Barnes and Noble NOOK on iOS! Real, Usable Access to the Nook catalog for the First Time Ever! (at least mostly).
The Barnes and Noble Nook app is Accessible to VoiceOver users on iOS!!! Those of us who have been dancing impatiently in our chairs waiting for books to be made available that aren't presently offered on Blio or iBooks are understandably excited by this announcement. It's been wending its way around Twitter all day. It's the biggest news since all the Black Friday/Cyber Monday/Giving Tuesday tweets of the last week.
All right, I'm very, very excited by the announcement, but I am also a skeptic. NookStudy, and Kindle Keyboard have been called accessible by some members of the community too, and I refuse to believe it for a second. If I don't have full access to the text of my books, it didn't happen. So is it REALLY accessible? Is it good enough that I could buy a programming book, or a cook book? Or study with it?
Actually.... to be honest... sort of. The suitability of the app is going to be somewhat determined by the type of content a user wishes to read, but we will get back to that... First, and most importantly, it’s using proper VoiceOver integration to provide the accessibility in the books, which is brilliant, and the only way that accessible books should be done, by working with the accessibility tool the user determines is the best fit for their needs, not the one that the mainstream app developer believes is sufficient. For the most part, Barnes and Noble have done a nice job of using the basic VoiceOver gestures to create a pleasant reading experience for blind users. There are some flaws in their integration, but on the other hand, there are a few different points where they have done especially nice work. Let’s take a quick tour of the app, and as your tour guide, I’ll point out the ins and outs of using the app, both what B&N should be commended on, and where they could use a bit of further polish.
Nothing much to speak of here; it’s a basic sign in screen, with labeled buttons, and basic forms for signing into the user’s Barnes and Noble account. It’s a nice, basic accessible form.
The Library Screen:
When you open the library screen for the first time, while VoiceOver is running, you are greeted by an iOS dialog which asks if you would like to read the accessibility instructions. They are basic, but it’s a nice well-documented overview, especially for users who are less familiar with VO. (If you want to read this information again later, you can find it again in the settings box which you can also reach from your main library screen.) A user can choose to see all available books, books they have uploaded into the app, magazines, and several other types of content. For most of my testing, since I don't have an overwhelmingly large library, I simply left the default of all content on. That being said, if you are looking for something specific you can also simply use the search box on the main library page to look for it specifically, or you can choose to sort your books by title, author, or most recent to be read, or downloaded into your library. It's a basic and very usable screen with some really nice touches. For instance, when a book is selected, it tells you if its new, if it’s been downloaded or not, and whether or not it’s a sample, and even what type of material it is (for instance, a magazine instead of a book).
The main section of the reading interface is of course filled with the book, but near the top and bottom of the screen the user will find other controls. The first of these will return a user to their Library; next is a table of contents control which can also be used to move to any user placed bookmarks, and (sadly inaccessible) annotations. Third is a control for jumping to a specific page in the text. Controls for changing different visual attributes of the text, and page brightness come next, followed by controls for searching the book, getting more information on it, (synopsis, and library controls, such as the option to archive the text) and a bookmark button.
A couple of quick asides here: First, the text attributes menu is useful to both blind and low vision users as low vision users who wish to view something visually can make changes to the width, color, size and font of the text of any reflowable document, to make it more comfortable for reading, while non-visual readers may wish to shrink the size of the text to the smallest available, and set margins and line spacing to the narrowest possible to minimize the number of "page turn" sound effects they have to endure. In my testing, I found that a number of the controls in this section were a bit glitchy, in that VoiceOver had a tendency to hang in the combo boxes containing information on font or color schemes. However, this seemed to be nothing more than a bit of a software bug, that I am hopeful Barnes and Noble will fix in a future update of the software. Otherwise, the major controls of the reading pane work correctly with VO.
The main page of text itself can be read comfortably with touch controls and speech which can be used to read continuously, by line, by word or by character, or with Braille. (When reading with Braille, it is still necessary to turn pages manually, but the Braille is returned to the beginning of the next page where the user would logically begin to read again, so this is only a minor annoyance, and one that is out of Barnes and Noble’s hands, as it seems to be a limitation of all iOS book reading apps.
Magazines work fairly similarly to books, except that the articles are shown as reflowable overlays on top of their visual counterparts. If you close one of these reflowable overlays, it takes you back to the inaccessible visual counterpart and you have to open a new article in the table of contents to read anything on screen, but this works well enough for a blind user to read the content of the magazine, and thus Nook is a strong contender for the best place to get ones iOS magazine subscriptions, as many apps in the newsstand lack accessibility.
Page Perfect Books
These books are the Nook Answer to Blio. The books are created to look like their print counterparts, but expose their text to the reading app, for reading by assistive tech, or highlighting and notetaking for sighted users. Accessibility with these books gets a little rocky to be honest, though it’s not because of the book layout per se. Instead, it is an issue that is caused by the nature of these books as heavily visual media, possibly poor translation into digital format (not including photo descriptions for example) and limitations of the application. Since there is no exposure of alt-tags, these books only read their text. I cannot say whether or not the copy of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” that I sampled would have been Accessible in Blio, but at least half of the humor and content of this series comes from the drawings and captions associated with them. The text was read perfectly well despite being in an unusual font, but the speech bubbles were not read, and pictures had no description, so a blind child would be at best, confused, and at worst, disappointed by the series, as they are lacking vital information.
Strangely, Barnes and Noble Textbooks are not supported in this app for blind or sighted users. It’s a shame, because the iPad seems a natural home for this type of content, and the PC only second best.
Areas for Improvement
Most of what I saw in the app was very positive and exciting, but as always, there are ways that Barnes and Noble could improve this software. First, the Nook app did not read tags for any photos or images. Graphics are integral to the understanding of many print books today, and eBooks are no different. It is important that Barnes and Noble accept the embedded information for photos and other graphics, and make it available to VoiceOver users, and to exhort its partners (the content creators,) to include these descriptions in their books.
Second, Blind users are unable to select text, which means we cannot use the dictionary to look up words, highlight text, or leave annotations for later study, though this is available to sighted users. This is a real detriment to students, and those who get more out of their text when they can write notes, and keep track of important passages. In all fairness, this is a cumbersome, and not fully realized ability in iBooks or Blio too, but it’s an obvious place where Barnes and Noble could raise the bar, especially if they eventually include support for textbooks in this app, or create a NookStudy for iPad.
Third, linked endnotes and footnotes cannot be tapped by a blind user. They are visible if a user is reading by line, or smaller increment, (not seen if a user reads continuously) but they cannot be tapped on, as this re-exposes the menu controls at the top and bottom of the page, instead of interacting with the linked footnote. This of course diminishes usability for advanced study. Hopefully this can be fixed in a future update. (At this time, iBooks is the only EPUB reading platform on iOS that allows for manipulation of such links.)
The only other area of concern is the very minor glitches in the use of the menus. Overall, this is a nice app that works extremely well.
Yay! Nook Books are now usably accessible to blind readers! Not perfectly accessible, but really meaningfully nearly as good as anything else out there right now. I do hope that my readers will forgive me if I get lost in a good book, or several, in the next few days. I can now read a number of books that have not been available to me previously, and I intend to do so. I’ll let you all know when I come back up for air!