Social networks and accessibility: A rather sad picture

In recent months, several popular social networks relaunched or updated their services, and one new player came out onto the plain field that, initially hyped, now is hardly talked about any more.

Unfortunately, what all these have in common, is a great number of problems when it comes to accessibility. This is not just for the blind and visually impaired, but also considering people with other kinds of disabilities. The less good the markup in general, the less assistive technologies of any kind will work, and the less likely people with varying disabilities will be able to use them successfully to interact with others. Remember, all of these call themselves “social networks”. But if you try to apply the term for people with disabilities, the concept often falls over quite badly. Let’s have a look!

Twitter

Twitter relaunched its web offering a few months ago, calling it “New Twitter”, and frankly, pissing off a lot of folks with it, disabled or otherwise. Many of the items are not properly marked up or keyboard accessible. Put your mouse away and try to reach all the options. I guarantee yo you will encounter problems. Some of the stuff is only reachable by hovering the mouse over an item. Others are marked up in a way that is totally inaccessible. For example, with New Twitter, I can no longer block or report an offending account for spam. All I can do is follow. Mouse users have some sort of funky button at the top right somewhere they can do these things, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get to it via any accessibility means at my disposal.

There are other problems, for example I often hear people complaining that they miss out on direct messages sent to them because the Twitter site doesn’t properly notify them. This is not an accessibility so much as a usability issue that affects everybody.

Compared to the old site, it’s a huge step backwards in accessibility. Tweets are also no longer put into a list, so jumping from tweet to tweet using the “jump to next list item” feature most screen readers offer, no longer works, making reading tweet timelines via Twitter really really cumbersome.

Clients

Fortunately, there are a lot of accessible clients out there that allow access to Twitter. The Twitter app for iOS is coming to be accessible more and more. The iPhone version is almost completely accessible, the iPad version still leaves a lot to be desired, but has come a long way since its initial release, which offered no VoiceOver output whatsoever. If Twitter stick to this path, they’ll eventually manage to make it fully accessible there, too. [Update Dec 9, 2011: Actually, version 4 of the iOS twitter app came out a few hours after I posted this article, and it turns out it is not only a big step back in usability for the more advanced user, but also a big step backwards in accessibility on the iPhone. The iPad UI, not yet changed to the new usability concept, has become more accessible, but is still not useable efficiently.] I am not an Android user, so I am not certain how well the Android version of Twitter fares with Talkback or other Android accessibility aids. [Update December 9, 2011: From what I gather from various sources, the newest version, published a few hours after I posted this article, has been rendered completely unusable for Talkback users.]

There’s also a web client called Easy Chirp (formerly Accessible Twitter) by Mr. Web Axe Dennis Lembree. This one is marvelous, it offers all the features one would expect from a Twitter client, in your browser, and it’s all accessible to people with varying disabilities! It uses all the good modern web standard stuff like WAI-ARIA to make sure even advanced interaction is done accessibly. I even know many non-disabled people using it for its straight forward interface and simplicity.

For iOS, there are two more Apps I usually recommend to people. For the iPhone, my favorite Twitter client is TweetList Pro, an advanced Twitter client that has full VoiceOver support, and they’re not even too shy to say it in their app description! They recently even added such things as muting users, hash tags or clients, making it THE Twitter client of choice for me for all intents and purposes.

Another one, which I use on the iPad for its native interface, is Twitterrific by The Icon Factory. Their iPhone and iPad app is fully accessible, the Mac version, on the other hand, is totally inaccessible. On the Mac, I use the client Yorufukurou (night owl).

A similar picture can be painted for Echofon. The Firefox extension and desktop clients are largely inaccessible, the iOS version is.

Oh yes and if you’re blind and on Windows, there’s only one client available for you, which is becoming the successor to Qwitter, Twitmonger. It’s designed specifically for the blind with hardly any visual UI, and it requires a screen reader or at least installed speech synthesizer to talk.

In short, for Twitter, there is a range of clients, one of which, the EasyChirp web application, is truly cross-platform and useable anywhere, others are for specific platforms. But you have accessible means to get to Twitter services without having to use their web site.

Facebook

Facebook recently rolled out a big design update, with something called a FB timeline and other visual goodies or baddies, depending on who you talk to. And while the previous version took step by step to become quite accessible, this new design takes it all away again. It pops open stuff in locations somewhere in the middle of the HTML code (and therefore the middle of the virtual documents screen readers create), without setting keyboard focus there and allowing straight interaction. The timeline that can update by the second is a beast to try and keep track of things. Missing heading structure makes it hard to find things or organize one’s usage patterns. As it stands now, I cannot even answer friend requests using the standard interface. I have to resort to the mobile version to do this. This version is, however, so stripped down in functionality that it is very cumbersome. And the mobile stuff behaves as if folks at FB think mobile phones have never heard of JavaScript before. Everything you do triggers a full page load and therefore is slow as hell.

