almost impossible to find enough visually impaired people on a general forum to troubleshoot a problem or get an app recommendation with accessibility in mind. Without this platform, it would be much harder to create a collective voice for accessibility improvement, provide feedback to developers, and get help with problems as a VoiceOver user.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that a commitment to accessibility becomes a virtuous circle. An accessible product is released; many users with disabilities begin using the product; and websites like AppleVis make it easier for users to find bugs, provide constant feedback to developers, and share information with each other. Ultimately, community and information sharing makes it easier for accessibility awareness to spread faster by providing a place where users and developers can engage, and users can discuss and report problems – something that would be much harder without a platform to facilitate the process.

 

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