The Sighted Guide to VoiceOver

The Sighted Guide to VoiceOver

Recently, I decided to turn my iPhone screen off, and use only VoiceOver at work for forty days. As the longtime lone sighted person on a team of blind access technology specialists, I will never have the same everyday user familiarity with JAWS or VoiceOver as my blind colleagues, but I strive for as much knowledge of any of these as possible. I’ve read a number of articles from mainstream journalists about accessibility. Some are good; but the majority miss the finer points (and sometimes the not-so-fine points) of how the technology works. Worse, they often miss how blind people operate. Ironically, the most common mistaken assumption is that blind people are somehow different from sighted ones; that they somehow have different needs, different hearing, different lives, and a lot more patience.

For these weeks, I decided to put my own assumptions to the test. The received wisdom is that VoiceOver on iOS is by far the most used and user-friendly mobile solution for blind people. My question is, how does the best in show for mobile accessibility compare to the experience a sighted user has? Is it as good? As a reasonably tech-literate user, but a novice to VoiceOver, could I be completely comfortable using it by the end of forty days? I struggled through this new experience of a familiar device, in my case a shiny new iPhone 6 running iOS 8.2 and later 8.3. iOS 8.3 fixed a number of prominent bugs. My idiosyncratic findings are below.

Let me start with one piece of advice that I would dispense to anyone attempting VoiceOver, blind or sighted: for the love of all that you hold dear, please use a Bluetooth keyboard with the iPhone (or Braille input, if you’re so lucky). I promise you that otherwise you will inevitably throw your precious device into the nearest hard surface. Reader, we don’t want to be held responsible for damage. Find a Bluetooth keyboard. Buy one. Borrow one. Because unpleasant fact numero uno of VoiceOver on iOS is this:

It is a pain to type on. Even for the experts.

For a novice, it is a teeth-grindingly frustrating tool for input. And before you yell “Siri” at me, you know how sometimes Siri turns “Dealt badly” into “Duck Bradley”? Or that time when it rendered your perfectly civil “Hi, honey!” as “High monkey?” Imagine trying to fix that with an on-screen keyboard that you can’t see with software you are not fully used to. It gets very unpleasant. Neither blind nor sighted users are immune, after all, to occasional aggression towards their electronics. I will note that I only used native options for input; standard, touch and direct touch typing. Of those I liked touch typing best. I know lots of folks like Fleksy and other third-party keyboards, but being fairly new to using VoiceOver exclusively, I admit that I kept it simple. The bottom line on the keyboard options is this: I have yet to meet anyone who felt that using an on-screen keyboard nonvisually on any mobile platform was equivalent to visual use in the way it is with a hardware keyboard, especially for a new user. I look forward to someone disagreeing with me on this.

This is not to say that VoiceOver is hard. I spend my days trying to convince people who are afraid of technology of this fact. Look, I can explain the basics in one medium-length paragraph, even to obtuse sighted folks. To find what’s on the screen, explore (yes, with your finger) or flick right to go forward or left to go back. When you find what you’re looking for, double tap to open. That’s it! Well, no, but it’s enough to get to an amazing amount of stuff. Weather! Podcasts! It’s all yours. How cool is that, right? Oh, and maybe we’ll add two-finger swipe down; that reads your page of whatever you have in front of you. See, it’s not hard (well…mostly). While the vexation of typing without a keyboard may not have decreased much in the run of my experiment, most of my frustration has waned over time. The apps that work well with VoiceOver are quite fast and efficient once you get the lay of the land. Interacting with speech rather than with vision really brings to the fore the merits of having a good memory and a good mental map of what a given app is like; because if you have to hear out the speech every single time, it’ll take forever to get anywhere. So I learned to rely, along with the rest of the speech users, on a combination of memory of the layout and partial cues from the speech. It’s something that, even with as long as I’ve been at the National Federation of the Blind, I’d never given much thought to until I tried it.

Yet there is, undeniably, unpleasant fact number two – or do you want me to keep counting in Italian?
Numero due, then:

