Extra Extra, read all about it: a review of the 3 most popular news apps from the perspective of a VoiceOver and braille user

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

One of the many things that one can do with a mobile phone is keep up with current news events. For users of iPhones who are blind and deaf-blind, this is no different. But are the most popular apps accessible? Below, the three most popular free news apps for the iOS platform are reviewed for their usability with VoiceOver and Braille displays.

The three apps evaluated are: NYTIMES (the New York Times Company), CNN (CNN Interactive Group Inc.), and Fox News (Fox News Digital). These were the top 3 free apps in the news category in the App Store on January 25, 2012. All 3 apps were found to be updated to the latest version on the date specified above. These reviews were done utilizing an iPhone 4 (CDMA) running iOS 5.0.1 and a Refreshabraille 18. All apps were tested using their default settings. The below information does not endorse any news media outlet or any of the three apps listed below.

The biggest difference between this app and the other two reviewed is that once installed, NYTIMES is not found on the home screen, rather, it is found in the Newstand folder. Also unlike the other apps, this one appears just like the newspaper does.
Perhaps the biggest issue with this app has nothing to do with accessibility. Rather, it's one that anyone who does not pay the fee for premium content would most likely complain about. When the app is started, it will download all of the content of the paper to your iDevice. However, the amount of content one can access as a free user of the app is restricted mainly to the headlines. This both takes a great deal of time and also consumes bandwidth. If one is on a 200 MB data plan, this could become an issue, particularly since there are images with each story. Each time a user of the app refreshes the content in the app, it downloads approximately
32MB of data. When accessing the settings within the app itself and through settings/NYTIMES on the iDevice, there is no option to choose which sections of the paper one would like to download. The only content related options available are whether to store content on the phone (known as offline mode), and to disable downloading of images.

From an accessibility standpoint, this app is well put together. All buttons are labeled, and both speech output and braille work nicely.
There are several different ways of browsing articles, all of which can be found on the Doc portion of the screen in the form of tabs. From left to right, the tabs are: Top News, Most Emailed, Favorites, and Sections. When one double taps one of these tabs, once the app has updated all content, the screen itself fills with the results of that selected tab. By default, when the app is launched, Top News is always selected. if you try to click on certain content within a portion of the app that has yet to be updated, it will launch another story from the previous time the app updated its list of stories.

At the top of the screen, you will find a settings button where you can log in as a premium user, and next to that will be the information related to when the app was last updated and whether an update is in progress. If you would like to refresh the content, if you close the appp out with the App Switcher, you can then reopen it and the content will refresh automatically. It is also possible to refresh the content by using the pull down VoiceOver gesture if you do not wish to restart the app.

Starting with the Top News tab, one can navigate from story title to story title by flicking left and right throughout the stories available. To read the article, simply double tap on the title and you will be taken to the screen containing that article. You will be presented with a few options before the article itself such as the Top Stories button previous,, next, etc, along with images that can be skipped across by flicking right. Once the story itself is encountered, it can be read using standard VoiceOver or braille display commands. There are also options at the bottom of each article to make the story a favorite, share it on Facebook, and to adjust the text size. One can then navigate through the Top Stories section of the app utilizing the next and previous buttons or by returning to the Top Stories section by activating the back button and continuing to browse article titles.

The other tabs behave much in the same manor with one exception. When selecting an article from the Most Emailed or from within any of the sections of the actual paper, one can only read the first few sentences of any given article. The user can double tap the article to view 20 articles each month for free, but must pay beyond that 20 article limit. The app then indicates that the user must pay to have access to the entire article. As the author was uninterested in paying for content that could be accessed freely through other news sources, the premium content was not investigated. However, given that the lay-out of the rest of the tabs and subsections is the same as the Top Stories tab, it is reasonable to assume that the premium content is accessible with braille and VoiceOver.

When launching this app, it will automatically grab the latest news headlines. At the top of the screen are the articles featured in the Headlines section. Each Story is displayed twice when flicking across this portion of the app. The first of these two is a link that allows the user to view the story in Safari, and the second actually launches the article from within the app. When an article is selected, one is presented with the back button and an action button before the article itself. Activating the Action button gives the user the ability to either share this story on Facebook or to save the story for later viewing. After all of the news headlines, there are a series of buttons which control the category of content being viewed. These buttons are: Top Stories, World, U.S., Politics, Justice, and Entertainment. VoiceOver indicates that these buttons are all dimmed, meaning that they are unavailable, but this is misleading. Activating any of the buttons will present the user with the content available in each section. Navigation is done with each section as outlined above with the Headlines button.

At the bottom of the app, there are a set of 4 tabs: Headlines, My CNN, Video, and TV. The Headlines tab is selected by default, which was the tab just discussed.

