Cupertino, thank you for listening

The fact that so many blind people care so deeply about their experience with Apple Products is a testimony to how well Apple has done. Not only is there a wide range of apps designed specifically to meet the needs of blind users, but many mainstream apps are accessible. Apple continues to encourage developers to do the right thing and be inclusive.

I’m of an age where I don’t think I’ll ever take for granted how wonderful it is to be able to buy not just a new item in an existing product line, but an entirely new product line, and know it will be meaningfully accessible from day one. We’ve come a long way.

Blind people are, of course, far from alone. Many other people with disabilities have been empowered by Apple’s accessibility initiatives, and then of course there are millions without significant disabilities who simply find the iPhone to be an indispensable tool for business, communication and entertainment.

So, contrary to a minority opinion I see out there, blind people don’t express concerns about Apple because they are whiners. They do so because they care. They have not just a financial investment in these products, but an emotional and productivity investment too.

Little wonder then that when it became clear that Apple had made a controversial user interface decision affecting the way Apple’s Mail app interfaced with VoiceOver, the screen reader used by blind people like me, it caused widespread concern. Most opinion I saw on this subject felt that Apple had made the wrong call this time. Apple is staffed by humans, and humans get things wrong sometimes, with the best of intentions. What counts in a situation like this is how responsive a company is to customer concerns; how quick they are to put things right.

With the release of the second beta of the forthcoming iOS 11.1, I’m delighted to see that Apple has heard its customers. The iOS actions rotor in Mail now behaves consistently again, as it did in iOS 10 and earlier.

Perhaps there is a time where we should think about the nature of engagement between the blind community and Apple. We are small, vulnerable, and the impact of well-intentioned but poorly-thought-through UI decisions is unusually high on our community. But for now, the purpose of this post is to say an unconditional thank you.

First, thanks to Apple for listening. It gives me, and I’m sure many others who were troubled by this decision, faith that if we can make a good case for why a UI change isn’t optimal, Apple is responsive and caring enough to reverse or amend it.

Second, thanks to everyone who took a little time to email the Apple Accessibility team with feedback. Remember, this team is on the front line, dealing with a wide range of calls from people with many disabilities. They pass on the feedback, and it’s important that our interactions with them respect the high-pressure role they have and the fact that they’re not the people who will ultimately make the technical changes. So, it’s important that our feedback be constructive and cordial.

Often, I hear from people who feel completely disempowered. They think that no matter what they do, they won’t be able to change a decision a big corporate has made that affects them adversely. Apple’s willingness to listen is a perfect example of why your voice matters. With advocacy, you can’t, and won’t, win them all. But you can win some.

If you contacted Apple to express your respectful view that it would be better if they changed the rotor back to the way it was, maybe allow yourself a little smile every time you delete an email, once 11.1 arrives.

Well done Apple, and the people who spoke up in favour of consistency of user interface.

2 Comments on “Cupertino, thank you for listening

  1. Jonathan, I come from a time when I had to listen to a Mag Card II Word Processor (part of IBM’s Selectric-style lines), play out a word at a time while listening to dictation, and by the length of the word, figure out how to correct my work. Believe me when I say my appreciation for Apple’s attention to inclusion in the iPhone and other Apple devices is an amazing and wonderful life enhancing event. I also believe that if you are going to do a thing, it should be done well and the inconsistency of behavior in the Mail app was, to say the least, disconcerting. With that said, the fact that they fixed it in the upcoming release speaks to their real wish to do a thing well. Thanks for your article, but more than this, thanks for encouraging everyone to, in a courteous and thoughtful manner, ask for change.

  2. This situation with the actions rotor in Mail has me thinking again about the blind community’s part in the public beta process. I think it might reaffirm two things that I have believed since the first public beta cycle.

    First, I think there might be a problem with the prevalent messaging in our community about the betas. Every June and July, I see social media filled with dire warnings to avoid the betas, be patient and wait for the final release. I wonder how many potentially useful feedback reports we eliminate by discouraging people from getting involved. No, these builds are not for everyone. Yes, we need to make it exceedingly clear that this is not just a way for people to get their hands on exciting new features early. But let’s not hammer this idea that it will be a disaster if you enter the beta program. Instead, let’s highlight the fact that the betas are only for those who can be committed to improving VoiceOver for everyone by writing detailed feedback reports and enduring periods of problematic behavior for the good of others.

    Then, when the final release ships, we are often left with a few issues that get fixed fairly quickly once the level of Feedback to apple increases sharply. Obviously, the problem is not with Apple’s commitment to accessibility. It seems clear to me that we may have a communication problem on our end. We don’t have enough people pounding on these early builds and talking to Apple. That’s what they created this process for. Our market is small enough, we shouldn’t be scaring away potential testers who could make a difference.

    Also, I think it would be very helpful for blind testers to have a place to compare notes and discuss changes in the beta. Honestly, I didn’t leave any feedback on the actions rotor because I didn’t consider the change to be a bad thing. The idea that this could be a serious problem for less experienced users didn’t occur to me until I read Jonathan’s blog post well after the 11.0 release. If there had been a forum for collectively evaluating the betas together, someone may have convinced me to take this seriously and add my voice against it. Such a forum could also be a place where more experienced testers could help newer testers learn the art of tracking down the root cause of problems and providing reports that are as useful to Apple as they could possibly be. I know I could stand to do much better in that area. I don’t know how this could be done, but I feel that it could be a tremendous benefit to the quality of feedback we generate.