Social networks and accessibility: A not so sad picture

This post originally was written in December 2011 and had a slightly different title. Fortunately, the landscape has changed dramatically since then, so it is finally time to update it with more up to date information.

Social networks are part of many people’s lives nowadays. In fact if you’re reading this, chances are pretty high that you came from Twitter, Facebook or some other social network. The majority of referrers to my blog posts come from social networks nowadays, those who read me via an RSS feed seem to be getting less and less.

So let’s look at some of the well-known social networks and see what their state of accessibility is nowadays, both when considering the web interface as well as the native apps for mobile devices most of them have.

In recent years, several popular social networks moved from a fixed relaunch schedule of their services to a more agile, incremental development cycle.. Also, most, if not all, social network providers we’ll look at below have added personell dedicated to either implementing or training other engineers in accessibility skills. Those efforts show great results. There is over-all less breakage of accessibility features, and if something breaks, the teams are usually very quick to react to reports, and the broken feature is fixed in a near future update. So let’s have a look!

Twitter

Twitter has come a long way since I wrote the initial version of this post. New Twitter was here to stay, but ever since a very skilled engineer boarded the ship, a huge improvement has taken place. One can nowadays use Twitter with keyboard shortcuts to navigate tweets, reply, favorite, retweet and do all sorts of other actions. Screen reader users might want to try turning off their virtual buffers and really use the web site like a desktop app. It works really quite well! I also recommend taking a look at the keyboard shortcut list, and memorizing them when you use Twitter more regularly. You’ll be much much more productive! I wrote something more about the Twitter accessibility team in 2013.

Clients

Fortunately, there are a lot of accessible clients out there that allow access to Twitter. The Twitter app for iOS is very accessible now for both iPhone and iPad. The Android client is very accessible, too. Yes, there is the occasional breakage of a feature, but as stated above, the team is very good at reacting to bug reports and fixing them. Twitter releases updates very frequently now, so one doesn’t have to wait long for a fix.

There’s also a web client called Easy Chirp (formerly Accessible Twitter) by Mr. Web Axe Dennis Lembree. It’s now in incarnation 2. This one is marvellous, 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. One cool feature it has is that you can post images and provide an alternative description for visually impaired readers, without having to spoil the tweet where the picture might be the punch line. You just provide the alternative description in an extra field, and when the link to the picture is opened, the description is provided right there. How fantastic is that!

For iOS, there are two more Apps I usually recommend to people. For the iPhone, my Twitter client of choice was, for a long time, 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 have such things as muting users, hash tags or clients, making it THE Twitter client of choice for many for all intents and purposes. The reason why I no longer use it as my main Twitter client is the steep decline of updates. It’s now February 2015, and as far as I know, it hasn’t even been updated to iOS 8 yet. The last update was some time in October 2013, so it lags behind terribly in recent Twitter API support changes, doesn’t support the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus screens natively, etc.

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

Oh yes and if you’re blind and on Windows, there are two main clients available, TheQube, and Chicken Nugget. TheQube is designed specifically for the blind with hardly any visual UI, and it requires a screen reader or at least installed speech synthesizer to talk. Chicken Nugget can be run in UI or non-UI mode, and in non-UI mode, definitely also requires a screen reader to run. Both are updated frequently, so it’s a matter of taste which one you choose.

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 has come a long long way since my original post as well. When I wrote about the web site originally, it had just relaunched and completely broken accessibility. I’m happy to report that nowadays, the FB desktop and mobile sites both are largely accessible, and Facebook also has a dedicated team that responds to bug reports quickly. They also have a training program in place where they teach other Facebook engineers the skills to make new features accessible and keep existing ones that way when they get updated. I wrote more about the Facebook accessibility changes here, and things constantly got better since then.

Clients

Like the web interfaces, the iOS and Android clients for Facebook and Messenger have come a long way and frequently receive updates to fix remaining accessibility problems. Yes, here too, there’s the occasional breakage, but the team is very responsive to bug reports in this area, too, and since FB updates their apps on a two week basis, sometimes even more often if critical issues are discovered, waiting for fixes usually doesn’t take long. If you’re doing messaging on the desktop, you can also integrate FaceBook Messenger/Chat with Skype, which is very accessible on both Mac and Windows. Some features like group chats are, however, reserved for the Messenger clients and web interface.

