What's New in OS X 10.11 El Capitan for VoiceOver Users

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Today, Apple released OS X 10.11 El Capitan, a free update that will run on any Mac which supports Yosemite. Apple addressed some bugs in this release, as well as including a lot of new features in VoiceOver, and we think you'll really enjoy these updates and improvements. If you find any we missed, especially regarding braille or Zoom--which none of us have the capability to test--please leave a comment and let us know.

Before you update, be sure to have a look at our bug list for El Capitan to be sure that you can deal with the bugs.

New Features

More Modifiers!

El Capitan introduces a feature that many people have wanted for a very long time. At long last, you can use the caps lock key as a Voiceover modifier, letting you press just caps lock instead of both control and option. Just like in other screen readers, pressing caps lock twice will toggle caps lock on or off.

To set this up, open the VoiceOver Utility, select General from the categories table, and find the popup button to change this new setting. You can choose between Control and Option (default on pre-10.11 machines), Caps Lock, or Control/Option and Caps Lock (default in 10.11). If you use Karbibeaner and Spiel to remap your Caps Lock key for use with VoiceOver, you can remove those utilities now; if that's you, don't forget to go back into System Preferences > Keyboard and turn your caps lock key back on.

Sounds Speedy

The overall responsiveness of VoiceOver has been improved. Sounds take up less time, and the Alex voice has become extremely responsive. Nuance voices are slightly less so, but are still better than in previous versions of OS X. Sound effects play along with speech, at least to my ear, instead of finishing before speech can start. They also play closer together, something you can really hear if you focus on a field with multiple embedded text items such as Finder tags or auto-completed email addresses.

Splitting Things Up

Horizontal and vertical splitters now announce where they are collapsed, if they are. For example, if you are looking at a table and a scroll area, with a splitter between them, and VoiceOver says the splitter is "collapsed to the left", that tells you the table is hardly visible on the screen and the scroll area is taking up most of the screen space. At least, that's how I understand this feature to work. Similar to VoiceOver's ability to describe face positions and lighting in photos, it's nice to see Apple continuing to try to represent the visual aspects of its products in an accessible way.

Spotty Windows

There's a new feature called "window spots" in 10.11. It essentially lets you quickly jump to areas in the current window which VoiceOver deems important. You can add your own window spots with vo-shift-cmd-right bracket, or replace right bracket with left bracket to remove a spot.

To access Window Spots, press vo-u in any app, just how you'd access the Web Rotor in Safari. Focus will land on the Window Spots menu, which is a standard VoiceOver menu. This means that escape will close it, space, enter, or vo-space on any item will close it and move to that item, and typing will filter the list of items by what you've typed. You can also access windows spots in the Quick Nav or Trackpad Commander rotors.

To present you with Window Spots, VoiceOver tries to figure out what parts of a window might be parts you'd want to jump to quickly. In Text Edit, for instance, the available spots are the content of the current document and the text alignment. In Mail, they are the Messages Table, Mailboxes Table, and search field. As mentioned, you can add your own if you want to, or remove them (though you can't remove ones which VoiceOver adds by default).

Getting Choosy with Content

Content Chooser is another new feature, accessed with vo-u in the same way as Window Spots. If the app you're in supports it, it shows you a list of visible content without you needing to go find that content. Note that, as mentioned, not all apps will support this feature; so far, only some Apple apps do. It is not yet known if this is something third-party developers can take advantage of yet. If you find yourself using this a lot and discover an app where you think it might be useful, let Apple know so they can get an idea of how and where people want Content Chooser.

If you use cmd-option-f in Mail to run a search, for instance, you can stay on the search field, press vo-u, and use the Content Chooser to look up your results. Press escape and you're still on the search field, letting you adjust your search and try again with no need to move to the table of results. In Notes, you can be anywhere in the window and use Content Chooser to look at the list of all notes in the currently selected folder. Essentially, Content Chooser lets you look at a list of items without having to find that list.

What Activities Do You Do Online?

VoiceOver activities have been around for a long time, letting users customize nearly any setting based on the app they're in. In El Capitan, you can now run Activities based on particular websites, in addition to the per-app support they have always had. For instance, if you need group mode or table headers on one site, but not on any others, you can now set up an activity just for that site. When you open the site, group mode and table headers are enabled, but will go away when you leave the site.