For the rare occasions I use that social network, the stuff I have to do like answering friend requests has become even more cumbersome, because depending on what I need to do, I have to switch between the standard and mobile interfaces now. Even more annoying than before!

Clients

Well, I know of only one client, really, the iOS one also published by Facebook. I know there’s an Android client, too, but have not used it. The iOS app has problems on and off with accessibility on the iPhone. On the newly released iPad UI, there are even more problems. You cannot post a status update if you have to use VoiceOver, from the iPad, for example.

Facebook Messenger has even more accessibility problems, lots of unlabelled buttons, and the messages themselves aren’t read, only the names and time stamps.

For chat, I am using Adium with the Jabber interface to Facebook chat.

Google Plus

Google Plus was THE most hyped thing of the summer hole, and as fast as summer went, so did people lose interest in it. And you know what? That’s well deserved! The Google Accessibility team said at launch that “accessibility was considered up-front” in Google Plus. Guess what? Consideration was mostly what there was to it, hardly any deeds had been following those considerations. Adding people to circles, posting a status update and choosing the circles to post to… It was cumbersome, it was in large parts unuseable with the keyboard, much less a screen reader. I became so frustrated with it that I deleted my account after 3 weeks, and I won’t be coming back. If you are interested in a more thorough review, find Kevin Chao’s posts in the “Accessible” Google Group where he talks about the problems of Google Plus and their iOS app, which also fails accessibility.

Yammer

Yammer is an enterprise social network we at Mozilla and in a lot of other companies use for much internal communication. It also has some serious accessibility issues, but also has a responsive Twitter account where I quickly came in contact with a person to talk to about the problems I’m having. Right now, for example, I cannot post status updates myself since that widget isn’t keyboard accessible.

iOS client

The iOS client for this web app also has problems. There, I can post, but I cannot read any other’s posts. The VoiceOver support doesn’t include the actual text of a post in any of the views. But again, the team who produces the iOS app also belongs to Yammer, Inc., so hopefully we’ll be able to resolve these soon!

identi.ca

identi.ca from Status.net is a microblogging service similar to Twitter. And unlike Twitter, it’s accessible out of the box! This is good since it does not have a wealth of clients supporting it like Twitter does, so with its own interface being accessible right away, this is a big help! It is, btw, the only open-source social network in these tests. Mean anything? Probably!

Conclusion

Out of all the social networks I tested, only the last one, the open-source identi.ca service is accessible up-front. All the others have issues right away, or introduced severe issues upon relaunch/UI update.

In looking for reasons why this is, there are two that come to mind immediately. For one, lack of knowledge or gaps in the test coverage. If all testers or developers of web applications would put the mouse away or disable their track pads for just five minutes and test their own stuff with just the keyboard, they’d be surprised at how many issues, most of them super simple to fix, they’d find! This knowledge can be refreshed. There is a wealth of information out there on accessible web design. And there’s a community that is willing to help if pinged!

Another reason is the common misconception of many managers or other business decision makers that accessible web design is far more expensive than just leaving it out. You’re only right on that count if you continue to consider accessibility as an after-thought only, having to build it on top when asked, complained, getting bad press or even getting sued. If you decide to allow your developers to put in accessibility up-front, making inclusive design decisions, you’ll still find that it requires a bit more testing, but won’t require nearly as many resources as it would to build in accessibility after the fact.

Another suggestion: Look at what others are doing! Learn from them! Don’t be shy to ask questions! If you look at what Yahoo! have been doing for the last three years, building inclusive design patterns into all of their web apps including the latest Yahoo! Mail update, you’re seeing an example of that it can be done, rich in functionality and visual esthetics, but still fully accessible!

I know that it isn’t quite New Year’s Eve yet, but my hope for 2012 would be that more social network makers would take the word “social” in their business slogans more seriously and start thinking inclusively rather than excludingly!

20 comments:

  1. Great article… about time someone spent some time highlighting the issues in social media. You also forgot to note the lack of Described Video capability in youtube…

    p.s. There are a lot more accessible twitter clients on windows and other platforms than mentioned.

  2. We received good feedback about the accessibility of Instantbird from blind users. Instantbird is cross-platform and supports twitter. You may want to try it for twitter, and if you do and encounter accessibility issues, the feedback is definitely welcome.

  3. JDS, care to elaborate more on the Windows clients that are accessible? I know I probably left out one or two iOS ones, and I didn’t mention Syrinx for the Mac since that one’s development is basically on hold.

  4. This is a really useful look at the current state of play and makes for rather bleak reading. For years I’ve been raising concerns around the potential for exclusion with social media and it’s sad to see that things aren’t getting any better.