The My CNN tab gives you local information once you have it configured to any place you desire. The news articles from that area are displayed, and one can double tap on each article to view it. However, as most of these articles are from different sources, ease of access and whether to view the article requires you to have an account varies greatly. The weather portion of this app is only somewhat accessible. It will give the current conditions and temperature, but when looking at the provided 10 day forecast, each day is labeled as "today" and only the sky condition is read/displayed. So the only way to tell what day the app is referring to is by counting the number of days from the actual day you’re currently in, and even if you decide to do that, the only part of the forecast you’ll be getting is the sky conditions.

The video tab is very accessible and each video has a title and then the length of the video is displayed. Although the videos streamed with some difficulty on 3G, they worked well on a Wi-Fi connection. The Live TV tab only works if you have a cable or satellite TV subscription, which the author does not, so this feature was not able to be reviewed.

Finally, there is the iReport. This is a tab from CNN where viewers can submit their own content. There are a lot of different types of stories submitted, and accessing the content works well with Voiceover and braille. The buttons are all clearly labeled and easy to navigate.

Fox News:
Upon launching this app, the city you have set for your current location is displayed. To the right of this, the current local temperature is shown, and flicking further to the right will display a series of buttons which are dimmed. Just like the buttons found in the CNN app that are dimmed according to VoiceOver, these buttons are actually active. They are: Top Stories, U.S., World, Politics, and Entertainment. By default, the Top Stories button is selected. Whichever button you select, the titles of each article are not accessible. Flicking right from here, the Voiceover and Braille user will find nothing, although VoiceOver does click, alerting the user that they are moving over a different icon when flicking left and right. However, with Braille, there is no indication that you have moved from story to story, and the Braille display simply goes blank. Double tapping the article will bring that article up and it is easy to read, but you must double tap on each article to find out what it is. Below the unlabeled articles, one will find five tabs: Articles, Videos, Slide Shows, Shows, and More. When you launch the app, you will be put in the Articles tab.

Starting at the top left of the screen when the app is first launched, will be the city you are currently in. Once you double tap the city, you are presented with a “more, back” button, then an edit box to search for any city or state’s weather forecast. When continuing to flick right, the current conditions for this city are readable, including temperature, humidity, wind speed, and more. Beyond this is the ten day forecast. VoiceOver presents each day, but no information about that day. Double tapping the day does nothing. However, beyond the listing of days, there are high and low temperatures listed. While not extremely accessible, one can keep track of how many days’ worth of high and low temperatures have been encountered, and count them. For example, if I have encountered 3 days of high and low temperatures, and today is Wednesday, that means the fourth set of these must be for Saturday. However, this only gives the user the forecast high and low temperature. There is no way to find out what the sky conditions will be, whether there will be a chance of precipitation, or any hazardous weather expected.

Beyond the ten day forecast, and beyond any section of this app, there is an “info” button which will give you the option to share stories with friends through Facebook or Twitter if logged in, information about the app itself, along with a redeem button, after pressing the done button which is located in the upper left hand corner, you’re returned to the screen you were at previously. Beyond the info button, there is an option to refresh your GPS location, which will retrieve your local forecast if it’s different than your current one. A button to refresh your GPS status which will see if you’re in a different location or not. If you are, the new local forecast will be displayed in the same format.

The back button, as with all apps, is located at the upper left hand corner of the screen. In this case, the back button will not take you back to the previous screen, however, but instead takes you to the More tab. For the sake of following the structure of the app, however, we will continue by moving right from the Articles tab to the Videos Tab. As with the titles of articles not being accessible, VoiceOver shows the same behavior for all five tabs. You cannot get article titles, show video titles, show names, or any other information a sighted person can simply look at before deciding whether they would like to view specific content.

At last, we have the More tab. There is an edit button, followed by favorites, weather, and audio. Double tapping the Edit button gives you a list of tabs, but once you select a tab, there is nothing to configure according to VoiceOver. There was also nothing in my favorites, since I couldn’t even read any of the article titles to see if I was interested. The final item with the More tab is Weather, which has already been covered. Of the three apps, this one is clearly the least accessible.

While it’s great that most people can simply install apps on their iOS devices and have access on the go, the gap in terms of accessibility creates issues for VoiceOver and braille users. Just like reviewing any type of application in a comparison, they all have their advantages and disadvantages. While the NYTIMES app is fully accessible, you must pay extra for premium content. The CNN app is accessible and is free. However, if CNN is not what the reader desires to choose as their favorite media outlet, they may have very little in the way of choices. Fox News, sadly, is quite inaccessible with VoiceOver and braille. Given the fact that Fox News is a popular media outlet, and the 3rd most popular free news app in the app store, it is a shame to see that they are denying equal access to VoiceOver and Braille users. Just like in any form of technology, blind and deaf-blind users are being forced to choose what media they access based on whether the actual delivery method is usable.

Scott Davert

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