Review: The all-new Yahoo! Mail web application

Yahoo! recently announced the availability of their all-new mail web application. They also made announcements on the Yahoo! Access channels about the much improved accessibility of this new mail interface. Well, it’s time to look at it! So shall we?

For my testing, I used the latest release of Firefox, version 6.0.2, and NVDA 2011.2 (the current release). I also found that it is a good idea to look in the Mail Accessibility help, and there especially the keyboard shortcuts.

First steps

Armed with this information, I logged into my Yahoo! mail account. First, I was prompted to switch to the new Yahoo! mail. Go ahead and do so if you haven’t done already.

I was then greeted with the What’s New tab of the new interface. This is a web document one can browse to find out the latest headlines, but at the top it also gives you the choice to switch to your inbox. It tells you how many unread messages you have, and how many in total.

The inbox

I went ahead and activated the link to go to the inbox. What followed was a switch to focus mode from the default browse mode. The reason became evident: i was no placed in the messages list, a rich widget that allows for navigation through the messages with the arrow keys up and down. Speech feedback is just marvelous, one gets all the relevant information one would expect to hear, just like one was in a desktop client like Thunderbird or Outlook.

Also, as can be seen in the above linked to shortcuts list, a lot of shortcuts that are familiar from desktop clients simply work in this e-mail client, too: delete deletes a message and provides great speech feedback, r initiates a reply, f forwards one. Yes, these are different from Thunderbird and Outlook, but hey, with each new program, you have to learn some new shortcuts, even when switching from Outlook to Thunderbird. 🙂

Reading a message

Pressing enter opens a message for reading. And here’s one of the beauties of this WAI-ARIA enabled e-mail client: The markup used is really being used in a sensible and intelligent way. While the messages list definitely needs to be treated in application mode, the message itself is a document and thus should make use of NVDA’s browse mode (virtual cursor). And this is exactly what happens. Without having to do anything, NVDA will switch to its browse mode and start reading the e-mail you just opened. If this is an ordinary e-mail message, there is a reply box right at the bottom, so one can answer the e-mail from here. There is no quote functionality, though, so if you want to do some fancy stuff, you’ll have to use the full e-mail dialog that you can reach by hitting r from the messages list.

Pressing escape brings one out of the message and back into the message list. It remembers the position, so one gets put right at the spot where one wants to continue browsing messages.

More to find

Tabbing around the main interface, one finds several tool bars. Again the keyboard navigation is very smart: Tab jumps from the higher-level items such tool bars to the next, while, when in a toolbar, one can inspect each available option within it using left and right arrow keys. So even if a tool bar contains 10 items, tabbing will only stop once on the tool bar. If you do not want to go through the 10 items, you don’t have to.

The Contacts tab works in a similar fashion as the mail tab, where you can manage your contact list, import from other accounts etc. The switch between application and browse modes is seamless as on the inbox tab, and information is presented in a very comprehensive manner.

Speaking of tabs: There are instructions given on navigation wherever something might work slightly differently from what one is used to from desktop applications. For example when focused on the tabs, one is instructed to navigate left and right, and that enter will actually make that tab active. In Windows applications, simply focusing different tabs already makes them active, so this is a slight difference between the interaction models which is clearly communicated. Very nice!

Social networks

The fourth of the default tabs is called “Updates”, and it allows you to connect your Yahoo! profile with those you have on Facebook, Twitter etc. While the tab itself is mainly for configuring those updates and for sending updates to the connected social networks, the reading updates app gets launched in a new browser tab. That one is a regular web site that gives you a good, and more importantly, fully accessible overview of your Facebook and Twitter timelines. While both social networks still have their accessibility issues to sort out, Yahoo!’s interface to these is fully accessible and hardly leaves anything to be desired.

Setting prefs

From the main navigation area, you can open the options/preferences for mail and other parts of the Yahoo! set of web applications. Especially in the mail preferences, you can set a few things to make your life a bit easier. One is to have messages displayed in paginated form, which gets rid of the preview pane and other stuff that might get in the way of accessibility. Also, you can set to have the inbox tab selected upon login automatically. This is something that I set since I want to do mail when I log into mail first.