Google Plus

Google Plus anyone? 🙂 It was THE most hyped thing of the summer of 2011, and as fast as summer went, so did people lose interest in it. Even Google seem to slowly but surely abandon it, cutting back on the requirement to have a Google+ account for certain activities bit by bit. But in terms of accessibility, it is actually quite OK nowadays. As with many of their widgets, Google+ profits from them reusing components that were found in Gmail and elsewhere, giving both keyboard accessibility and screen reader information exposure. Their Android app is also quite accessible from the last time I tried it in the summer of 2014. Their iOS app still seems to be in pretty bad shape, which is surprising considering how well Gmail, Hangouts, and even the Google Docs apps work nowadays. I don’t use it much, even though I recreated an account some time in 2013. But whenever I happen to stumble in, I’m not as dismayed as I was when I wrote the original version of this post.

Yammer

Yammer is an enterprise social network we at Mozilla and in a lot of other companies use for some internal communication. It was bought by Microsoft some time in 2012, and since then, a lot of its accessibility issues have been fixed. When you tweet them, you usually get a response pointing to a bug entry form, and issues are dealt with  satisfactorily.

iOS client

The iOS client is updated quite frequently. It has problems on and off, but the experience got more stable in recent versions, so one can actually use it.

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

All social networks I tested either made significant improvements over the last three years, or they remained accessible (in the case of the last candidate).

In looking for reasons why this is, there are two that come to mind immediately. For one, the introduction of skilled and dedicated personell versed in accessibility matters, or willing to dive in deep and really get the hang of it. These big companies finally understood the social responsibility they have when providing a social network, and leveraged the fact that 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 that these companies realized that putting in accessibility up-front, making inclusive design decisions, and increasing the test coverage to include accessibility right away not only reduces the cost as opposed to making it bolt-on, but also helps to make a better product for everybody.

A suggestion remains: Look at what others are doing! Learn from them! Don’t be shy to ask questions! If you look at what others! have been doing, you can draw from it! They’ll do that with stuff you put out there, too! And don’t be shy to talk about the good things you do! The Facebook accessibility team does this in monthly updates where they highlight stuff they fixed in the various product lines. I’ve seen signs of that from Twitter engineers, but not as consistent as with Facebook. Talking about the successes in accessibility also serves as an encouragement to others to put inclusive design patterns in their work flows.

An overview of accessible app.net clients

In December of 2011, I wrote about the accessibility of social networks, or rather, how sad the picture looked. Since then, not much has changed in those mentioned networks, except a good update to the Facebook app and some improvements to their site, and some improvements to the Twitter app for iOS and some tweaks to their desktop web site that make usability a little better. But the over-all picture is still roughly the same as almost a year ago.

But there’s a new kid on the block, and that’s turning into an accessibility success story! app.net started out as a social network alternative that puts users first in their focus, not advertising companies. As such, it also has a different business model. app.net is a paid service. For a monthly fee of US$5, or an annual fee of US$36, one can join as a user and enjoy a feature set that’s getting richer with every passing week. The client application landscape is also turning out quite exciting. And because some people in the accessibility community jumped the bandwagon and contacted authors early on about accessibility, the number of accessible clients is growing steadily, by now easily outnumbering good accessible Twitter clients. Furthermore, there are no such restrictions on app.net as there are on Twitter. Where some Twitter clients face imminent death because of Twitter’s new API rules, the app.net client landscape is thriving healthily even only three months after the service started.

In this blog post, I will cover accessible clients for the app.net service, ordered by platform. It will be updated with new information as I become aware of it. I will also mention some apps in each platform’s “Other” section that I’ve tried and not found accessible, or which have problems severe enough to prevent productive use. I will concentrate on full-featured clients, and will not cover services like IFTTT since they merely act as intermediary between an actual client and the user.

