Analyzing the Windows 11 Accessibility Announcement
Microsoft announced Windows 11 a few weeks ago, and, from my searches at least, still doesn’t have an audio described version of the announcement. Update: There’s one now. Anyways, they also released a post on their Windows blog about how Windows 11 was going to be the most accessible, inclusive, amazing, delightful thing ever! So, I thought I’d analyze it heading by heading to try to figure out what’s fluff and what’s actual new stuff worthy of announcement.
Beyond possible, efficient and yes, delightful
So, they’re trying to reach what the CEO in his book “hit refresh,” called the “delightful” experience he wanted to work towards. His gist was that Windows was pretty much required now, but he wanted to make it delightful. Well, the only user interface that is delightful to me is Emacspeak. MacOS and iOS come close. What makes them delightful are a few things: sound and quality speech and parameter changes. I won’t go over all that here, my site has plenty on all that already. But it’s safe to say that Microsoft isn’t going near that anytime soon.
Instead of trying to offload cognitive strain from parsing speech all day, they put even more on it. Microsoft Edge has “page loading. Loading complete.” Teams has similar textual descriptions of what’s going on. And while I appreciate knowing what’s going on, speech takes a second to happen, be heard, and be processed. Sound happens a lot quicker, and over time, a blind user can get pretty good at recognizing what’s going on. But whenever I brought this up to the VS Code team, they said something about not having the ability to add sounds, so they’d have to drag in some other dependency, so they’d have to bring that up with the team and all that. Well, they won’t become the most delightful editor for the blind any time soon. Just the most easy to use.
And, while this is partly the fault of screen reader developers who just won’t focus on sound or speech parameter changes for text formatting and such like that, Microsoft could be leading the way in that with Narrator. And yeah, they’ve got a few sounds, and their voices can change a little for text formatting, but their TTS is just too limited to make it really flexible and enjoyable. Instead of changing pitch, rate, and entonation, they change pitch, rate, and volume, and sometimes it’s jarring, like the volume changes. But there’s not really much else they can do with their current technology. I guess they’ll have to maybe change the speech synthesis engine a bit, if they’re even able to. In the past six years, I’ve not seen any new, or better, first-party voices for US English for Windows. Sure, they have their online voices, which are rather good, but they haven’t shown any inclination to bring that quality to Windows OneCore Voices.
People fall asleep listening to Microsoft David. He’s boring and should not be the default voice. While this is anecdotal, I’ve heard quite a few complaints about it, and if you listen to him for a long time, you’d probably get bored too. This is seriously not a good look, or rather, sound, for people who are newly blind and learning to use a computer without sight, or someone who doesn’t know that there are other voices, or even if Microsoft wants to demonstrate Narrator to people who haven’t used it before. And while NVDA users can use a few other voices, the defaults should really be good enough. Apple has had the Alex voice for years. Over ten years, in fact. He’s articulate, can parse sentences and clauses at a time, allowing him to intone very close to the way humans speak, with context. He’s also not the most lively voice, but he sounds professional. And, Alex is the default voice on MacOS. David, on Windows, just sounds bored. And so blind people, particularly those used to Siri and VoiceOver from iOS, just plain fall asleep. It’s nowhere near delightful.
## Windows 11 is the most inclusively designed version of Windows
Okay, sure. Even though from what I’ve heard from everyone else, it’s just the next release of Windows 10. But sure, hype it up, Microsoft, and watch the users be disappointed when they figure out that, yeah, it’s the same old bullcrap. Bullcrap that works okay, yeah, but still bullcrap.
#+beginquote People who are blind, and everyone, can enjoy new sound schemes. Windows 11 includes delightful Windows start-up and other sounds, including different sounds for more accessible Light and Dark Themes. People with light sensitivity and people working for extended periods of time can enjoy beautiful color themes, including new Dark themes and reimagined High Contrast Themes. The new Contrast Themes include aesthetically pleasing, customizable color combinations that make apps and content easier to see. #+endquote
Okay, cool, new sounds. But are there more sounds? Are there sounds for animations? Are there sounds for when copying or other processes complete? Are there sounds that VS Code and other editors can use? Are there sounds for when auto-correct or completion suggestions appear? Are their sounds for when an app launches in the background, or a system dialog appears? Are there sounds for when windows flash to get users’ attention?
