A recent version 2.0 update to Awareness!, an iOS app that enables the user of an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch to hear important sounds in their environment while listening through headphones, features six available in-app purchases, including one that enables VoiceOver accessibility for the company’s blind customers.
Awareness! The Headphone App, authored by small developer Essency, costs 99 cents in the iTunes Store. VoiceOver support for the app costs blind customers over five times its original price at $4.99.
Essency co-founder Alex Georgiou said the extra cost comes from the added expense and development time required to make Awareness! Accessible with Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader.
“Awareness! is a pretty unusual App. Version 1.x used a custom interface that did not lend itself very well for VoiceOver,” he said. “Our developers tried relabeling all the controls and applied the VoiceOver tags as per spec but this didn’t improve things much. There were so many taps and swipe gestures involved in changing just one setting that it really was unusable.”
Essency’s developers tackled the accessibility challenge by means of a technique the blind community knows all too well with websites like Amazon and Safeway that offer a separate, incomplete accessibility experience requiring companies to spend additional funds on specialized, unwanted customer-service training and technical maintenance tasks.
“The solution was to create a VoiceOver-specific interface, however, this created another headache for our developers,” Georgiou said. “It meant having the equivalent of a dual interface: one interface with the custom controllers and the other optimized for VoiceOver. It was almost like merging another version of Awareness! in the existing app.”
As an example of the need for a dual-interface approach and a challenge to the stated simplicity of making iOS apps accessible, Georgiou described a portion of the app’s user interface the developers struggled to make accessible with VoiceOver:
“Awareness! features an arched scale marked in percentages in the centre of a landscape screen with a needle that pivots from left to right in correspondence to sound picked up by either the built in mic or inline headphones. You change the mic threshold by moving your finger over the arched scale which uses a red filling to let you know where it’s set. At the same time, a numerical display appears telling you the dBA value of the setting. When the needle hits the red, the mic is switched on and routed to your headphones. To the right you have the mic volume slider, turn the mic volume up or down by sliding your finger over it. Then you have a series of buttons placed around the edges that control things like the vibrate alarm, autoset, mic trigger and the settings page access.”
Georgiou said maintaining two separate user interfaces, one for blind customers and another for sighted, comes at a high price.
“At the predicted uptake of VoiceOver users, we do not expect to break even on the VoiceOver interface for at least 12 to 18 months unless something spectacular happens with sales,” he said. “We would have loved to have made this option free, unfortunately the VoiceOver upgrade required a pretty major investment, representing around 60% of the budget for V2 which could have been used to further refine Awareness and introduce new features aimed at a mass market.”
Georgiou said this dual-interface scheme will continue to represent a significant burden to Essency’s bottom line in spite of the added charge to blind customers.
“Our forecasts show that at best we could expect perhaps an extra 1 or 2 thousand VoiceOver users over the next 12 to 18 months,” he said. “At the current pricing this would barely cover the costs for the VoiceOver interface development.”
Georgiou said payment of the $4.99 accessibility charge does not make the app fully accessible at this time.
“It is our intention that the VoiceOver interface will continue to be developed with new features such as AutoPause and AutoSet Plus being added on for free,” he said. “Lack of time did not allow these features to be included in this update.”
Georgiou said the decision to make Awareness! Accessible had nothing to do with business.
“From a business perspective it really didn’t make sense for us to invest in a VoiceOver version but we decided to go ahead with the VoiceOver version despite the extra costs because we really want to support the blind and visually impaired,” he said. “It was a decision based on heartfelt emotion, not business.”
Georgiou said accessibility should be about gratitude and he would even consider it acceptable for a company to charge his daughter four to five times as much for something she needed if she were to have a disability.
“Honestly, I would be grateful and want to encourage as many parties as possible to consider accessibility in apps and in fact in all areas of life,” he said. “I would not object to any developer charging their expense for adding functionality that allowed my daughter to use an app that improved her life in any way. In this case, better to have than not.”
Georgiou said he wants to make it clear he and his company do not intend to exploit or harm blind people.
“I first came into contact with a blind couple when I was 10 years old through a Christian Sunday school (over 38 years ago),” he said. “They were the kindest couple I ever met and remember being amazed at the things they managed to do without sight. I remember them fondly. I could not imagine myself or my partner doing anything to hurt the blind community.”
A common thread in many of Georgiou’s statements seems to ask how a small company strikes a balance between doing the right thing and running a financially sustainable business that supports their families.
“I don’t think you understand, we’re a tiny company. We’re not a corporate,” he said. “The founders are just two guys who have families with kids, I’ve got seven!”
Georgiou said he understands how accessibility is a human right that ought to be encouraged and protected.
“I recognize that there is a problem here that can be applied to the world in general and it’s important to set an acceptable precedent,” he said. “I think I’ve already made my opinions clear in that I believe civilized society should allow no discrimination whatsoever.”
In spite of accessibility as a human right in the civilized world, Georgiou said he believes this consideration must be balanced with other practical business needs.
“When it comes to private companies, innovation, medicine, technology, etc., It’s ultra-important all are both encouraged and incentivized to use their talents to improve quality of life in all areas,” Georgiou said. “The question is who pays for it? The affected community? The government? The companies involved?”