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Beyond the Screen Reader: Strengthening Accessibility with Voice Technology

You may have used voice assistants (like Amazon Alexa) and been intrigued by their capabilities. However, for many people with disabilities, these devices are much more than a gimmick or luxury; voice assistants offer a new way to engage with digital and physical environments that were previously inaccessible by traditional channels.  Mission-driven organizations can become champions of inclusive design, extend the reach of the populations they serve and create unparalleled experiences for all by embracing digital accessibility best practices and harnessing the power of voice technology.

Accessibility & voice: a perfect match

“Accessibility” refers to providing access to all people, regardless of ability. According to the World Health Organization, about 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. These numbers, combined with aging trends across the world, reveal that a significant amount of people have accessibility needs that are unmet by technology. It is also now an undeniable fact that designing for accessibility is just good business. Just this year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a blind man that argued Domino’s online services violated federal disability requirements. Creating exceptional digital experiences for diverse populations goes beyond having HTML markup that screen readers can understand (although this is still important!). It’s about designing for multiple contexts, senses, and utilities. Since the advent of the web, organizations have focused on designing for the eyes first, and then translating visual interfaces into something everyone can digest.  But in the last decade, the digital landscape has shifted; approximately 26.2% of U.S. adults own a smart speaker as of 2018. Voice-enabled technologies inherently design with accessibility in mind by being accessible to visually impaired populations. The reality of those who use voice-enabled apps and devices goes well beyond individuals with visual impairments; voice can be a welcome channel for those who experience motor impairments, the elderly, dyslexic populations, and deaf or hard of hearing persons, thanks to new virtual assistant capabilities for hearing aids. And of course, users who may not have any of the aforementioned obstacles and find convenience in voice interfaces while their eyes or hands are occupied by tasks like driving or cooking. Still not convinced of the benefits of voice design? Consider this: ordinary activities that may take seconds for the able-bodied can take minutes with a disability. For example, if you have a motor or cognitive disability, sending a text message can take much longer than someone without these barriers. This may seem like a simple task, but within a graphical interface, there are quite a few steps that are made challenging by being disabled. Steps to send a text message within a graphical Interface:
  1. Locate phone. I may have forgotten where my device is due to my dementia, or it takes immense physical effort to maneuver to where my device is. 
  2. Unlock phone. I have arthritis or tremors that make this motion challenging.
  3. Open the messaging app. Again, my hands have difficulty making the correct gestures the interface requires.
  4. Create a new text message for contact. My chronic pain makes it difficult to crane my neck to look at the screen.
  5. Compose message. Dyslexia slows down the speed with which I write my message.
  6. Send message. The messaging app times out because of the speed of my actions due to my disability and I have to repeat a few steps before sending it.
However, voice technology is great for flattening experiences like this AND can assist with reducing physical or cognitive barriers involved. Steps to send a text message within a voice interface:
  1. I stay seated in my chair and speak across the room: “[voice assistant], send a [messaging app name] message to [contact]”.
  2. Compose message. I don’t worry about the jumbled letters or the pain I normally experience typing, instead, I speak aloud.
  3. Send message. I finish composing my message before the app times out and I go about my day.

Designing for all

Historically speaking, products that have been designed with accessibility in mind first, have yielded innovative and superior experiences for all. For example, in 1990, the kitchen brand XO released the “Good Grips line,” which are everyday kitchen tools developed for individuals with arthritis. Today, these products are still widely used due to their superior ergonomics many people enjoy.  Voice assistants also can help create inclusive experiences for all. As mentioned, one of the most significant benefits of voice-powered technology is its assistance with accomplishing everyday tasks. Turning off a light, setting an alarm, or reading a book are made easier and cheaper for the disabled consumer who previously had to rely on more specialized, traditional technology to accomplish the same tasks. The emotional and psychological effects of this new autonomy are incalculable but not insignificant; a joint study prepared by the University of Washington and the University of Maryland revealed that approximately ⅓ of surveyed disabled Alexa users mentioned an improvement in independence within their home because of the smart speaker. One review sampled for the study noted, “I can’t begin to tell you what a difference the Echo has made to my disabled veteran husband. After his stroke, his mobility and speech were affected. Giving him a whisper of a voice. He can now ask Alexa to play any song of his choosing without having to get up.”  Voice assistants can also bring joy and unexpected delight to users. In 2017, FrontPorch examined the impact of smart speakers at an assisted living facility and found that the devices alleviated loneliness and increased interpersonal communication between residents and families. Residents also embraced voice as a new, fun channel for their communication: “Most fun of all was setting up messaging with two friends who have also started using this magical device [Amazon Echo]. Yes, we could wait ’til we saw each other in the lobby. Yes, we could use the telephone. But there’s something so personal and private and fun about using this [the speaker]. I haven’t had this much fun since we were kids and strung a wire between two tin cans and played ‘telephone’.” 

Get started with voice technology

  1. Get educated: learn about the importance of accessible design
If you are uncertain of where your digital ecosystem stands in terms of accessibility, a great place to start is by watching this very helpful  Accessibility and Design webinar to get up to speed on best practices and tools. Additional online accessibility resources that we recommend:       2.  Enable Text to Speech (TTS) on your digital platforms In order for existing technologies common voice description services such as VoiceOver (iOS) and TalkBack (Android) to work, a site or application being read must have Text to Speech (TTS) enabled. To do this, you will need to use semantic HTML markup for site elements such as paragraphs, lists, forms, and images. When this markup is present, the screen reader allows the user to listen and skip through the content easily.        3.  Optimize your current online experience To have a better sense of how your existing platform(s) is able to integrate voice technology into the user experience, reflect on the following questions:
  1. Is there a significant segment of your audience that has a disability (visual, auditory, cognitive, physical,) and could benefit from speech technology? If your audience includes the general public or you are a large organization, this is very likely the case.
  2. Are there areas of friction within your customer experience  (e.g., too many clicks taken or physical actions needed for a user to complete a task,) that could benefit from voice commands? This could occur when scheduling a student loan appointment, making a charitable donation, or completing a questionnaire.
  3. Does the context of how someone interacts with your service lend itself to voice? For example, if your audience is often in transit or on-the-go.
  4. Could your content benefit from being processed auditorily versus visually? For example, is there is a strong learning component to your work, that could benefit from auditory and visual instruction for a variety of learners?
If you were able to immediately answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, then integrating voice technology will benefit your mission and goals.       4.  Create a roadmap Just as you would do when designing for any challenge, we recommend taking the time to evaluate your organizational priorities and understand your audience before creating solutions. However, as you consider what’s next for your organization in 2021 and beyond, we encourage you to consider how voice technology could create unexpected customer delight and engagement:
  • Games, stories, quizzes. Consider new, interesting ways for people to engage with your content to learn new facts and connect with your brand. Voice allows for more interactivity than screens which only allow one-way communication between your brand and your audience.
  • Flash briefings. News briefings aren’t only for media outlets. Consider a different way to inform and update your customers about the latest issues within your focus area.
  • Instructional content. Hands-free activities that can benefit from verbal instructions such as guided meditations, cooking recipes that help people prevent kitchen waste, or helping locate local community events.

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