The Adjustment Bureau: The Case for Adjustment in Mobile Apps
Recently I was asked to present at the Media-Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group (MELSIG) event hosted by the University of Sussex. MELSIG is a special interest group originally formed in 2008 (MELSIG, 2014). The group’s focus has evolved, alongside contemporary developments in technology, to include investigation of a wide variety of digital media when applied to the support of learning and teaching. The theme for the University of Sussex event was Digital Media Interaction and Inclusivity and this was exactly the prompt I needed to engage in more thorough research of in-app adjustment functions which has been preoccupation of mine for a while.
Learning as a community
Through my work building ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, 1998) on both sides of the Atlantic, and in particular during the development of App Swap events at the University of Brighton something always bothered me about apps or mobile applications/software. Namely why, when developers have such rich SDKs to work with, isn’t there more attention to paid to inclusivity when designing apps? Both the iOS and Android operating systems have a number of built-in functions which have the potential to greatly aid accessibility in addition to the benefits afforded by the touchscreens and the form factors of the devices themselves. However, due to the unique conditions under which apps are developed a combination of factors including time/monetary constraints, corporate interests and the lack of a common accessibility guidelines seem to stifle the potential of certain apps on the accessibility front. Indeed within app development no equivalent to the WC3’s Web Accessibility Initiative seems to have emerged and the rule systems applied to website design such as the EU Internet Handbook have no bearing on the design of apps. On the one hand this is quite liberating for interface designers and has led to something of a Wild West populated by some truly innovative interface designs.
Bringing greater intention to development for accessibility
My intention with this post, I should point out, is not to stifle innovation, but rather I would like to propose that when an app’s primary purpose falls within certain categories of use, ‘categories’ which can be applied to the creation or consumption of educational materials or be used in support of learning, that extra attention be paid to the accessibility features of ‘said’ apps. Perhaps in the future this could resemble a set of agreed standards, but at this time I would like to make more of a humble request rather than a full recommendation. The core idea I put forth in relation to my ‘request’ is the notion of letting the user choose and customise the app through the presence of ‘adjustment’; this I believe is a key facet of the path to accessibility. I shall expand on ‘categories of use’ later in this post.
Using the Kindle app as dyslexic person
A personal experience which prompted this line of enquiry was my use of Amazon’s Kindle app for iPad. In October 2011 Apple introduced support of text-to-speech (TTS) within their iOS5 operating system (Moren, 2012); as a Dyslexic person I was eager to make use of this function and to this day find it immensely useful. Imagine my disappointment to find out that the ‘Speak Selection’ tool is actively blocked within the Kindle app. The ‘VoiceOver’ tool was later allowed within the Kindle for iPad app (Ingber, 2013) and Amazon had introduced its own text-to-speech function to the Kindle 2 device in 2009 but eBook publishers could choose to disallow the function with the viewpoint that it might damage audiobook sales (Schofield, 2009). There is another aspect of the Kindle app which always seems a bit of an oversight; reading background colours. Given the development resources available to Amazon, there are only three options provided for the text background colour: White, Black (X-Ray) and Sepia. Why not make the reading experience as accessible as possible by including customisable background colours as evidenced by apps like Bluefire Reader, Kobo Reader and Goodreader? When comparing Kindle to particularly Kobo reader and Goodreader one is reminded of the oft used technological paradigm of VHS and Betamax; VHS won due to market share in combination with other factors rather than viewing quality.
The Adjustment Bureau
So why the title of The Adjustment Bureau? The 2011 film, The Adjustment Bureau based on the Phillip K. Dick’s short story, The Adjustment Team (1954 - full text) which tells of characters whose life choices deviate from a preordained plan set-out by a mysterious organisation. Inspired by this idea I postulated that there may be a parallel between that concept and app developers whose choices are guided or pushed by a combination of external factors and client influences, ultimately I wondered whether this explains why the avenues to accessibility are so seldom followed? With all of this in mind I decided to enter into an assessment of the adjustment functionality available within some of the most prominent and popular apps I have encountered while working in Higher Education. I focused on apps available for iOS for this pursuit as that is the primary device type supported in my workplace and I had access to the devices. This also prompted me to define some basic ‘categories of use’ when applied to app use within academia for the support of learning and teaching.
Categaries of Use
The Categories of Use are as follows:
|Browser||A web browser for navigating web-based information. May include other features such as reader functions and RSS curation.|
|Composer||In this context for the composition of text-based materials and documents.|
|Consumer||For curation and consumption of RSS content, blogs and online news sources.|
|Notetaker/annotation||Apps with the main purpose of taking notes and/or placing notes and annotation on documents.|
|Reader||Apps with the primary purpose of reading text, eBooks, ePubs, PDF and other text formats. May have limited annotation tools.|
When defining the categories I tried to resist the use of pre-existing desktop software definitions such as for example ‘word processing’. These definitions have established associations and many apps reach beyond the format-based outputs which are expected from these former software definitions.