But before I start and you want to test an application or two, be aware that you need an app.net account, and that you have to pay a fee to get on board. app.net is not free!

Web

Being a Mozillian, it’s obvious that I’ll start out with clients for the web. 🙂

Alpha

Alpha is app.net’s own offering of a web client. And it’s the most accessible one out there. It’s simple, easy to use, and its controls are not hidden behind mouse hover effects or such. Everything is reachable using a keyboard only, and the markup is, while not perfect, screen-reader friendly enough to use it efficiently. It also works quite nicely with Firefox for Android.

It could use some more structure, like a semantically unique starting and ending point for each post other than a simple div that would allow screen reader users to jump quickly from post to post using their preferred quick navigation feature.

quickApp

quickApp is also a decently accessible client. It’s a bit more shiny and has more controls in its user interface than Alpha, but, except for some buttons which are labeled with titles but without alt text, it’s OK. It also lacks the ability to quickly jump from post to post.

NoodleApp

NoodleApp is an App.net client built by a Mozillian. Initially, it had some problems, but with a recent update, its interactable items became links. It also could use some semantic that would allow screen reader users using quick navigation methods to jump from post to post. Noodle does support the letter shortcuts j and k to move a visual focus from post to post, and other shortcuts such as r to reply then operate on that, but screen readers aren’t told yet that this is happening. Focus must be set to somewhere within these items, or screen readers won’t notice. A simple CSS-generated differently colored frame is not tracked.

Other than this, and with normal screen reader techniques, NoodleApp is now quite useable. One thing to note is that, if you reply to a post, you’re automatically being placed in a layer that shows the conversation you just joined with your reply. To get back to your normal stream, hit Escape. You may have to pass the key through so your screen reader’s virtual buffer does not catch the key.

Others

And that’s it. Other listed web apps have more severe problems, and I cannot recommend them for productively using the app.net service at this time.

  • Appeio has lots of unlabeled graphic elements that make it hard to figure out what the controls do. It also offers little structured elements like headings and such to make it easier for blind users to navigate the site.
  • Appnetizens is probably the weirdest of the app.net web clients I’ve tried. It’s full of layout tables, and the most irritating problem is that I don’t see an individual post’s text. I see all the meta data and such, each in its own layout table, but not the actual text. Add to that basically no alt text for images, be it buttons or graphical links, or other controls.

Other apps listed at the above location are more like alternative and mashup web apps that integrate with multiple social networks and offer different approaches to how one might think about app.net. I haven’t tried any of these.

Browser extensions

These get an own page within the web department, but none of them fit the category of this blog post. I don’t use Chrome, so I obviously haven’t tried Succynct. All the others offer a minimal functionality portion only, like just allowing quickly to post something to app.net, or in the case of Streamified, require a Google Plus account to use its functionality.

iOS

As also shown in many studies on the general subject of app development, the list of iOS clients is the most thriving list of app.net clients. Almost all are for the iPhone, a few for the iPad. Unfortunately, none of those for the iPad are accessible at the time of this writing, so all the following sections will concentrate on the experience on an iPhone or iPod Touch.

Felix

Felix (App Store link) is a feature-rich and fast app.net client that is, according to sighted friends, also visually quite appealing. In its 1.2 release, the author Bill Kunz added VoiceOver support, which I helped test.

Double-tap a post to bring up its details, where you can reply, re-post and do all kinds of other nice stuff like viewing the conversation, starring the post or even whole conversations and more.

The Compose feature is the middle of the five tabs at the bottom. In posts, you can also add pictures, links, and other annotated content.

The Dashboard gives a great overview of your profile, your muted or starred conversations, muted users etc. Also, the Settings can be found here.

If you really want to use app.net as a power user, Felix is definitely an app worth looking at. it has Push notifications, too. But also if you’re just a casual app.net user, Felix is a great choice to check out.

hAppy

hAppy is a new app.net client that is very focused around the conversation theme. Its interface is clean and in many aspects, classical. It has five tabs at the bottom, a Compose button at the top right, and a Settings button at the top left. I had the pleasure of working with Dominik Hauser, the author of hAppy, to make sure it is VoiceOver compatible from the start.