You can also connect other mail accounts here. This is one of the few areas which irritated me: The link to add an account is at the very top of this virtual document, near the “Save changes” button, not down in the explanation of what adding accounts actually means, as I would have expected it to appear.

Third-party apps

One can include third-party apps in the Yahoo! mail interface. There is an app called “My social networks”, for example. These, as they are being developed and delivered by third-parties, are not guaranteed to have the same level of accessibility. Some may even be entirely inaccessible, because they use plugins such as Flash or Silverlight and may not adhere to accessibility standards within these platforms. But Yahoo! is not to blame for that. Instead, accessibility should be evangelized to those content providers that have the powers to make their apps accessible.

In summary

What Yahoo! are delivering here is a really outstanding example of putting the WAI-ARIA and other HTML accessibility techniques to very good use. WAI-ARIA has previously been deployed mainly in some enterprise/intranet or specialized public sections and gained limited exposure. Yahoo! mail is the first mainstream web application to put this technology to use and deploy it to a wide range of users worldwide.

Personally, I can even see myself switching to a web client away from a desktop client for the first time since this is the first instance of a web e-mail client that I found I can use as productively as my favorite desktop client. Other examples like the big G are far to inefficient, and for my work, the Zimbra web interface is totally inaccessible, so I have to use a desktop client for these.

Yahoo! Mail, along with the very accessible rich search interface, is a very good example of an all-inclusive, accessible, web application approach that puts others to shame that suggest to turn off their standard interface and use a basic one if one uses a screen reader. Needless to say, that basic interface is then severely limited in functionality. Or the same company that suggests to turn off their instant feature if one uses a screen reader, or search results might no longer be really accessible. Yahoo! are taking an inclusive design approach here that to my knowledge is unparalleled among big stock holder web app companies.

Of course, there are still some small kinks to work out here and there. if one uses the German version of Yahoo! Mail, for example, closing a tab requires a different keystroke than the English Ctrl+. Unfortunately, the German version of the Mail Accessibilit yhelp topics don’t seem to have been translated yet. Searching for Barrierefreiheit didn’t yield any results, and searching for Zugänglichkeit only gave a general page about My Yahoo! accessibility, but nothing specific to mail. But I am sure these are things that will be fixed/documented in a timely manner so people whose first language is not English can benefit from the features in the same way.

I applaud Yahoo! for their newest version of the mail interface for its inclusive design principles and good accessibility for everyone! Keep up the good work!

If you’d like to read this article in German instead, here’s the translation on my German blog.

The WAI-ARIA Windows screen reader shootout

Firefox 3.5 has been released, and now it’s time to take a look at what features of WAI-ARIA are being supported by which Windows screen reader. Competition is healthy in this market, and two new screen readers have started supporting Firefox during the 3.5 development cycle: Dolphin’s Hal/SuperNova and Serotek’s System Access (including the free SAToGo offering). So to document the current state of affairs, I’ve taken each one of the following screen readers running on the Windows platform on a tour through some WAI-ARIA implementations that are out there for everyone to use. I’ve chosen not to do a widget-by-widget walkthrough of the Dojo DIJIT Toolkit or some other JS library already including WAI-ARIA, but instead concentrated on stuff users will actually encounter while surfing the web under non-clinical conditions.

The following are the candidates:

The scoring is simple: For each important feature that is fully supported, each screen reader gets 1 point. A particular web app may have more than 1 feature, so it is possible to score multiple points for web apps.

Note that, even if WAI-ARIA support is not explicitly documented, it is still possible to score points because Firefox exposes many widgets through MSAA and IAccessible2 that are not standard HTML widgets. The interesting question here is: Are the various forms of Forms/Focus mode flexible enough to deal with these?


WAI-ARIA landmarks are one of the most widely used features of the spec already. They allow another means of navigating a web page, finding things such as the banner, main content, search, complementary or footer information. The newly relaunched Mozilla Add-Ons website uses them now, as does this blog.

Yes. Landmarks are announced, they can be navigated to using the Semicolon quick navigation key, and there’s a list of landmarks available through JAWSKey+Ctrl+SemiColon. 1 point
System Access To Go

So after the first round, JAWS is in the lead with 1 points.

