Accessibility is not a 'Feature', and Developers Should Never Treat it as Such

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Update, 1/15/2016: I received the following response from Lifesum's Twitter account. Needless to say, this is a very encouraging development:

Dear Michael, our sincere apologize for this, we can assure you that our answer was never intended to go out as a standard response directing you to UserVoice. We are investigating our communication process to make sure this won’t happen again. Our developers are also reading your blog post to see what’s needed to be able to implement VoiceOver. Thank you for your input!

The original article from 1/14/2016 is below.

When I've contacted developers about accessibility issues with their iOS apps, I've usually received substantive and sincere responses. Such was my experience when I recently contacted the developers of Tile - Find and track your lost phone, wallet, keys, anything, a product which allows one to keep track of frequently-misplaced items via Bluetooth tracking devices. Obviously, this type of app has huge potential for blind users, but the companion iPhone app has a number of accessibility issues as of the date of publication.

When I reached out to Tile's support team on Twitter, I promptly got a very sincere response--and on a Saturday, no less! The representative I spoke with validated my concerns, passed my feedback on to others in the company (including the CEO), and even gave me an e-mail address to where I could send more detailed feedback and an audio recording demonstrating the issues. I was floored.

All in all, Tile's response was what every blind iOS user could want: a company who valued accessibility and wanted to make their app better for everyone. I see stories like Tile's all the time; in one of the most notable examples, Workflow - Powerful Automation Made Simple actually won an Apple Design Award for its outstanding accessibility.

But not every advocacy story has such a happy ending. Such is the case with Lifesum - Healthier living, better eating, more movement, a wellness app whose description says won Editor's Choice in the App Store in both 2014 and 2015.

According to this forum topic on AppleVis, a user recently contacted Lifesum about accessibility issues they experienced with the app. . The response the user received--which was pasted in the forum topic--was that Lifesum's development team works on feature requests based on the number of user votes they receive, and that the user was welcome to "vote" (emphasis mine) for accessibility improvements as a feature. I reached out to Lifesum's press e-mail to verify that the below statement is their official position; as of the time of publication, I had not received a response.

Thank you very much for your email and for your feedback!

Our product team visit this page to get the most requested features posted by our users so please feel free to post any suggestions you have for improving our app!

Regarding your specific suggestion, you can cast your vote on this post entered by another Lifesum user.

In most situations, having a user-guided feature development system makes sense. Since app development requires an extensive amount of both time and money, priorities need to be set. And who better to decide what features should be in the app than the people who use it every day?

But accessibility is different. Support for VoiceOver (and other assistive technologies built into iOS) isn’t a feature, something “nice to have” if a group of people vote it high enough on a list. Rather, implementing accessibility support is an essential part of the design process which ensures all users have equal access to an app. Implementing support for VoiceOver isn’t an idea you check off the list once done and forget about; it requires an ongoing commitment, and it requires a developer who understands the value of inclusive design. (An accessible design is also more likely to be a design which is more usable by everyone, even those not using accessibility features.) Implementing support for VoiceOver means the difference between whether blind people can use an app or not. And at its core, implementing VoiceOver support is about doing the right thing—simply because it’s the right thing to do.

While I realize the Lifesum support representative who sent the above e-mail likely did not understand VoiceOver and why accessibility support is so vitally important, I nevertheless find the idea that blind people should "vote" to have access to an app incredibly demoralizing—even more so than being casually brushed off by a developer saying "We’ll improve accessibility in the future." If Lifesum really only uses the most-requested feature list for guidance, then it’s a near certainty that VoiceOver support will never make it to this app—simply because only a small number of people use VoiceOver or even know how important it is. To illustrate my point, I present the following statistics taken from Lifesum’s page of top-voted feature requests as of the morning of January 14, 2016:

I don't know about you, but I can't help but be incredibly discouraged when I see that giving blind users access to the app rates lower than exporting health data into Excel. It comes back to the whole idea that support for VoiceOver and other assistive technologies isn't a feature, but rather a core element of providing equal access to all. And pardon my bluntness, but allowing a community of users--rather than corporate leadership and the development team--to decide whether blind people should have equal access to an app is a very slippery slope indeed.

