Surprise: Blind users have established interface conventions, too!

Imagine the following scenario:
You want to delete a file from your computer. A dialog pops up on your screen and a text message asks: “Are you sure?”. Below the text are two rectangular shaped gray areas. One reads “OK” and the other “Cancel”.

An alert asking the user whether he really wants to delete the file. The options are "OK" and "Cancel".

Raise your hand if you know how to click the OK button.

Did you know that you need to move your mouse cursor over the rectangle that reads “OK”, – and then, while hovering over it, click the left button on your mouse exactly one time?

Yes? You did?

Well of course you did!

We all know the basics of navigating user interfaces. We know to left-click on buttons, and to right-click for context menus. We use the mouse wheel and expect a page to scroll. We instinctively search for the close button in the upper corner of a window.

Those are established user interface conventions – and they are a good thing.

As a developer, it means not having to explain the interface basics to your users. You can safely assume that players know how to activate the button labeled “Play” in your main menu. You can just focus on teaching your players the rules of your actual gameplay.

Surprise: Blind users have interface conventions, too!

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that such interface navigation conventions exist for blind users as well.
It shouldn’t – but it seems that it does.

Often enough, when developers do go the extra mile to add blind accessibility to their games, they create their own interface navigation rules. One of their sighted programmers will spend an afternoon thinking about how it could work and then implement it. If he’s pressed for time he might not even look at how other games did it before. As a result, these games start out by reading a page of instructions to their users at the beginning. And that is about as exciting as reading a phone book.

Why break established conventions?

Not only is it boring to listen to instructions. Breaking conventions can also lead to losing users and turning them away from your app. Consider this: Every app that does this has their own navigation scheme. A blind user has to learn the quirks of each one and then try not to forget as they switch apps. Maybe they will remember the important basics, but if a game implements special gestures for things not used very often, let’s say for Pause for example, it will quickly be forgotten.

You don’t ask your sighted users to press Ctrl-K to click buttons, or right-click to scroll text, do you?
The same should be true for making your menus accessible. Don’t reinvent the wheel, don’t invent your own navigation scheme. Go with what’s already established.

Remember – in order to even start your app, the blind user will have to navigate to it and activate somehow. They know how to do that. They are already using an interface. If your app could be navigated the same way that the user navigated their operating system, you wouldn’t need instructions at all.

Not building on what users already know is creating an unnecessary entry barrier. And for blind users especially, more barriers is the last thing they need.

Made by Apple.

For mobile accessibility, the conventions have pretty much been established by Apple, because their VoiceOver screen reader is the gold standard. The majority of blind smart phone and tablet users are using Apple devices, and these devices are running VoiceOver.

The folks at Apple have done a great job with VoiceOver. Apple received an Access Award from the American Foundation for the Blind in 2009 and a Helen Keller Achievement Award in 2015, and the Bray Award for Accessibility Innovation in 2016 from the American Council of the Blind.
Whether you are an Apple fan or hater, following the really simple interface conventions from VoiceOver is a good place to start.

The freedom to be impatient

Whether you implement your own system or go with established conventions is ultimately up to you, of course. If there is one thing to be said about blind mobile users, it’s that they are incredibly patient and resilient. If your game is good, heck, even if it is just OK, they will probably be willing to jump through the hoops of learning how to navigate your menus either way.
For now.

A sighted user will uninstall a game within seconds if he finds the controls frustrating. There are enough other games out there – the Google Play store counted 2 million apps in February 2016 (Source: Blind users don’t have that option. It won’t surprise you to hear that the number of accessible games is extremely limited.

But that number is growing.
And here’s why:

There around 21 million blind or visually impaired people over the age of 18 in the US alone (Source: AFB). In my opinion it’s one of the few customer groups still left in the mobile market that aren’t yet over-saturated with games. In other words, there is money to be made. The challenge to create games specifically for the blind is also attractive to game designers. If it’s financially viable and artistically interesting… all that’s left is the technical barrier.

And the easier it gets to create accessible apps and games, the more developers will happily take up the task. I hope that my plugin will help with that as well. This is a good thing, because everybody wins. Blind people get more software and more developers can make a living doing what they love.

There will come a time when blind users have a choice. They will have the freedom that we sighted users already have: The freedom to be impatient.

And unless a game has outstanding gameplay – those apps with unusual and tricky interfaces will be the first to be ignored.

I’m guilty

Remember that time pressed programmer I mentioned, who implemented her own accessible menus without regards to existing conventions? Yeah, that was me. I created an elaborate interface system, based on long taps and circular menus. But I’ve learned my lesson earlier this year and deleted all that code. I found a forum with lots of blind gamers and asked them for their help and feedback, and got plenty. It’s when my idea to write a plugin for Unity was born. If you would like to see just how helpful this huge community is, here is the link to the original forum thread.

All apps made accessible with my plugin will automatically be working similar to VoiceOver. Like I said, I am not a fan of reinventing the wheel. You can read more about the plugin and how to make games for sighted and blind users for Windows, iOS and Android in Unity here: Accessibility Plugin for Unity

Further Reading