RNIB Accessible Flash Case Study

The Challenge - Accessible Flash

Accessibility refers to making services and information available for people with disabilities, such as people with visual, auditory, motor or cognitive impairments. The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) commissioned Nomensa to produce a Flash game for Valentine’s Day, February 14th 2003, that would be accessible for people with visual impairments, in particular those who use speech synthesis software. Macromedia have implemented many features into the latest release of its authoring software Flash MX that enable web designers to make accessible multimedia that can be displayed online by web browsers or as stand-alone desktop presentations. However, this new functionality has not been fully exploited and only a few examples of accessible Flash are currently available online. Nomensa wanted to demonstrate how these new features can be applied to a project rich in animation. People with visual impairments may use speech synthesis software to hear web pages. The challenge was to make an interactive Flash game accessible to people using speech synthesis software. The two main screen reader applications currently in use are JAWS and Window-eyes and it was these applications that were focussed upon.

One of the key aspects to making accessible technology is consideration: all users must be carefully thought about as their requirements differ considerably. How different users interact with technology must be understood. Sighted users can quickly scan a page and their focus can be shifted quickly around the screen. Users with visual impairments who use speech synthesis software hear the web in a linear fashion; this means that considerations must be made so that the information is read out in an understandable and usable fashion. We wanted to prove that an engaging experience that is rich in animation could be created for a wide range of users with different requirements. Our aim is to inspire the development community to exploit the tools created by Macromedia to produce innovative new designs and ways of implementing accessible technology.

The Concept

After receiving our initial brief from the RNIB, Nomensa set about the task of planning the game for Valentine's Day. A number of brainstorming sessions were conducted with the team to identify a number of concepts that would appeal to the audience. The theme of dating and romance was decided upon, as this is a subject that knows no boundaries and affects all people. The concept of the blind date - where two people go on a date before they have met each other - was chosen. Everyone has a funny story to tell about a date and this lead to a week of great fun in the Nomensa offices!

The First Steps

We planned the game as a journey with a series of key interaction points leading to different outcomes. As we began to define the basic structure, we started to realise how complicated this design task actually was. There were a number of wider issues that had to be carefully considered:

  1. How users and technology interact - it became increasingly important to understand how different access technologies interact with Flash content and how users interact with Flash content. These differed greatly.
  2. How technology interacts with other technology - when designing accessible technology there are a number of applications working together and different versions can act in subtly different ways. For example, how JAWS interprets Flash, how different browsers interpret Flash, how Window-eyes interprets Flash, how different browsers interact with access technologies are just some of the interactions that must be understood.

It became clear early in the project that in order to become successful in achieving our objectives we needed to downsize our plans and focus on key details. It became increasingly important to really understand the many different interactions that were taking place. This led to a more focussed plan: we then started the first stage of creating one element that was accessible in as many different situations as possible. From the outset it was decided that a HTML version of the game should be produced for the large segment of users with visual impairments that use older software versions of screen reader technology that are incapable of interpreting Flash elements.

Overcoming Hurdles

There were many surprises during the first stages of development. We aimed to make the experience both easy and enjoyable. We completed one scene and then rigorously tested it with a number of users. Nomensa always finds it fascinating to conduct user testing early on in the lifecycle as great insights can be obtained that can shape the development and improve the outcome greatly. The lesson that should be learnt by development teams is to test early before the project is complete - changes are easy to implement at this point without causing frustration within the development team.

The Outcome

The RNIB Blind Date game is an interactive Flash experience that is accessible to people with visual impairments using JAWS version 4.5 and Window-eyes version 4.2. It is also accessible to people with motor impairments that can use the keyboard to tab through the interface. The key lessons that should be learnt from our experience of designing accessible technology are:

  • Consideration of user requirements is paramount.
  • Test early and be prepared to reshape the design.

The Internet offers a great opportunity for improving quality of life. More and more services are offered in a digital format and this affects many people from many walks of life in many ways. However technology has proven to be notoriously non-intuitive for those outside of the technology industry and by understanding users and their requirements we as developers can improve the offering provided again and again. Finally, the ability to design and create accessible technology comes through understanding standards. The Web Accessibility Initiative provides a number of guidelines that can be followed to ensure different technologies can access information. It is vital that developers understand these guidelines and then seek to explore new possibilities within these guidelines. It is our mission to dispel a few myths: Accessible design need not be bland and usability not a creative restriction. Making accessible Flash is possible and we look forward to hearing of future projects that seek to innovate and pioneer development in the Internet.

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