Coming back to Facebook

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Thursday, 23 January 2014 12:40pm

Guest contributor and screen reader user Andrew Devenish-Meares shares his experience of giving Facebook another go.

Quite some time ago I just gave up on Facebook.  Being blind it was just too hard to deal with, navigation was awful, there were parts of the iPhone app I just couldn't use.  I deleted my account and left.

Since that time, Facebook has been working on accessibility.  The nightmarish navigation shown in the Access iQ video is gone, and the iOS app has undergone some major changes.

Coming back to Facebook after three years, it’s a strikingly different place for a screen reader user.  Don't get me wrong, there's still an awful lot of stuff presented, but the countless "blank" lines, and meaningless image names are gone.

One of my first questions to my Vision Impaired Facebook friends was "mobile site or app", to which the overwhelming response was to use the app. 

After grabbing it from the app store, the app prompted me for my login, and away I went.  Simple right and left flicks ran through the options at the top of the app clearly and sensibly.  Reading posts is clear and makes sense.  While it took me a second to work out what "interacting with the post" meant, the extra spoken instructions are great.

Actually responding to a post inside the app is pretty simple too, once you realise you need to select the post you want with a double-tap.  From there the Like, Comment and Share buttons appear under the post.  On one hand that seems like adding extra steps to me, but on the other, I’m guessing it’s the same for a sighted user.

The part I do find confusing in the app is the live chat feature, particularly how you dismiss a chat session, but it could be that there’s a trick I’ve not learned yet.

The website itself works surprisingly well too.  The page is marked up with ARIA landmarks, making it easy to jump to various parts of the page. Posts are headed by a person’s name as a level 5 heading, so it’s easy to jump from post to post, though you do need to read down to get to the post content.  After the post the options are also still a little verbose.

I recall, when my sight was better, that Facebook always tended to present as a fairly busy page, with lots of elements and activity. Don't get me wrong, there's still a lot of content on the page, which can get a little confusing at times,  but the countless "blank" lines, and meaningless image names are gone.

The navigation has improved a lot, making it much easier to get about.

While the Facebook site is quite usable, I think I have to say that the app is even better. Between the work Facebook have put into the app, and the inherent accessibility of the iOS platform, it creates a great experience of a blind user, a far cry from when I quit Facebook a few years back.  Am I getting the same interactions as my sighted friends?  I think that in so far as I can, given I can’t see, I am getting pretty close.

I never thought I’d say this but well done Facebook.

Andrew Devenish-Meares has been losing vision steadily for 16 years, and there's not much left these days.  He's worked in Information Technology in the not-for-profit sector, and presently works as Solutions Analyst at the University of New England.  He lives in Armidale, NSW with his wife and son.  He blogs about tandem cycling at Tandem Armidale.

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