Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Hearing things on Skype

Today I was going to blog about curtains at Blognation - an elegant closure to a sorry tale. But my atttention has been distracted by something far more interesting and positive; a series of tutorials to help blind people to use Skype.

A blind lady has put together a series of voice tutorials to help blind people navigate their way around Skype. The navigation uses various scripts to translate Skype menus into the JAWs application that helps blind (Windows) users interpret the content of computer windows. As a sighted person, I closed my eyes and tried to visualise my way through the complex menu focus and commands but I could not follow the JAWs instructions which were way too quick for my poor ears. But JAWs users prefer to control the speed setting to speed past the page elements they already understand (or don't want) to reach the element that concerns them. At that point, they can reduce the speed until they are familiar with that element.

For all their focus on usability, few web 2.0 products are designed with accessibility in mind. Of all the sites using AJAX to create a drag and drop user interface, how many consider the needs of blind viewers? Of all the sites that incorporate sound and video, how many factor in deaf or blind users? When bloggers add widgets to their blogs to enrich the user experience, how many examine the impact on disabled users? And when programmers write the UI code, how many consider the learning curve for blind users when they make UI changes? These are serious considerations for web 2.0 developers because, with freedom comes responsibility. If you want to push your product into various institutional markets, accessibility is a basic entry requirement.

I learned about these tutorials in a public chat frequented by Skype afficionados, staff, developers and general onlookers. The developer of the Chat Translator for Skype has been working with Marrie (the blind tutor) and other blind volunteers who helped him build accessibility into his Chat Translator extra. This application manages some of their accessibility issues because JAWs will only read chats from the window that is in focus and if multiple chats are ongoing, messages will be missed. The Chat Translator overcomes this issue because you can set an option to read all chats aloud.

Before my Christmas package from Skype last year, I enjoyed early previews of the Chat Translator and discussed the possibilities for people with disabilities at some length. But I failed to make a sufficient business case for participation and then I had some basic survival matters to focus on. This was not the first time that Skype glanced at the area of usability and disability (a.ka. accessibility) as Stuart Henshall wrote about in Skype Journal over two years ago. But each previous concept was shelved in the face of more compelling business priorities - it's all a matter of priorities I guess.

Usability is a big word these days and grabbing UI feedback from Jo(e) User prior to development is an essential part of the meagre budget of many web 2.0 startups. But usability has many elements and blind readers have an awful lot to teach us about it. Shut your eyes and visualise your way around your application and you will lose your way. Try to figure how to navigate between internal and external widgets, between mandatory and required fields in forms, around flash images and google maps . . . Blind users must develop an internal mind map of their computers, remembering vast sequential routes to information and target pages. By working with these users, developers can gain deep insight into usability.

When this chat came up this evening I had a thought. If everybody in this chat donated a few bucks and a few hours, we could build this type of development into common practice. We could incorporate user feedback from some of the most savvy users on the web into our UI design - and it need not cost much when you incorporate these principles into site and UI design from the get go. If you are interested in donating 20 bucks and 20 hours to this simple goal, please leave a comment. If more than 10 people offer to help, we'll set something formal up - otherwise - thanks for the interest.

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