Skype is paving the way to more accessible cross-platform apps

Last week I published an article about Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) - apps that can be run across different devices with minimal changes – and the challenges they represent when it comes to being accessible and inclusive for all. Since that post went live Microsoft has announced its roadmap for addressing some of the pitfalls posed by PWAs in relation to its new Skype app. This is great news for disabled users worldwide.

The Progressive Web App problem

As we discussed in my previous post on PWAs, while Progressive Web Apps are a handy new approach to ‘build-once’ apps because they can be easily repurposed for different platforms, they are basically websites that run in an app container (even when a connection to the internet is lost/ you’re offline). But they are a long way from offering the accessibility and usability of native mobile apps for people with disabilities.

illustration of web app development

A noteable example is the new Skype app that has recently popped up across Windows, Mac, iOS and Android. It showed all of the bad sides of PWAs: complex and confusing navigation for blind and low vision users, loss of keyboard support for those with dexterity or motor difficulties, and focus issues and difficulties identifying and activating controls for both of these groups and others besides.

Microsoft: When it comes to Skype accessibility, we hear you

In a post published on Friday Microsoft outlined planned accessibility improvements for Skype, which is great news for millions of users who have been struggling with the update in recent months.

From the post:

“Across Microsoft, we are working to make technology more accessible and empower people to achieve more. We take feedback very seriously and are grateful to our active accessibility community who point us to areas of improvement. Following recent updates to Skype, your comments helped direct us to the areas of our new versions where change was most needed and could be most impactful.

"We have been working continuously since that time to understand the needs of our customers and have recently issued updates across platforms containing several improvements to address those issues. Accessibility is a journey and there are more fixes to come and we actively want and encourage feedback so we can deliver the right experience that empowers all our customers.”

The outlined changes, slated for all supported platforms using the new web-app version of Skype, will focus on keyboard support (for those who can only use a keyboard and not a mouse), blind users and those with low vision. They include:

  • Improving visible keyboard focus - ie ensuring that it's obvious which link or button etc is 'active' as a keyboard user tabs through the application. Without this you have no idea where you are or what you can interact with. The app is effectively unusable.
  • Eliminating cases where keyboard focus moves to non-actionable controls - in other words as you Tab through the app you land on things that you can do nothing with. Dead space or eye-candy icons that aren't controls 'capture' your keyboard focus and are confusing and time-consuming.
    skype app on phone and cup of coffee, at desk
  • Ensuring keyboard focus moves back to the controls that opened a dialog or menu after the dialog or menu was closed - so that a keyboard or blind user who opens a pop-up box and chooses a button to close it again, say, is taken back to where they were before and not right at the top of the app once again only to have to Tab dozens of times to get back to where they were.
  • Improving the accessible names and labels of controls and improving the control types used - eg making sure that the button to hang up a call, say, is intuitively labelled 'End call' and announced as what it is, a button, and not a something else like a link.

Who’ll be willing to pay for PWA accessibility?

Almost all of the above issues (and many more) that will have to be ‘retro-fitted’ here in this PWA version of Skype, are an automatic aspect of accessibility that you largely get ‘for free’ in native applications – whether it be on Windows, Mac, iOS or Android.

So while Microsoft, with its continuing commitment to inclusion across all its products, is providing in Skype an excellent example of going that ‘extra mile’ to layer accessibility onto this new convoy of PWAs, how many other organisations – including those thousands of solo app developers – will go to that same additional effort and expense?

Despite Microsoft paving the way to more inclusive PWAs, how many others will follow them on this journey? It’s looking like, in a largely PWA-driven future, many people with disabilities will be left by the roadside.

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