Contact form from my Easy ARIA tips

The example contact form I created for my Easy Aria tip #3 offers several features that can be incorporated without having to create widgets, and which have appeared in some form or another on pages throughout the web already:

  • Does the fact that the Name, E-Mail and Message fields are required get indicated by anything other than the label saying “required”?
    • By navigating the virtual buffer
    • When in forms/focus mode and tabbing around
  • When entering an invalid name by just entering the first name:
    • Does the alert get spoken when tabbing away?
    • When tabbing back, does the field get indicated as having an invalid entry?
    • Does the fact that this field has an invalid entry get indicated when navigating in the virtual buffer?

In total, there are 5 points to score for this test.

NVDA indicates the field as being required in v cursor mode and when tabbing around. 2 points. It speaks the alert. 1 point. It indicates the invalid attribute both when navigating the virtual buffer and when in focus mode and tabbing around. 2 points. Total: 5 points
While the label gets spoken in virtual cursor mode, when JAWS switches to forms mode automatically when hitting the entry field, the plopping sound drowns out every indication of attributes such as required or invalid. Only when deviating from default settings and turning AutoFormsMode off one will hear those attributes in V cursor mode. No points for these two. The alert gets spoken. 1 point. When tabbing around, the attributes such as required and invalid do get announced with the default settings. 2 points for these. Total: 3 points
The fact that the field is required gets spoken in both browse and focus modes. 2 points. The alert gets spoken. 1 point. The fact that the field has an invalid entry gets spoken in both browse and focus modes. 2 points. Total: 5 points
None of the asked for features work. Sorry, 0 points.
System Access To Go
The alert gets spoken. 1 point. None of the attributes are spoken when navigating or tabbing. Total: 1 point.

After round 2, NVDA and Window-Eyes take the lead with 5 points each, JAWS follows on third place with a total of 4 points, System Access has 1 point, and SuperNova has 0 points.

Yahoo! Search

The new Yahoo! Search is an interactive widget allowing browsing of possible search terms and related concepts that fit the currently selected search term. It uses a whole range of WAI-ARIA widgets, properties and states, live regions etc. When performing a search, the following things should be working:

  • When focusing the textbox:
    • Does the screen reader speak the name “Search query”?
    • Does the screen reader announce the description “Use the up and down arrow keys to select suggestions, or press down and then right to explore concepts.”?
  • When typing, does the screen reader announce that search suggestions are available?
  • When search suggestions are available, does pressing DownArrow properly announce that focus shifted to the list of suggested search terms, and what to do to get back to the search field?
  • Does pressing RightArrow announce the shift to the “related concepts” list and the selected item?
  • When arrowing through either list, does the highlighted/focused item get spoken, and does the search that will be performed when pressing Enter get announced by the screen reader?

So, there are 7 points to score for this one.

It speaks the “Search query” label. 1 point. It speaks the “Use the..” description. 1 point. When search suggestions are available, the fact is announced. 1 point. When pressing DownArrow, the transition to the list of suggested terms is announced along with the full instructions and the selected item. 1 point. When arrowing left and right to the related concepts and back, each focus transition is properly announced and the highlighted item read. 1 point. When arrowing up and down through either list, the newly highlighted search term is announced, and the search that is going to be performed is announced automatically. 2 points. Total: 7 points
When focusing the search field, the “Search query” label is announced. 1 point. The “use …” description is not announced automatically. It is also not being announced when pressing JawsKey+Tab or Insert+F1. The only way to get to it is to use their HomeRow utility functions and cycling to the “Description” item with HomeRow+F10 and then listening to it with HomeRow+F9. For this almost non-discoverability I can’t give a point, sorry. When search results are available, this gets announced. 1 point. When pressing DownArrow, the transition to the list is announced along with the prompt. 1 point. When RightArrowing, the transition to the “Explore related concepts” list is announced. 1 point. When arrowing up and down, the newly highlighted item is not announced, and neither is the search that is going to be performed. One can get the currently focused item by using Insert+Tab, but the description is once again burried in HomeRow. I’m willing to give half a point for this one since initially it will be confusing to users that they don’t hear anything when arrowing up and down. Total: 4.5 points
The label “Search query” is announced. 1 point. The “Use…” description is announced. 1 point. The availability of search results is not announced. The transition to the search term suggestions is partially announced: The focused item is, but the prompt is not. Half a point. The transition to the “Related concepts” and back is announced partially: The newly focused item is, but the prompt isn’t. half a point. When arrowing up and down, both the search suggestion and the search that is going to be performed are being announced. 2 points. Total: 5 points.
Announcing the “Search query” label works. 1 point. But unfortunately, that’s where the fun ends. The description is not announced, the availability of search term suggestions is neither. And the rest of the functionality of this widget is broken. DownArrow is captured by SuperNova and will not fall through to the widget, getting one stuck inside the textbox. Tabbing around will only get up to the “Submit your site” link, but the search terms aren’t reachable. SuperNova will say “bottom”, and no further can one go. Total: 1 point.
System Access To Go
The picture is roughly the same as with SuperNova. The label “Search query” is spoken. 1 point. The description is not spoken. The availability of search term suggestions neither. DownArrow gets you to the “Search” button instead of the list of search terms. In fact, this virtual buffer also ends at the “Submit your site” link. Total: 1 point.

