American Heritage Dictionary just became more accessible, but usability concerns remain

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Remember my blog posts about the issues surrounding the accessibility of American Heritage English Dictionary? It all started almost four years ago when exciting efforts to make it accessible commenced. Then the efforts came to fruition and this worthwhile application became accessible.

However, almost three months ago Houghton Mifflin Harcourt switched to a new developer, MobiSystems, and American Heritage Dictionary became inaccessible, undoing all previous efforts. Houghton Mifflin had their legitimate reasons for the switch, and many of us here rightfully objected to MobiSystems' lackluster interest in redeeming the app's accessibility. Fortunately as people kept contacting Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and MobiSystems with their accessibility concerns, MobiSystems promised to add VoiceOver integration to American Heritage Dictionary in September or October. That time has come.

The issue was that VoiceOver couldn't detect or see the Definition text area of the app, and, with the most recent release of the app, MobiSystems has made the Definition control visible to VoiceOver. However -- and unlike what the previously accessible releases of the app, since all definitions appear in a single text control, we can no longer move among definitions, definition senses, etymologies, synonym notes, usage notes, and so on via left/right clicks. That is, once you land on the Definition area, you should listen to the definitions at once without having the chance to stop speech, move to the next/previous definition/example, etc. This seriously impairs the usability of a dictionary application, in a way that I don't recommend purchasing it unless you're willing to cope with this limitation. If interested, I suggest that you download and try the free app yourself -- without the need to pay for its offline or audio Premium features.

I've also sent an email to Toby Leith, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Licensing Manager, and to MobiSystem's, the developer of the app. I suggest that you also contact them to voice your concerns, using the following addresses:
My email reads as follows:

... First and foremost, I must thank the MobiSystems developers for their genuine efforts to make this important application accessible.

However, currently the way accessibility has been implemented is problematic in a way that the use of VoiceOver to read the definitions is quite cumbersome. The problem is that, with MobiSystems implementation, VoiceOver treats the Definition area or text box as one simple control. This means that if the Definition area gains focus, VoiceOver reads the visible part of it automatically. If you flick left/right with VoiceOver active, you'll leave the Definition area.

As such, since this is just a single control, users can't navigate the text on a definition by definition or sense by sense basis with flicking left and right. This poses a serious challenge for words which have a good number of definitions, definition senses, synonym notes, pronunciation clarifications, usage notes, etc. Try looking up the word word "take" for an example. You must listen to and comprehend everything in the Definition area with no chance of repeating/navigating to certain definitions or senses.

It's worth mentioning that the previous releases of AHD 5 -- developed by another company -- offered this enhanced level of accessibility in a way that VoiceOver users could easily navigate to various definitions or senses, pause on a definition, have VoiceOver repeat it, etc. All of the above can't be done at the moment.

As a consequence, I humbly request that MobiSystems kindly re-consider their approach to VoiceOver support in AHD 5. As things stand right now, I still cannot recommend the app to VoiceOver users and might even ask them via access-oriented websites and blogs to forgo purchasing it until definition/sense/text navigation via left/right flicks is implemented. ...

That's all about it. If you need this awesome dictionary, if you've been using it in the past, or if you simply want to be a champion of accessibility, contact both companies using the email addresses I provided above. Since the previously accessible app no longer works with iOS 10 and owing to the fact that it's no longer being maintained, enhancing the dictionary's accessibility is of utmost importance. Hope to see that day soon.



Submitted by alex wallis on Wednesday, September 28, 2016

so I presume you would still recommend keeping the last version developed by the previous developer before the change as I have this available?
I had a look on the appstore, and the american heritage dictionary fifth edition isn't being shown as being made by mobi systems, its made by someone called enfour so I am a little confused who the developer actually is.
also am I right in thinking there is now only one version of the fifth edition available and that you must make an inapp purchase and there is no way to buy the dictionary outright? I dislike inapp purchases and avoid them where possible because they can be withdrawn or stop working at any point.

