Thursday, July 30, 2015

3 lessons from developers who have embraced assistive technology

Executive Director Karla Jutzi, right, watches as assistive technology trainer Michael Babcock works his iPad at the Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Anchorage, Alaska on July 20, 2012.
Image: Alaska Journal of Commerce, Michael Dinneen/Associated Press
When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law 25 years ago, few could have imagined just how much would change as a result of the legislation.
Fewer still could have imagined a world where almost anyone has access to pocket-sized computers that would open so many doors to people with disabilities.
Today, we have apps that can help the blind see, give words to those who can't speak and enable independence for people who would otherwise be forced to rely on others. To celebrate these advancements, Apple debuted a new collection in iTunes Thursday, highlighting apps that take advantage of accessibility features on iOS devices. The selection includes apps that help people with hearing and visual impairments interact with the world around them, those that enable communication for people with autism and apps that encourage learning at all levels.
We talked to some of the developers on the front lines of accessibility about what they've learned while creating these powerful apps, here's what they told us.

1. Design matters — even if your users can't see your app

Design is a fundamental part of any app. But even the most seasoned software makers find they need to rethink many aspects of design and user experience they would otherwise take for granted. While Apple makes its accessibility tools, like VoiceOver, readily available, developers often find making their app truly accessible requires a much more nuanced approach than what they're used to.
Winston Chen, a developer with a background in enterprise software, originally created Voice Dream Reader as a way to help him get through his reading list. The app extracts text from web pages, PDFs, ebooks and other files and uses text-to-speech to allow people to listen to their reading lists.
Voice Dream Reader

Image: Voice Dream LLC
After it was released, Chen began to hear from a group of users he had no idea he was reaching: people with dyslexia. Kids and adults with dyslexia were using the app to for help with reading. He soon decided to focus completely on helping users with special needs and committed to learning about what that entails.
It really involved a bunch of things that are counterintuitive from a developer standpoint
It really involved a bunch of things that are counterintuitive from a developer standpoint, one guy told me that I should hide a big part of the screen," Chen recalls.
The reasoning, he explained, was that many people with dyslexia also have difficulties concentrating so the app should reduce the amount of text that appears on the screen at any given time to eliminate potential distractions. "From a developer standpoint, I'm thinking 'oh, I'm going to waste all that screen real estate.' "
Likewise, the creators of TapTapSee, an app that specializes in photo recognition for the visually impaired, learned that some common design paradigms — like display ads — were incompatible with user experience. The app, which identifies everyday objects to people through the photos they take, relies on a custom-made image recognition API.
But maintaining an API of that magnitude requires investment, and the company realized early on they would need to think about monetization in different terms than many developers, explains Julia Gallagher, who heads up customer service and social media for TapTapSee,
"A lot of apps utilize ad space in order to help curb costs, but since TapTapSee's interface is designed specifically for blind and visually impaired users, we realized that implementing ad space would only hinder the functionality of the app for our users," Gallagher writes in an email to Mashable, adding that the company tries to take advantage of grants when possible to avoid passing the extra cost to users. "Elements like minimal design, intuitive navigation, and fast but accurate results were also huge priorities for us."

2. New devices open up new opportunities for everyone

Hardware and software improvements often go hand in hand and this is true of accessibility-focused apps as well. The effects of more powerful processors and sensors, larger displays and wearables are particularly profound for those who rely on technology for everyday communication.
"The increased performance and memory of the devices has really allowed us to make our software more powerful and smarter," explains David Niemeijer, the creator of Proloquo2Go, an app that helps people with Autism and Down Syndrome communicate with those around them.
Niemeijer, who has already created two Apple Watch apps, said he sees a big opportunity with wearables in particular as extensions of existing technology. The watch counterpart to Proloquo2Go, for example, allows people who have fine motor challenges to more easily control certain functions of the app.
Proloquo apple watch

Proloquo2Go's APple Watch app.
Image: Proloquo2Go
This isn't limited to smartwatches alone.
BlindSquare, an app that uses a combination of VoiceOver and Foursquare data to help the visually impaired navigate the areas around them, is increasingly taking advantage of iBeacons.
By using the small bluetooth enabled devices, BlindSquare is able to help users navigate indoors as well. When a room or building is equipped with the battery-powered devices, the app is able to provide indoor navigation guidance. Each beacon has a specific message or direction associated with it so any time someone comes within range of that beacon, the message is played.

3. Know your users — all of them

Most developers, regardless of the type of apps they're creating, understand the importance of rigorous testing ad getting to know their users' needs through feedback. But for developers for whom accessibility is a top priority, this process often requires striking a more delicate balance.
Ilkka Pirttimaa, the creator of BlindSquare, says he spends a lot of time talking with users about what features or updates they want. The trickier part, he says, is balancing those requests while maintaining the right user experience.
"An app like this can get bloated with features and that's not nice if it becomes too complex," Pirttimaa says. "Even though I listen to my customers about what they would like to have I'm not doing whatever they say they need to have. It's about how to do it correctly."
Sometimes your app needs to optimized for two different sets of users.
Sometimes your app needs to optimized for two different sets of users.
Jonathan Izak, the founder of SpecialNeedsWare, the company behind Autismate and other apps to help with learning, notes that apps in his field need to be designed with both the individual with special needs in mind, as well as their teachers and caregivers,
"One thing that we've learned very strongly over the last five years is that while you're looking to suit the various needs of those with special needs, it's very important to take in mind those who are going to be creating the content or personalizing the tools for those with special needs," Izak explains. "Whether it be a parent, family member, a teacher or a therapist, a lot of the tools were not really built with those individuals in mind. When you really start to think about and look at their needs, it brings about a new way of thinking. "


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