To set this up, create or edit an Activity as usual. At the end of the Activity configuration options, you'll find a new addition to the popup menu, which used to only offer apps. You can now choose if your Activity runs for apps, websites, or both. You can check any apps you want, as normal, or pick 'websites'. Doing this will open a popup window with a table of web addresses, as well as 'Add' and 'Remove' buttons. Use the 'Add' button to add a new address, then type the address. When you've added all the addresses you want, hit the 'Close' button. The text to the right of the popup menu will tell you what apps/sites this Activity applies to, as will the check marks in the menu itself. Really, the only change to this configuration is the addition of the 'Websites' option, so it should feel familiar to anyone who has used Activities in the past.

Down with Interaction!

VoiceOver can now use one of four grouping modes. Instead of the interaction model that many newcomers to the Mac dislike, you can set VoiceOver to announce or ignore groups, no interaction required. The four options are:

  • Standard mode: the interaction mode VoiceOver has always used. This is the default.
  • Bookend: as you navigate, VoiceOver will be able to land on elements that speak the start or end of different groups. This is similar to how Jaws on Windows adds textual elements to webpages that tell you about lists, landmarks, and other information.
  • Announce: VoiceOver will speak the name of a new group as you enter it but will not land on any actual items that show that information. For example, if you vo-right and move from the main window into a toolbar, VoiceOver will say "toolbar" in a lower voice before reading out the toolbar button on which you just landed.
  • Ignore: no grouping information will be given at all as you move.

While the latter three get rid of most interaction, there are still a few places where the Mac will require it. For instance, imagine Mail if there was no quick way to navigate past the table of messages; it'd be a nightmare to get around! For that reason, you might still have to interact with potentially large items like tables. Also keep in mind that, at least in 10.11.0, there's a bug that will sometimes prevent you from leaving an item if you have anything other than the standard grouping mode selected. I've gotten stuck in frames on webpages before, for example, or in the webpage content itself, unable to get to other parts of Safari. The temporary fix, of course, is to switch back to standard grouping until you can get un-stuck and into an app where this won't be a problem. Play with the four modes, and see what you think.

Control the Preview Pane in Mail

In the Mail app, there is a longstanding bug where VoiceOver users could not easily expand or collapse the Preview Pane. Now, in 10.11, you can interact with the splitter to the right of the 'Messages Area Group' and use vo-right to move it. This will close the Preview Pane, letting you arrow through emails without having them marked. Note that you will no longer be able to use vo-j to jump between emails' text and the table of messages if you do this. To bring the Pane back, just find that same splitter and move it the other way. This isn't a feature, per se, but it is a very welcome fix that many users will enjoy.

Our Thoughts on El Capitan

This release has its share of bugs, as do all fresh new releases. However, it introduces a number of very nice changes and additions to OS X as a whole, and to VoiceOver in particular. Some of us are loving the ability to ditch interaction for good, while others are celebrating at the overall improvement in speech responsiveness. Most of the mainstream features in El Capitan are fully accessible, such as the vastly improved Notes app or the re-designed Disk Utility. There are a few odd omissions, though. For instance, VoiceOver seems unable to use the new "split screen two full-screen apps" feature, and despite the addition of "swipe to delete" in Mail, there is nothing like iOS VoiceOver's 'Actions' in the OS X VoiceOver rotor. Of course, it's far faster to press delete than to swipe up once or twice and double tap, and if you can see to use two apps side by side, chances are you don't need VoiceOver to set that up. Still, especially where swiping to delete is concerned, we hope that Apple will continue to improve access to these features; it would be great if new Mac users could manage mail the same way they're used to on iOS.

Should you upgrade? Assuming you can live with the bugs, this is a solid update that introduces some nice new features. It's free, and it'll work on any Mac that is able to run OS X 10.10 Yosemite. It even claims to improve performance, and while none of us have yet seen that for sure, neither have we seen any slow-downs at all. The speed increases and other VoiceOver improvements alone make El Cap worth considering for most users reading this, but if you aren't sure you can put up with the teething problems of a brand new OS, you can of course hold off until an update comes along. Also remember that, as mentioned, none of us are able to test braille support or Zoom on the Mac; if you rely on either of these, we suggest you wait until other users report back.

