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Microsoft’s new Windows Vista operating system has just been released for corporate consumption.
I have had an initial look at it from an accessibility perspective.
There are a variety of new functions that aid accessibility but the big change is really one of attitude toward accessibility for users. Microsoft commissioned a survey on accessibility in 2003 by Forrester Research and the headline result was that 57% of adults who are 18 to 64 years old in the USA might benefit from accessible technology. This high percentage came as a surprise to Microsoft; the designers then began to make accessibility more discoverable to all people, not just people with severe disabilities.
Microsoft had already planned to improve the accessibility in Vista but the survey changed the attitude towards accessibility. Instead of it being available to users who self-idendified as having a severe disability, it had to be made easily discoverable by the majority of users who needed the features but did not consider themselves as being disabled. Anyone who uses Vista should be encouraged to look at how it is set up and see if the computer can be made easier for them to see, hear, and use.
The change in attitude can be seen in several ways:
- The Ease of Access Center is on the login page so you see it as soon as you log on to Vista. In XP it is buried in the control panel section.
- There is a new icon for the Ease of Access Center: It was a wheelchair in XP which was unfortunate, firstly because wheelchair users who are paraplegic may not have a problem accessing PCs and secondly it stopped other people clicking on it because they would assume it was not relevant. The new icon is abstact but bears some resemlance to the old wheelchair icon and the stylized arrows are meant to represent the different forms of input and output that are available when customizing Windows Vista.
- However the biggest change is in the Ease of Access Center itself. It now includes a questionnaire that is designed to identify any impairments in the user with questions such as “Do you have any difficulty distinguishing colours” or “Does background noise make it difficult for you to speak on the phone”. Based on this series of questions, suggestions are made as to how to change the standard setup of the computer so that it is easier to see, hear, and use.
This change of attitude really moves accessibility from being the concern of people with severe disabilities to being part of ease of use and therefore potentially relevant to any user. As I have argued elsewhere we are all impaired to some extent (for example I do not have the IQ of Einstein, or the eyesight of an eagle, or the hand-eye coordination of a professional computer games player) so it is important that accessiblity and ease of use are available right across the spectrum.
The assisitve technology built-in to Vista includes an improved screen-magnifiation facility called Magnifier, a greatly improved text-to-voice system, called Narrator, the new Windows Speech Recognition system (there was one in Office XP but it was a very well kept secret), and On Screen Keyboard. Having these built-in will enable people with minor impairments to take advantage of them (in previous releases the extra cost would have greatly limited the take up). I can imagine more people dictating emails because it is quicker than typing and also reduces hand strain; or a person with dyslexia switching on the text-to-voice whilst still reading the screen.
The improved accessibility in Vista has had a side, but important, benefit to the development of Microsoft products. The developers now have to test new products with the built-in accessibility tools. This type of testing can very quickly pick up errors; for example if you listen to a computer talking you will immediately pick up grammar errors and also get fed up if it just says “link, link, link…” without any indication of what the link is to.
The importance of accessibility testing as a way to improve overall quality will be enhanced further when automated testing tools can take advantage of UI Automation (the succesor to Microsoft Active Accessiiblity) which will be officially announced with the general availability of Vista early in 2007.
Vista ease of use is a major step towards bringing accessibility into the business-as-usual mainstream of computing.