At the end of this round, NVDA leaps ahead with 12 points. Window-Eyes is second with 10 points, followed by JAWS with 8.5 points. System Access scores a total of 2, and SuperNova got their first point!

GMail Chat

GMail has an integrated Google Talk widget that I talked about before. The following should be working:

  • Ability to activate the “Set status here” label by pressing Enter on it to input a personal status message.
  • Ability to activate the “status menu” and navigate inside it with speech output.
  • Navigate inside the list of buddies and hear their names and status.
  • Inside the Chat window, announce typed and incoming messages.
  • Track going to the Chat window toolbar.

Once again, there are 5 points to score. Let’s see how everyone fares!

Pressing Enter on “Set status here” works fine, and one can input a status message. 1 point. Activating and navigating in the status menu works fine. 1 point. The list of buddies talks fine. 1 point. Chatting works fine. 1 point. Trying to access the toolbar items by first going out of focus mode with Escape made NVDA hang each time I tried it. It somehow has a conflict with the chat widget. Sorry, no point for this one. Total: 4 points
The label to input a status message is not activable by pressing Enter. It can only be activated using the JAWS cursor emulation. Since this is a well-known workaround, I’m giving half a point. The Status menu is activable and works fine. 1 point. The list talks fine. 1 point. The incoming and typed messages are spoken in the chat output. 1 point. The chat toolbar to pop out the chat into its own window is accessible. 1 point. Total: 4.5 points.
Accessing the label to input a status message works with workaround of routing WE cursor to element, then mouse to WE cursor, and clicking with the mouse. However, I cannot input a status message afterwards, even though I hear the prompt for it. a quarter of a point for that. The status menu cannot be activated through any means. The list talks fine. 1 point. The chat window works with restrictions: It can be activated and typed in, but incoming messages are not read. half a point for that. Trying to access the toolbar items of the chat window sort of works by turning browse mode back on, and then searching, but since the last position is not retained, I can only give half a point for this one. Total: 2.25 points.
Activating the “Set status here” works. I can input a new status. 1 point. The status menu button does not work, cannot be activated or found through other means. The list of buddies talks. 1 point. Activating a chat with a buddy does not work. Consequently, since the chat window never comes up, the toolbar items for the chat window obsolete themselves. Total: 2 points.
System Access To Go
The “Set status here” and Status menu items are not accessible. The list talks fine. 1 point. Activating a chat works. 1 point. Finding the toolbar buttons is not possible, because the cursor gets stuck within the textbox of the chat window and there’s no way to move it out. Total: 2 points.

…and the winner is…

Congratulations go to the NV Access team and their screen reader! In this WAI-ARIA shootout, you scored 16 points.

Number 2 is JAWS by Freedom scientific, scoring a total of 12.5 points.

Window-Eyes by GW Micro is third with a total of 12.25 points.

Fourth place goes to Serotek with their System Access screen reader product line, with a total of 4 points.

And SuperNova by Dolphin receives 3 points.

In summary

This was a close match, although there is clearly a dividing line between the three screen readers that have been supporting Firefox for a longer period of time, and those that came on board fresh within the past year or so.

I hope this little competition encourages each of the vendors to better themselves for the benefit of the users. We’re here to help each and everyone of you with technical advice and discussion on how things should be implemented.

Keep on rockin’!