#+beginquote And, multiple sets of users can enjoy Windows Voice Typing, which uses state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to recognize speech, transcribe and automatically punctuate text. People with severe arthritis, repetitive stress injuries, cerebral palsy and other mobility related disabilities, learning differences including with severe spelling disabilities, language learners and people that prefer to write with their voice can all enjoy Voice Typing. #+endquote
Um, yeah, this has been on Windows for years. Windows + H. I know. I get it.
design and user experience. It is modern, fresh, clean and beautiful.
Okay, but is it fresh, clean and beautiful for screen readers? Are there background sounds to help us focus, or maybe support for making graphs audible for blind people, or support for describing images offline? Oh wait, wrong OS, haha. Funny how Apple’s OS’ are more modern when it comes to accessibility than Microsoft.
Windows accessibility features are easier to find and use
Okay, this whole section has been talked about before, because it’s no different than the latest Windows Insiders’ build. Always note that if companies have to fill blog posts with stuff that they’ve had for like months or a year now, it means they really, really don’t have anything new to show, or say. They just talk because not doing so would hurt them even more. Contrast this with Apple’s blog post on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, where everything they talked about was new or majorly improved. And all Microsoft did that day was “listen”. There’s a point where listening has gathered enough data, and its time to act! Microsoft passed that point long ago.
#+beginquote Importantly, more than improving existing accessibility features, introducing new features and making users’ preferred assistive technology compatible with Windows 11, we are making accessibility features easier to find and use. You gave us feedback that the purpose of the “Ease of Access” Settings and icon was unclear. And you said that you expected to find “Accessibility” settings. We listened and we changed Windows. We rebranded Ease of Access Settings to Accessibility and introduced a new accessibility “human” icon. We redesigned the Accessibility Settings to make them easier to use. And of course, Accessibility features are available in the out of box experience and on the Log on and Lock screens so that users can independently setup and use their devices, e.g., with Narrator. #+endquote
So, the most important thing they’ve done this year is what they’ve already done. Got it. Oh and they changed Windows. Just for us guys. They did all that hard work of changing a name and redoing an icon, just for us! Oh so cringeworthy. This “courage” thing is getting out of hand. Also, if changing Windows is so hard, maybe it’s time to talk to the manager. Seriously. If it’s so hard to do your job that changing a label and icon is hard work, there’s something seriously wrong, and I almost feel bad for the Windows Accessibility team now.
Windows accessibility just works in more scenarios
#+beginquote Windows 11 is a significant step towards a future in which accessibility “just works,” without costly plug-ins or time-consuming work by Information Technology administrators. With Windows 10, we made it possible for assistive technologies to work with secure applications, like Word, in Windows Defender Application Guard (WDAG). With Windows 11, we made it possible for both Microsoft and partner assistive technologies to work with applications like Outlook hosted in the cloud… #+endquote
Okay, so, from Twitter, Joseph Lee has complained that the Windows UI team isn’t writing proper code to let screen readers read and interact with apps in Windows 11’s Insider builds. So right there, we’re going to still need Windows App Essentials, an NVDA add-on that makes Windows 11 a lot easier to use. This add-on is mostly for the first-party apps, like weather and calculator. So, um, what’s all this about again? So, nothing seems to be new. We will still need “costly” addons and plugins and junk. Because I don’t see Microsoft fixing those UI issues by release. System admins, keep that list of NVDA addons around, because they’ll still be needed in Windows 11.
Remote Application Integrated Locally (RAIL) using Narrator. While that may sound like a lot of jargon to most people, the impact is significant. People who are blind will have access to applications like Office hosted in Azure when they need it.
Yeah because people with disabilities are dumb and can’t understand tech speak. Sure. Okay. Keep dumbing us down, Microsoft. We really enjoy the slap in the face. Just explain the terms, like RAIL. With a quick Google search, it looks like Azure supports Ruby on Rails, so, I guess that’s what it is. Which doesn’t make much sense because Rails makes web apps, from what I understand. Ah well. Keep lording your tech knowledge over us, oh great Elites at Microsoft.
What I want to see is Electron apps getting OS-level support in accessibility, so that VS-code doesn’t have to feel like a web app, because it shouldn’t feel like that on Microsoft’s own OS.
Now, being able to host Office on a server and have Narrator, and hopefully other screen readers (because Narrator is still not good enough), support it, is nice. But that’s not really a user-facing feature. Users probably won’t know Word is hosted on a server.