VoiceOver doesn’t work great on the web. That isn’t entirely Apple’s fault. A lot of websites are made by people who abuse HTML. They make things that look like headings but are not, and forms that aren’t labeled. Even so, Safari bears some of the blame here, and it breaks stuff. That’s my novice take, and thankfully I have Anne Taylor to hand off the more detailed description to. Here’s her take: “The ability to browse the web efficiently is one of the many reasons why mobile devices like the iPhone are so attractive to most of the iPhone users, blind and sighted alike. In my opinion, how well the browser functions on a mobile device can serve to form good or bad impressions for a user about a particular mobile product that he/she spent their hard-earned money to buy. I can safely say that on iOS 8.2 the browsing experience for the blind using Safari and VoiceOver was certainly not comparable. When attempting to navigate back and forth between webpages using the back and forward controls at the bottom of the screen frequently caused Safari and VoiceOver to be unresponsive. I often had to perform a soft reset on my iPhone 5S. Using the rotors to navigate between the various HTML headings was extremely unreliable in the iOS 8.2. Gaining focus of form fields on a webpage was very difficult to achieve. Even though some of these barriers like the back and forth page navigation are fixed with the release of the iOS 8.3, we still encounter difficulties using Safari with VoiceOver. Form field navigation and focus tracking when attempting to access a specific field with Safari and VoiceOver is still not functioning as expected in the iOS 8.3 release. Accessing an ARIA menu and gleaning information from the ARIA Live Regions on the webpage is still extremely unreliable. VoiceOver may read out the dynamic content displayed in the ARIA Live Regions, but users cannot always flick to the content area to review the data in a consistent manner. Accessing dynamic content on the web is a browser functionality that  sighted and blind users alike need to have in order to take advantage of today’s more complex websites. And in my experience, Safari with VoiceOver still frequently loses focus when content changes occur on the page. This can cause frustrations to the users.”                                

One of the standard statements that I make about iOS devices goes as follows: “All of the on-board, i.e. Apple-built, apps and functions are accessible and work well with VoiceOver.” And that’s true.

“Perhaps nothing is entirely true, not even this,” said the writer Multatuli, and right he was. For reasons best known to Apple, I can’t use my Bluetooth keyboard to input extensions or access codes on calls, with or without VoiceOver, though that would be terribly useful. What is more, for a company that loves uniformity, there is a lot of variation in what speech feedback I get. For example, when I bring up the Control Center to turn on or off Bluetooth, VoiceOver may or may not tell me “Control Center” before it tells me “Airplane Mode.” When I turn VoiceOver on, and in my case that’s set to come on with the screen curtain on, it sometimes says “VoiceOver on…screen curtain on” and sometimes just “Screen curtain on.” It’s not very problematic, but there is a lot of it. A bigger issue, however, is lag. The lag between a gesture and the speech kicking in is sometimes seconds. Or it will take three seconds from my button press for VoiceOver to say “Screen locked.” Sometimes, when the screen is locked and notifications come in and I press the Home button nothing at all happens – nothing reads, even when I swipe, and only toggling VoiceOver will restore speech. My favorite annoyance is this one though: quite often, when I am reading a text message notification on the lock screen, the speech will stop halfway through a text message or as I am moving to the next message.

So, numero tre:
There is an awful lot of lag, and some inconsistency.

Then there’s the rotor. The rotor is where a VoiceOver user pretends that their snazzy phone has a rotary dial that is so old they have to move it with two fingers. It lets you choose what elements you navigate between when you flick up and down, e.g. words, characters, links, VoiceOver language, etc. If you’re trying to, say, open a link, spell a name, or read a serial number, that’s what you’d use. It’s important. It’s also strangely awkward, because now you’re standing there twisting either your hand or the phone around, and because the gaps between the items are really large, I have been known to have to do a full 360 or more with the phone. Do you have any idea how silly that looks? How uncomfortable it is?

For third party apps, all bets are off. I can’t use RetailMeNot anymore, or Amazon Prime which just came to town, or Netflix, but, well, I’m at work.

Let me not get overly lost in the negatives here though – there are plenty of VoiceOver-only perks to be had. My absolute favorite is the two finger double-tap. Forget hitting play/pause, forget slide to answer, this gesture starts and stops audio, picks up and ends calls. It’s simple, elegant and lovely. I will miss it when I have VoiceOver off. There are also a plethora of third party apps that are glorious with VoiceOver. One of my most beloved ones is Voice Dream Reader, which, for those of you who don’t know, is a great little app for reading articles or books or any piece of text with a text-to-speech engine of your choice. With it, you can play, pause, and bookmark. It was already my preferred option for reading longer sections of text, and now that they’ve added support for zipped MP3 audio books, my love for them knows no bounds. I can now download my Doctor Who audios without ever requiring any cumbersome workarounds (some involving actual desktop computers) that I was subjected to before. Overcast is another such example; a podcast app of superior design and seamless accessibility.

Let me conclude this post that already verges on the TL;DR with this: VoiceOver is user-friendly enough that even your average dense sighted user, i.e. me, can use it competently after forty days. That is no mean feat and clearly ahead of anything else I’ve tried. It is also frustrating enough that a fairly tech-loving nerd such as myself was frequently tempted to throw the iPhone. As for the bottom line, is it as good as the experience for a sighted person is, the outcome is clear. Sometimes it’s better; often it’s similar; but quite often it is worse; and that’s a shame, because it’s not inevitable. Speech on phones has come such a long way – but it would be a mistake to take the current improved state of affairs for an equivalent experience.