It’s that time of year. With WWDC just one week away, Apple is getting ready to announce new versions of iOS and OS X, as well as possible tvOS and watchOS updates. While concrete information about these future releases is scarce, speculation and feature wish lists have begun popping up on mainstream tech websites.
Here are my top wishes for VoiceOver improvements in the next iteration of the Mac operating system, presumably OS X 10.12.
Several months ago, I wrote a piece detailing the many lingering VoiceOver bugs in OS X El Capitan and the apparent inaction by Apple accessibility in resolving them. Those opinions still stand, with no accessibility changes in the latest release, 10.11.5.
Although the release of OS X El Capitan focused largely on stability and performance improvements throughout the OS, VoiceOver continues to suffer from a wide array of issues that contribute to a gradually degrading state of accessibility on the Mac platform. For this reason, it is long overdue for Apple to give a concerted focus to improving the stability, performance, and intuitiveness of VoiceOver.
This includes, first and foremost, fixes for the plethora of lingering accessibility bugs reported to Apple by members of the AppleVis community and that are well documented in the active bug list. For example, Apple could maximize the potential of the VoiceOver features introduced in El Capitan, such as the ability to use the caps lock key as the VoiceOver modifier and the ability to change the grouping behavior of elements by fixing the issues that render them currently unfeasible for many users.
One area where VoiceOver has recently underperformed in comparison to Windows screenreaders is overall speed and responsiveness.
An example of this can be found when comparing the speed and reliability of typing feedback with VoiceOver versus other screenreaders. While some screenreaders report inputted text almost instantly, VoiceOver still sometimes fails to repeat every character or word, especially when the user is typing rapidly. Also, while quite rare, VoiceOver still fails to behave as expected when moving character by character, instead moving by word or losing focus in some other manner.
From personal experience, I have encountered this issue mostly while editing documents in Pages, but it’s possible other apps could be affected.
Furthermore, VoiceOver sometimes appears sluggish when navigating webpages in Safari, with the browser going, “Busy,” interrupting VoiceOver speech. This seems to occur on websites with a large number of frames. A check of the Activity Monitor utility shows the, “Safari web content,” process devouring an abnormally high percentage of the CPU. Turning VoiceOver off and on again within a few seconds causes the process to come down to an acceptable level; indicating that the issue is somehow related to VoiceOver interaction with the webpage.
While this can be difficult to reliably reproduce, I have experienced this issue on a variety of Macs at my disposal for testing or general use, and similar issues have been documented by other VoiceOver users.
In 2016, the everyday task of web browsing shouldn’t be so taxing for VoiceOver on modern desktop and notebook computers. Essentially, VoiceOver should become snappier.
Improved PDF support
Since the initial release of VoiceOver in 2005, the reading of PDF documents has never been great. This can be explained, in part, by some of the difficulties with the PDF format; such as forms or image based documents.
However, VoiceOver should include some long desired features, such as the ability to move through documents using the arrow keys, and a fix for a bug that could cause PDF files to crash Safari web content when clicking a link to a PDF document on a webpage. As PDF is a common format used in every-day life, blind Mac users should be able to make use of it like they would other document formats.
Improved support for web standards
As I have written about previously, web apps that have become quite capable over the years still don’t work as expected with VoiceOver.
For example, although Google services like Drive and Docs have made improvements in the area of accessibility, they still don’t operate like typical websites and thus don’t respond as expected to VoiceOver commands. This is all while the experience of other screenreaders such as NVDA on Windows and ChromeVox on Google Chrome have made these common services more usable for blind and low vision users.
Specific areas of improvement to VoiceOver could come in the form of better interaction with webpages with menus. On productivity services to social networking sites, I have experienced an issue where VoiceOver would get stuck in menus when trying to navigate a webpage with the VO left and right arrow keys. Menus on websites should behave as menus in desktop apps, only being revealed to the user when the command is given to execute, in this case VO space bar.
While this request is far less important than the previous four, I feel it warrants discussion among Apple’s accessibility team.
In 2009, hints for using VoiceOver were introduced with the release of OS X Snow Leopard. Since then, Mac hardware has changed, with more Macs either having a built in trackpad or the ability to use a wireless Magic Trackpad.
Consequently, common literature for learning VoiceOver on the Mac teaches many concepts with the trackpad commander rather than the keyboard; similar to using an iOs device. This makes sense, as iOs is widely considered to be a, “Gateway drug,” into the Apple ecosystem. Blind users of iOs who have had success with using VoiceOver can migrate smoother using existing concepts rather than having to reinvent the wheel, which can be a time consuming and frustrating experience for anyone learning new technology.
However, VoiceOver hints still instruct users to use traditional keyboard commands. In order to make the VoiceOver experience more seamless for new users, the option to hear instructions for trackpad gestures instead of keyboard commands should be available.
This is just a small list of wishes. Here’s hoping at least some of these suggestions make it.
What would you like to see? Sound off in the comments.