Submitted by Amir on Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

<p>Hi Alex,</p>
<p>The problem is that the older AHD 5 app -- which is accessible -- doesn't work well with iOS 10. As I launch it, VoiceOver keeps repeating something like the word "edit," taken from the look-up search box of the app, and it can't be stopped at all unless, of course, the app is force-closed.</p>
<p>The older developer is Enfour -- as you rightly said, but the app is no longer on the App Store and is no longer maintained -- at least I can't find it.</p>
<p>Finally, if you're interested in paying for AHD 5 -- along with the Rodget's Thesaurus -- up front, you may want to grab it <a href="">from here.</a> However, the size of the app is just about 22MB so my guess is that you'll need to download its audio pronunciation module separately from within the app -- I'm not sure. It's not mentioned in the description of the app either. At any event, I do suggest that both MobiSystems and HMH be contacted for further accessibility enhancements as the app isn't really usable at the moment.</p>

Submitted by alex wallis on Wednesday, September 28, 2016

interestingly the free version of the dictionary from the old developer still seems to be around that needed an in app purchase.
I had another look, and the new version of the dictionary by the new developer is actually called american heritage dictionary plus.
I noticed that this dictionary is only around 17 mb so I am a little confused why the massive size difference compared to the older more accessible version. Did you have to download other resources after you purchased the new dictionary? I hope its not a case of needing an internet connection to use the new dictionary. the older accessible dictionary for me is 861 mb but this new one is only around 17 mb.
your right about the accessibility issue when opening the older dictionary I hadn't spotted that, its as if VoiceOver keeps trying to activate the search field then it exits and tries to access it again. It makes it quite pointless to have it on ios 10, I will be deleting it, though won't put down the cash for the new dictionary, its a shame, on the plus side I do get nearly 1 gb of space back on my phone.

Submitted by Amir on Thursday, September 29, 2016

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

<p>Quite interestingly, I cannot find the older accessible app on the App Store. Even searching for "American Heritage Dictionary" on the App Store displays 3 relevant results and all belong to MobiSystems -- even the free app you mentioned. It's worth mentioning that the free app is just free to try, needs an internet connection, comes with ads (lots of them), and has no audio pronunciation module. Once you unlock it by paying $19.99 via an in-app purchase, you should download 600MB to 700MB of data to take advantage of its Pro, offline features. So yes, you do need to download data once you purchase it. Given its accessibility issues, however, I requested that Apple redeem my payment and it was done as expected. I'm in contact with HMH and MobiSystems, but don't know what might come out of it.</p>

Submitted by Darrell Hilliker on Thursday, September 29, 2016

Mr. Leith continues to insist Mobi Systems is ultimately responsible for the development of the app. The excuse is that while HGH owns the content, Mobi Systems owns the technology.

I have been emailing and tweeting @mobisystems since this lockout began, and I have not once received a response from Mobi Systems.

Has anyone else received a response from Mobi Systems?

Or can I at this point make the valid claim that Mobi Systems is deliberately ignoring blind people?

Submitted by alex wallis on Thursday, September 29, 2016

I assume buying the plus version just avoids the need for the inapp purchase though?
I don't think we can claim that mobi systems is ignoring the needs of blind users, given that the release notes for the new version specifically mention VoiceOver fixes, and although mobi are being quiet, you don't know if the dictionary owners are putting pressure on them behind the scenes. and you don't want to alienate them, give them time after all they have made one fix, its probably worth passing on feedback to both mobi and the dictionary owners then wait for the next release before contacting again.
its also worth noting that leaving 1 star reviews will hurt them as it will really impact there appstore ratings and it takes a lot to recover from 1 star reviews and get your rating back up.

Submitted by Amir on Thursday, September 29, 2016

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

<p>It seems to be the case, Alex. But the Plus version also has another in-app purchase option, costing $6 or $7, which would provide us with the awesome Rodget's Thesaurus. So with MobiSystems app we can have both AHD 5 and Rodget's Thesaurus in one single offering. Just wish it were as accessible as the old AHD 5. Anyway, if you want to pay for everything up front -- including the Thesaurus, I suggest <a href="">this one.</a></p>

Submitted by Amir on Thursday, September 29, 2016

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

<p>To Alex and all, it seems that the app <a href="">I introduced</a> is problematic. At least a reviewer has difficulty using it in offline mode though the person has paid $19.99 for it. All I can say is that the free app, if unlocked via the in-app purchase option, can be used offline, but I'm not sure about the one which must be purchased up front. Moreover, the horrible low-quality audio issue affects both as it's been a deliberate decision on MobiSystems' part. What a mess of a developer switch!</p>