To say that I'm incredibly disappointed by Lifesum's devaluation of equal access for blind users is an understatement. And yet, as disheartening as I find the idea of "voting" for VoiceOver support in Lifesum's app, I believe the most likely reason for it being handled this way is that Lifesum simply isn't aware that supporting VoiceOver is about providing equal access for blind users. As such, I think positive advocacy is the best way forward. When advocating for my needs--both in the tech world, as well as in other areas of my life--I've consistently found that the best way to get results is to be respectfully assertive. Being respectfully assertive does not mean excusing accessibility failures, or not saying what needs to be said for fear of how the developers will react to your feedback. It does mean, however, that you approach your request with professionalism, stick to the facts (and stay away from insults), and that you express a good-faith desire to work with the developers for positive change.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, "So what can I do to help?" One of the best things interested parties can do is to contact Lifesum using their contact page and express your concerns. While the below list is by no means definitive, here are a few general suggestions for contacting a developer about app accessibility issues:

  • Explain what VoiceOver is, and how it provides you access to your iOS device.
  • Explain, in as much detail as you are able, the issues you're experiencing with the app. Articulating accessibility issues can be difficult--particularly if you don't know what the problem is--but the more information you can provide a developer, the more likely it is that they'll be able to identify and fix the issue. If you feel so inclined, consider recording and including an audio demo of the problem.
  • Tell the developer that while people who don't use VoiceOver might consider accessibility support something "nice to have," to you VoiceOver support means the difference between whether you can use an app or not. At its core, supporting VoiceOver means the difference between whether you have equal access to an app/service or not.
  • Consider including links to resources for more information about what VoiceOver is and how to implement support on the developer end. Apple's guide, "Understanding Accessibility on iOS," is a great place to start. AppleVis also has a page of information for app developers, which includes links to other resources for developing accessible applications.
  • Regardless of what you say in your e-mail, it's absolutely essential that you be polite. Developers are people too, and it is very likely that taking an aggressive/insulting approach will only result in your e-mail being ignored. Don't be afraid to call accessibility failures what they are ("VoiceOver does not see any elements on the screen; this means that I am absolutely unable to use your app at all, and thus I do not have the same equal access that sighted users enjoy"), but stay away from character attacks and other derogatory comments. The Golden Rule--"treat others as you would want to be treated"--applies here.

Despite Lifesum's failure to recognize the importance of accessibility, I still believe in the basic goodness of people--and that most accessibility failures are because of a lack of knowledge. More and more developers are seeing the value of making their apps accessible, and I fully expect that this trend will continue in the months and years to come. Hopefully, some day in the not-too-distant future, Lifesum will become another accessibility success story--it's certainly happened before.



Submitted by Joseph Westhouse on Thursday, January 14, 2016

This is a very well written post. I think you struck to the very heart of the issue when you said, "Accessibility requires a developer that recognizes the value of inclusive design." And unfortunately, that's the long and short of it. If a developer doesn't see any value in inclusive design, that's going to shape everything about how they operate - and there's no guarantee that we will be able to make them see the value in it. After all, a person values what a person values, and what other people think they should value usually doesn't carry too much weight. Not saying we shouldn't try - just saying that I think it's very insightful to recognize that at its heart, the accessibility issue relies upon the developer's values.

Submitted by Troy on Friday, January 15, 2016

In reply to by Joseph Westhouse

I notice IHeart radio puts this in their updates as well. Also when someone says accessibility features you gotta wonder what they are referring to since they don't state voiceover. You assume that they mean voiceover changes but it just says improved accessibility features.

Submitted by Ekaj on Friday, January 15, 2016

I agree wholeheartedly with all that has been said here. From this blog post it seems that dietary restrictions are taken into consideration by LifeSum, which is as it should be. But why not also take into consideration the fact that some people might access this app via screen readers, screen magnification etc.?

Submitted by Joseph on Friday, January 15, 2016

Well Said, Michael! Once again you've said this kinda of thing far better than I ever could.

Submitted by TJT 2001 on Sunday, January 17, 2016

I agree that the accessibility of apps is improving, but I still think that there is a long way to go to convince some developers like the developer mentioned here to implement usable accessibility in their apps. I think that there are three different types of developers. These are:
1. developers who say "no accessibility"
2. developers who embrace accessibility and make their apps accessible
3. developers who promise accessibility and seem to really care, but never updated their app to make it more accessible
I think that the third type of developer is worse because users are left hoping and hoping for something that will never come.

Submitted by Pekingese on Saturday, February 13, 2016

People or more like yours really need to think about accessibility and I love reading your post because I have so many out-of-state love to use but I can't because of the accessibility I meant about the upside love to use them but I really can't because voiceover does it work well Voice over works well but the voice over doesn't work with the applications

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