    How can we apply pressure on these companies to make their products more inclusive?

  5. Thanks for the great article. The board at GAATES has many concerns about the lack of general lack of accessibility in social media – some questioned whether we should even have a presence using a format that people with disabilities cannot access.

    In the end GAATES has decided to have a presence using social media as that is where people are going for information, and we have our information available in an accessible format on our main sites. http://www.GAATES.org and http://www.GlobalAccessibilityNews.com.

    Interesting information in your article that I will share with the board though.

    thank you
    Marnie Peters
    Admin. Assistant to GAATES President Mukhtar AlShibani

  6. Just another page of reasons why I do not associate myself with these so-called ‘social’ networks. Makes my life more easy than I actually realised. For the hell of it I went to the Twitter web site to check out the layout and the sign-up form fields are not even labelled! How inaccessible is that?

  7. I think google plus is now a little bit more useable with screen readers than it was upon its launch.
    The vidget responsible for managing circles is enhanced using aria markup it conveis like a dialog where individual circles show up as a labelled checkboxes.
    Reading streams can be done within the browse mode however it’s not as efficient as it could be.
    I find google plus more attractive than facebook my-self.

    Huh and about identi.ca and all the other status.net powered sites. I have followed its development since early days but was not successfull into getting some friends to convert into it from twitter. So although even if it’s accessible the most out of these we need to figure out usability of the other inaccessible counterparts if we’d like to stay in touch and be “social”.

  8. Great article. Wish I had seen it earlier when I was asked to comment on this topic recently and had to write out a rather lengthy response.

    BTW, I thought I would check out Identi.ca. I had heard of it but never subscribed. First, I tried to see if my Twitter name (jebswebs) was already used and the Identi.ca search engine spit back garbage. So following directions to send in a bug report, I tried to create an account and after filling in all of the required info, I received back an Internal Server Error with this message: “A banned user has registered from this address.”

  9. Hi Gabriel,

    thank you for the link to the study! I browsed it, and it mirrorw my findings, and my findings were done a year later than this study. So in terms of 2011, advancements in the accessibility of social networking sites hasn’t really improved. Very sad!

  10. The Qube is another accessible twitter app. Many of the people I’m connected with in the blind community use this one in Windows. Also for iOS on the iPhone there’s Focus on FaceBook, which is very accessible but the updates are slow.
    I agree with your view on the regular facebook app for iOS and under Windows. I hate it now. I used to get on Facebook quite alot. Even created some pages for non-profits that I’m involved with. But since they changed the site I go there as little as possible. Most of my facebook updates are posted via The Qube client for Twitter.
    I wonder if as many disabled people as we could reach were asked to go and fill out facebook’s accessibility form if we could overwhelm them to the point that they would start fixing the problems???

  11. good thing i don’t use social networking fullStop! i started getting facebook invites a few years ago but as much as i tried no go! none of the buttons were labelled and i ended up deleting the facebook invites can’t stand it! i don’t believe in it! twitter i’ve never tried to use because i’m not confident enough to try it. I do however like using skype. question is, can i be given a choice whether to update it or not? If not then i wouldn’t know what to do with it. I know that there is gw skype but with it in beta there are stil bugs so am reluctant to take the risk. I’m not a social networking person. I’m in the old school still believing in emails and face-to-face communication. Makes me sound old doesn’t it!

  12. Hi Marco

    Thanks for a great article. I was doing a project on accessibility of social networks for the BBC last year and my findings were roughly the same as yours. Most people, me included use mobile facebook, because it is so much easier than the normal site which I personally dislike a lot these days because of the timeline we all have to upgrade to. Do you know whether this is JAWS accessible? If not, I wouldn’t feel so safe using facebook anymore as I wouldn’t know what was on there. I don’t like the facebook ap for iPhone anymore either for the reasons you and others have mentioned.

    Twitter was used a lot more, but what strikes me, especially when reading this article, is that there is a very slim knowledge out there on how to find a suitable client in order to make your preferred social network accessible. I used to use twitter INC for my iPhone, but changed to Twiterrific on recommendation from my friends who use VO, which works well, but I find it almost a little too plane, so I’d be interested in checking out the app you mention.

    I wish there was more information out there about which apps where accessible and also on the social networks themselves. For example, apple could perhaps include something about vO accessibility for every app? Maybe that’s tedious, but for people who don’t have advanced knowledge of these things, it would be very helpful.

    Finally, I found out that a lot of the people I studied used the Zone, social network specifically designed for the blind. I went on it to check it out, and it was wonderfully easy to navigate, though, it’s not my cup of tea as I think a social network for blinds only is a little sad. I also think it’s a shame that the social networks which might be the most accessible, tend to be the least known ones.

    Hope I don’t come across as moany, but this is a topic which engages me a lot.

    Keep up the good work.

    Linn

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