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18 Comments

#1 Kudos

I think Apple should be commended for a couple of these changes. While Karabiner handles mapping Caps Lock as the VO key nicely for me, it's great to see Apple building in this feature that so many users have been clamoring for (and giving one less reason to resist making the switch from Windows to Mac). I also really, really dig the idea of being able to set up Voiceover activities for a particular website.

I think the ability to change how the interaction scheme works is a good change as well - again, especially for people making the switch from Windows to Mac. I probably would have been more excited about it when I first started using my Mac, and interacting was this strange, mysterious thing that sounded confusing and inconvenient. Now, I really don't want to think about going back to a world without interaction, as I personally find it makes navigation so much easier and more efficient in a lot of situations.

Anyway, since I grumbled about the bugs, I figured I should balance it out by saying well done on those features that I think are really good additions from Apple.

#2 Ok is it possible to use ctrl

Ok is it possible to use ctrl and or option Keys in conjunction with capslook as vo commands?

We liberated two Keysbnow we have to use them to help to composse easier commands.

I am interested if pressing fn vo ctrl space is able to control drag ... if I can set caps ctrl a to do something

#3 2 bags in El Capitan 10.11

Hi, from my check in the public beta versions and until now when comes out, i would like to report the significant bags. the my first bag that i was discovered that in recovery mode if the main language has bin set to hebrew or other languages in this mode i don't to use other voice i can to use in the hebrew voice, this. because that i can't to use in VoiceOver in this mode because my default voice read the text that showing there.
I uses in hebrew language and in the system previous versions it's not happened.
someone has this issue?

#4 my second bag

my second bag is: when i try to navigate with VoiceOver with safari, with left right arrow and left arrow, VoiceOver doesn't focused in the content of the page. I sorry about this if it has bin reported.

#5 I like it the activities for other apps and websites

try to use this feature to set an activity for the website. it's work grate. very .

#6 Question about clean install and VmWare fusion

Hello all. I was planning on doing a clean install of the OS. My question is twofold however being i will be getting a new mac book pro soon. The gods at DHS here in Chicago are getting it for me for work. My question is when I install vm ware fusion on the newly clean installed OS or on migrating it to the new mac will the things change in windows so differently that Jaws will be no longer usable? You know how they have benchmarks for each machine a jaws license is tied to? Or will it still work? Thanks for any help.

#7 split view

hy, how to use split view in OS10 el capitan?

#8 The different group modes

Hello folks, It's not often i comment in these types of threads but this time i will: Would it be at all possible that someone knowledgeable from Applevis or elsewhere could make a podcast describing how to use the different grouping modes? I experimented a bit with this feature and never really got the hang of it, i thought the feature was undeveloped and had to mature when it was in Beta and i played with it. To my eyes it feels like you first hear what's in a group and when you then navigate past the group you get the same contents repeated only in dom mode which in my opinion somehow defeats the purpose of the function, but as i say i don't understand how the new modes work so could someone please enlighten me?

#9 browsers.

are you having problems on browsing the internet with this new upgrade? on yosemite, i've had huge problems when it comes to my browser that's why i asked. thanks.

#10 web browsing

Web browsing seems to work better here. Especially VO does a better job of remembering where you left off on a page when you go back, though it looks like there's also other smaller fixes in places.

#11 Re: group modes

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

I'm not sure what you mean by group modes. I thought you meant the El Cap feature, but you mentioned DOM mode, which sounds like the web content navigation setting. Can you clarify which you mean? If it's the former, I cover this in the podcast; I demonstrate Announce Mode, but Bookend Mode is almost identical.

#12 El Capitan bad for low vision people

I guess I am lucky to be a "low vision" user. But, unless I am missing something, a serious accessibility problem first introduced in Yosemite remains in El Capitan in spades. If you are low vision, you often have trouble reading text or recognizing icons that are low contrast. That is, the foreground object and the background are too close in tone. In Yosemite, black text became gray text in many places in the UI. With the screen inverted (which is often more comfortable) you are trying to resolve Gray text and objects against a Black background–––like trying to find charcoal in a coal mine. Compared with Mavericks, the graying of the UI is just about every place in Yosemite and El Capitan.