To access controls to a post, one simply double-taps either the post text or author info. The buttons that appear allow to reply, re-post, star posts, view the conversation, open the user’s profile, and access the meta data of a post. The meta data are all clickable items such as mentioned user names, hash tags, links etc.

At the top right of any user’s profile, one can switch between the display of numbers of posts, followers and followings, and a series of actions one can perform like following/unfolowing, muting users etc.

Dominik also blogged about his experience making hApi accessible for VoiceOver users, which provides some great insight into how the UIAccessibility protocol translates into actual work items for a developer.

This is a recommended app if you’re just getting started with app.net, or want to center your activities around conversations primarily and don’t care much for photo uploading and other more advanced features. These will without a doubt also appear in future versions of hAppy, but right now, it’s centered around what most visually impaired users are interested in the most: Text-based communication. Cudos to Dominik for a great first release!

Riposte

Riposte (app store link) is a feature-rich new ADN client that features full VoiceOver accessibility from its very first release on. It has no tabs, but all features are hidden behind a menu that is revealed by double-tapping a button at the top left. Riposte features an interactions view that shows recent stars, re-posts, followers and mentions. It also features multimedia uploading to various services.

Double-tapping a post opens its details view with all options, links, mentioned user names and other items fully accessible. Riposte also lets VoiceOver speak many important information automatically such as how many new posts were received, and other info that is otherwise only communicated visually.

Riposte is definitely an app I would recommend for both ADN starters as well as power users.

Rivr

Rivr, spelled R i v r, was the first client to deliver an update with VoiceOver fixes in the iTunes App Store. Its interface is unique in that it does not just offer your simple post or reply, but that it offers different post styles, augmented with semantics to annotate photos, music, locations, or one’s current mood. Tony Million, the Rivr author, jumped on VoiceOver support spontaneously when I contacted him on app.net. the result is as stunning to hear as the UI is stunning to look at. VoiceOver will say things like “MarcoZehe posted a photo and said”, followed by the text I might have added to that photo. The other annotations are equally human-sounding transcriptions. Tony managed to transfer the visual beauty of Rivr to the VoiceOver experience, too. It’s free, with an optional in-app purchase that will add push notifications for a year.

Twiggy

Twiggy is a basic app.net client. It has accessibility info built-in in its 1.0 release, but that support was a little buggy. Since version 1.3, this situation improved a lot, and it can now be used with VoiceOver properly.

Watercooler

Watercooler is a hybrid social client that brings together app.net and Twitter. While it does the whole feature range of app.net, it only supports the feature set of Twitter that it has in common with app.net. It misses lists and direct message functionality, for example. So it’s not a full replacement for a dedicated Twitter client. The author tells one so in the product description. Its initial version came out with full VoiceOver support, except for one or two graphical buttons which are missing labels. Its interface is very layered, with screens upon screens upon screens. If you’re familiar with the Twitterrific iPhone app, you get the picture, and Watercooler is even more layered. It’s great for some people, and I highly commend the author on including VoiceOver support from the start! my personal style is a bit different. But if you like these kinds of apps, you’ll enjoy Watercooler a lot! it costs $4.99.

Others

There are more apps in the pipeline to come out with VoiceOver support. I, myself, was testing three different iPhone clients, two of which, Felix and hApi, have reached the App Store with VoiceOver support already. The one I’m still testing is not on the app store yet, but will come out with VoiceOver support in its initial release, too. That will make six accessible app.net clients! I also know from at least three more app authors that they’re planning to include VoiceOver support in upcoming updates, so the landscape will much improve over the coming months! I don’t remember ever having seen so many accessible Twitter clients at once in the app store!