The Adjustment Criteria upon which each app was judged are listed below. If an app includes a feature it is awarded a point for that criterion, it may partially allow a feature which would result in a 0.5 of a point. The total score is a point value out of a total of 8, for the 8 criteria and is shown as a final percentage. Apps which achieve >=60% are highlighted in purple.
|Font Size||Font size can be changed specifically, within the app. In the case of ‘composer’ categorised apps this is included in their writing functionality.|
|Line Height||Line height can be changed specifically, within the app. In the case of ‘composer’ categorised apps this is included in their writing functionality.|
|Font Style||Font style can be changed specifically, within the app. In the case of ‘composer’ categorised apps this is included in their writing functionality.|
|Background Colour: Invert/Brightness||Brightness of the display or invert (white text on black background) is a specific option within the app.|
|Background Colour: Sepia||A sepia background (beige/mild yellow) is a specific option within the app.|
|Background Colour: Sliders/Colour||A selection of colours or Red/Green/Blue sliders allow the user to adjust and specify the background colour within the app.|
|Pinch zoom||The pinch zoom is a built-in function of the iOS. Some apps do not make/allow full use of this touch-based function.|
|iOS Speak Selection||A function which can be enabled in the General > Accessibility functions in the iOS this can be used by selecting text in certain apps and pressing the ‘speak’ option which comes up. This is distinct from the ‘Voiceover’ option which is a complete audio interface and harder use for quick impromptu needs.|
The scores as an embedded Google Spreadsheet - a work in progress. NB: this list is not designed to be exhaustive and if you have other apps which you would like me to assess using these criteria, please add them to the comments area below. The “+” next to the app title identifies that the app is available for both iPhone and iPad.
Through this process of investigation and app functionality testing I feel that I have only begun to scrape the surface of how accessibility functions are implemented and the possible avenues for improvement. I think that there is certainly scope to devise a more concrete scoring and testing system with the view to helping teachers and learners make informed decisions about the accessibility functions of certain apps. Such a system would also have the potential to help inform developers about the needs of specific user groups. However the responsibility cannot be squarely that of the developers, as users we also have a responsibility to let developers know what we want and need. One of the benefits of working with apps is that developers are often small to medium sized companies and really benefit from the suggestions from their user-base, this may extend to use testing. In the Wild West of apps we as the user have an opportunity to make a difference and we shouldn’t miss out by sticking to the easy path.
Appendix I - Some particularly successful adjustment interfaces discovered as a result of this investigation Bluefire Reader
Bluefire reader - this free reader app features some very nice adjustment features. However there is only a small selection of free, public domain ebooks available. The app does allow you to connect a DropBox account so you could in theory use it to read ePub files with the reader functionality.
Feedly - is a free rss feed curator with built-in links to social media services. It is very helpful for the organising categories of news sources including blogs, news sites and trends. It does have some basic and helpful tools to customise the reading experience, such as invert text colour and font size.
Goodreader 4 - an excellent and very powerful reader app. This app includes extensive adjustment capabilities as well as file conversion, compression and on-document annotation. This is the only app to score 100% in the criteria ratings and £1.99 it is a good deal.
Kindle for iPad - somewhat limited capabilities compared to some of the other reader apps, but does allow for a number of adjustments including: brightness, font size, font style, background colour, screen layout and line height.
Index Card for iPad - although this app is limited in terms of altering the background colour when you are composing text it does allow for the display of your resulting Index Cards on tinted backgrounds. This app does allows for text size adjustments and is very helpful for planning out essays and verbal presentations.
Kobo Reader for iPad - Kobo books need to be managed through an account on their website and can also be bought via WHSmiths. The app allows you to search and review free samples. This app has nice adjustment functions and also has a good notifications area which helps users to discover new features which are added to the app.
Microsoft OneNote for iPad - Unfortunately the Microsoft Office apps do not score very highly on this accessibility rating. The OneNote app by contrast has some nice function, including a number of ‘Page Color’ options under the ‘View’ tab.
Notability for iPad - this is a great app for reading, notetaking and annotation. One of its lesser known functions is the flexibility of page background colours and layouts when viewing and annotating PDF files. This app has excellent written and audio annotation options. It is comparable to iAnnotatePDF for iPad with the main difference that audio annotations can be placed contextually throughout the text in iAnnotate.
OverDrive Media Console - a reader app which will allow you to download eBooks from certain public libraries and retailers such as Waterstones. The extent of adjustment depends upon the individual eBook but this app has a lovely intuitive interface both as a local app and as a web-based reader app. The app also allows access to eBooks.
Scribd. - this reader app requires a subscription (£5.99/month) for full access to books and they carry a comprehensive catalogue of both fiction and non-fiction as well as self-published and scholarly works. It is possible to access book samples for free through the app. The text and font related adjustment options are similar to the Kindle app.
Mercury Web Browser (discussed during MELSIG presentation)
This screenshot shows the reader mode adjustments which are available when you turn a page to reader mode. You can save pages to PDF with these settings.
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