I tested just how much contrast has disappeared since Mavericks using tools to measure the contrast levels. These are the same contrast measurements used to measure minimum compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Here's the bad news and some examples, El Capitan vs. Mavericks. By the way, I turned on two Accessibility controls that supposedly should help when making these measurements.

1. Finder file names are displayed at half the contrast that the were in Mavericks.
2. Finder Sidebar text is about one-third less contrasty than in Mavericks
3. Sidebar icons are less than one-tenth the contrast of black against white.
4. Some crucial text elements such as the "Need Restart" text in the App Store upgrades page are even lower in contrast.

In fact, these last two are completely noncompliant with the minimum web accessibility guidelinbarely noticeable, when yoes. These are just a few of the issues. There is not a true Black on White rendering in any part of the UI that is rendered in System text including Window names, the Menu Bar, etc. I have communicated with the Apple Accessibility folks, as well as submitting bug reports on the El Capitan public beta. No dice. Jony Ives prefers style over accessibility.

I understand the trendy, minimalist look that Ives is pushing into the software realm. Cool. I just do not see why it would be so hard to give low-vision people the option of truly Black system fonts. (You cannot touch the System fonts; well, you can if you are clever and they will present as Gray everywhere.) Oh, and yes, you can crank up the gneral screen contrast, but then you end up with colored tex, icons and pictures that looks as if you are on an acid trip. I give up. I am sticking with Mavericks.

#13 El Capitan

i have used the El Capitan beta and so far i haven't run into any problem yet. I'm very happy with it and like the new features alot but then that could just be me so don't take my word for it. I don't have problem that doesn't mean any thing but just want to let people know. the only thing is some time i'm stuck in the group and couldn't get out even when i tried to do the stop interaction but that's just a miner bug that i willing to put up with it and doesn't really bother me.

#14 Have you eamiled Apple about this?

Hi. I'm not lwo vision but it's great you put some testing into this. Have you sent a description like this one to Acessibility@apple.com If you did I'mwondering have they said anything? Knowing you took the time to use tools to measure the contrast, it's probably something they haven't realized in a prospective such as yours. God luck hope you do email them, because your comment was well thought out. :)

#15 Re: Group modes

Hello and sorry for the delayed answer. Yes i meant the El Cap feature. I looked at both book end and announce mode and got the announcement of groups and then Voiceover read what was in the group, when i then voiceover+right arrowed onward on the page that i was on the content of the newly passed group was read again, a thing that i can't see the point in, because it makes it more tedious to navigate on web pages which was what i looked at and probably other places as well but as i have said earlier i'm not sure how to work this feature so i'm thankful for enlightenment.

#16 Group Modes and interaction

Hello, I have also been experiencing challenges with group mode.
I want to be able to use my computer without having to interact as much. Similar to how when using JAWS there is not a requirement to interact with tables and it still tells you if you are on a table and then automatically interacts with it. I also like how with JAWS the visual rectangle that is there for sighted people who are working with you stays with the text and follows it automatically without having to interact with JAWS. Is there a way to use the TAB key to interact similar to JAWS without using VO keys and still interact with other aspects of the computer. I apologize if this doesn't make sense. I can try to explain it more clearly.

#17 Interacting

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Hello,
I apologize for the delay. I saw the notification email with your message and meant to get to it, but it was soon buried in my inbox and it slipped my mind.

Tabbing works just as it does on Windows. Each press moves to the next button, form field, checkbox, or other element in a dialog. Tables will always require interaction because, if they didn't, you could have to move past a *lot* of items, depending on the size of the table. I don't know how Jaws handles this, but imagine, in Mail, if you had to move past every bit of information about every message just to get past the messages table itself.

On iOS there's a focus rectangle, highlighting the item VO is focused on. On OS X, there's a similar item called the VoiceOver cursor (different from the VO cursor you might be used to thinking of as where VO is focused). Open the VO Utility with vo-f8, then select the 'visuals' category, then the 'VoiceOver cursor' tab. Make sure this is enabled, and set any other preferences you like while you're in here. Note, for instance, the popup button that lets this cursor focus on sentences or words as you move through text.