#+beginquote Windows 11 will also support Linux GUI apps like gedit through the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) on devices that meet the app system requirements. And, we enabled these experiences to be accessible. For example, people who are blind can use Windows with supported screen readers within WSL. In some cases, the assistive technology experience is seamless. For example, Color Filters, “just work.” Importantly, the WSL team prioritized accessibility from the start and committed to enable accessible experiences at launch. They are excited to share more with Insiders and to get feedback to continue to refine the usability of their experiences. #+endquote
In some cases… Wanna elaborate a bit, Microsoft? Will I be able to use Gedit with a screen reader? Or Kate? Or Emacs? I have gotten Emacs with Emacspeak working on WSLG in Windows Insider builds. But it’s too sluggish to be used productively. So yeah, if that’s the same experience as using a screen reader with it, I don’t see myself using it much, if at all.
experiences we introduced last week like our partnership with Amazon to bring Android apps to Windows in the coming months.
Okay, well I’m waiting. I suspect they’ll use something similar to what they did with the Your Phone app, just pipe accessibility events to the screen reader through, the title bar I think? That’ll be okay I guess, but no sound feedback would mean that the experience isn’t quite to TalkBack standards, as low as that is.
Modern accessibility platform is great for the assistive technology ecosystem
closely with assistive technology industry leaders to co-engineer what we call the “modern accessibility platform.” Windows 11 delivers a platform that enables more responsive experiences and more agile development, including access to application data without requiring changes to Windows.
I’m not going to pretend to understand that last bit, but if the UI problems found by Joseph Lee are any indication, a lot more has been broken than fixed or new. Also, which Assistive Technology industry leaders? And what biases do they have?
#+beginquote We embraced feedback from industry partners that we need to make assistive technology more responsive by design. We embraced the design constraints of making local assistive technology like Narrator “just work” with cloud hosted apps over a network. We invented and co-engineered new Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to do both; to improve the communication between assistive technologies like Narrator and applications like Outlook that significantly improve Narrator responsiveness in some scenarios. The result is that Narrator feels more responsive and works over a network with cloud-hosted apps. #+endquote
I, as a user, don’t care about cloud-hosted apps. Office may at some point become a cloud-hosted app, and that’s what they may be preparing for, but I don’t care about that. Responsiveness is cool and good, but NVDA is very responsive, and some people still fall asleep using it. Why? Because it sounds boring! The voices in Windows suck. No audible animations or anything to make Windows delightful.
#+beginquote We also embraced feedback from industry partners that we need to increase assistive technology and application developer agility to increase the pace of innovation and user experience improvements. We made it possible for application developers, like Microsoft Office, to expose data programmatically without requiring Windows updates. With Windows 11, application developers will be able to implement UI Automation custom extensions, including custom properties, patterns and annotations that can be consumed by assistive technologies. For users, this means we can develop usability and other improvements at the speed of apps. #+endquote
At the speed of apps. That’s pure marketing crap. A lot is said in this article that is pure marketing, and not measurable fact. I want real, factual updates, not this. And the fact that they don’t provide that is a hint that they have nothing to provide. Now, having “custom” rolls and states and such things is nice for developers who have to reinvent the wheel and the atoms that make up that wheel, so maybe new applications have a chance of being accessible. But accessibility won’t happen with developers unless its in their face. They probably won’t know about these abilities, or even care in many cases.
Try Windows 11 and give us feedback
I’ve read feedback from those who have tried Windows 11 Preview. I myself can’t try it because no TPM chip and I don’t feel like being rolled back to Windows 10 when 11 is released. The feedback I’ve gotten so far from others is, well, very little, actually. From what I’ve heard, it’s still just Windows 10.
So, why should I even care about Windows 11? Not much is new or changed or fixed for accessibility, as this article full of many empty words shows. Six years of development, and the Mail app still has that annoying bug of expanding threads whenever keyboard focus lands on them, instead of waiting for the user to manually expand them. The Reply box still doesn’t alert screen readers that it’s opened, so it thinks its still in the message pane being replied to, and not the reply edit field. The Microsoft voices still sound pretty bad, even worse than Google’s offline TTS now, and that’s pretty bad.
Will any of this change? I doubt it. I’ve lost a lot of confidence in Microsoft, first because of their do-nothing stance on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, then their event without audio description, which Apple did perfectly, and now this article which tells us very little, and is almost a slap in the face when it talks about Windows being “delightful” because really, it’s not, and it won’t change substantially enough before release to be so.