Here are some notes on other clients listed in the above location, and when you do a search for app.net on the app store:

  • AppNet Rhino currently crashes if VoiceOver is running. According to public posts on app.net by the authors, VoiceOver support is planned for an upcoming update. This would include both iPhone and iPad, which would be a big win!
  • Adian is completely inaccessible. VoiceOver does not speak anything in the UI.
  • Netbot for both iPhone and iPad is totally inaccessible, too. Like the popular Twitter counterpart Tweetbot, there’s no saying when, or if at all, accessibility will be added. The authors replied to me on Twitter once that it’s on a “future features” list somewhere. I’d say, judging from past experience: Don’t hold your breaths.
  • Spoonbill is also a client whose UI completely eludes VoiceOver. If there’ll be an update to fix this I don’t know.
  • Snap is quite OK, but none of the graphical buttons are labeled. The posts themselves read fine. One downside is that controls to reply etc. are always visible for each post, so getting from one post to the next takes a lot of swipes to the right or left.
  • Synd immediately crashes on launch when VoiceOver is active.
  • Stream reads fairly well, although with a bit of a weird reading order. Also, the tabs and many buttons aren’t labeled. according to a public post by the authors, VoiceOver support is on the agenda for the next release.
  • *Spark is also working not too badly, although a bit shaky, and its buttons and some of its tabs aren’t labeled, either. With a bit of work, they can make this thing run very smoothly with VoiceOver. I just discovered this app at time of this writing, so haven’t made contact with the authors yet to find out where they stand.
  • Nettelator sort of works. It reads posts, but one cannot swipe left or right. The Compose button at the top right has a label of “Button”, the tabs at the bottom are not exposed to VoiceOver at all, and the Compose window itself has some funky behavior with buttons appearing and disappearing magically. Another blind user reported on app.net that Nettelator was crashing for him at startup. So this is also one to be cautious about, since it costs $4.99.

There are a few more on that list, but I haven’t tried those. Some also don’t sound like your classic client, but rather made for specific purposes which only covers a subset of features. If I am missing a client here, please let me know, and I’ll be happy to add info as I get it and test myself!

Android

The list of Android clients is a lot shorter than that of iOS clients, but also here I have some positive things to report.

Dash

Dash is a native Android client with quite good support for the TalkBack screen reader. I tested it on my Galaxy Nexus running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and found that I could do everything with it that I desired. There are a few unlabeled buttons here and there, but the author has already indicated that he’ll add the contentDescriptions in one of the near future updates.

This application previously went by the name of Hooha.

Others

I haven’t tried any of the other clients listed. One word of warning about Dabr, though, it’s a web app running in a native wrapper using the simple WebView control that is largely inaccessible to TalkBack, or has annoying enough limitations that one cannot seriously want to try it.

Mac OS

Appetizer

Appetizer is a feature-rich client with an open-minded author behind it that has steadily improved its VoiceOver support. I use it daily and am very productive.

Wedge

Wedge also has some VoiceOver support, but it feels a bit shaky. Some prefer it over Appetizer, so you should definitely try it out yourselves!

Others

Other Mac clients were not tested by me.

Windows

There are exactly three Windows apps listed, and I only tried the non-Windows-8 one, only to find out that the list of posts doesn’t read anything but some technical gibberish. So this is of no use. Since I don’t have a Windows 8 capable machine with a touch screen, I didn’t try the Metro apps, since the experience will no doubt be best using a touch screen.

 In Summary

Especially on iOS, the app.net client landscape is really thriving. It is also great that many iOS developers are aware of VoiceOver, or are open to the idea of adding accessibility support early on. A similar thing can be observed on the Mac, and where I was in contact with the author, also on Android. How the web apps will evolve remains to be seen. The web app landscape currently shows the wild west some of the web is still today, even after 13 years of the Web Content Accessibility guidelines being in existence.

But it can safely be said that app.net is a social network story that has accessibility in the minds of many of those supporting its eco system. Here’s to hoping some of this enthusiasm and spirit will spill over to others, and that the signs of improvements will continue to grow and strengthen there, too!

If you have questions, feel free to comment! If you feel your app has been underrepresented, please let me know as well! This is a living document and will evolve as more apps on different platforms become accessible.

If you’re already on app.net, you can find me there!