Check out the Ease of Access settings in Windows and you’ll notice something interesting: These setting are not only great for people with disabilities—they can actually improve your own Windows experience. This is no coincidence. Even people with perfect vision can lose track of the finer text and details on screen, especially with today’s high-resolution displays. And that’s why we design our accessibility features with all users in mind.
We call this “Solving for one, extending to many,” and it’s one of the core Inclusive Design Principles that applies to everything we do on the Accessibility team. In this article, we’ll run through some of the recent (and most popular) Accessibility highlights.
We’ll also share a little background on how Windows Insiders have helped shape these features. Along with the Feedback Hub, we work directly with Insiders through our special Advisory Boards to help us brainstorm future development. Together, these channels have inspired what we think are some of our best innovations (and millions of users around the world seem to agree).
An easier way to re-size text
Back in the early days of Windows, the accessibility experience was limited. Windows 98 provided a few accessibility tools including an option to change text size on certain UI elements.
As high-resolution screens became more common, text sizing took a back seat to what is called DPI scaling—the ability to change text size by modifying screen resolution. This coincided with a move to simplify the entire Windows platform and, with the early releases of Windows 10, text scaling disappeared altogether.
It wasn’t long before Insiders weighed in. With more than 8,000 upvotes in the Feedback Hub, you told us loud and clear that you wanted to see text sizing brought back to Windows. One Insider went one step further: “I would love to be able to control the size of the text on my PC the same way I control it on my phone—with a slider.” Excellent suggestion! We got right down to work. Along with a slider, we expanded text re-sizing to cover the entire OS including re-sizing of text within UWP and third-party apps.
It seems our Insiders were on to something: In just six months, over 500,000 people were using the new text re-sizing feature. As of this month, that number was up to 3 million people. Media coverage was equally positive, with Verge rating it a top ten feature in the Windows 10 October 2018 Update.
The Magnifier gets smoother (and more vocal!)
The Magnifier lets you zoom in on various parts of your display. Just hit the Windows icon and the plus or minus key to instantly zoom in our out. Notice how clear text looks, even at higher magnification? We made improvements back in RS4 to reduce pixelization and smooth out text. The only downside, as Insiders told us, was that these improvements put a serious drain on machine resources, especially on older machines. By RS5, we’d managed to improve efficiency by over 30%.
More recently in the 20H1 release, we added another cool update: Magnifier Reading. Open Magnifier and you’ll now see a new series of icons in the toolbar. Press the play button and Magnifier will start reading from the top of content. You can also select text or start from wherever your cursor is on the screen.
The Mouse pointer gets easier to find
Even with Magnifier, many low vision users reminded us that it was easy to lose track of the mouse pointer as they moved it around the screen. To assist, we added an option to center the mouse on the screen when in Magnifier mode. This was especially important to users with peripheral vision loss.
Still, many users (including people without low vision) reported having trouble tracking their mouse pointer. As one Insider put it: “I often lose my mouse pointer in a sea of black and white.” So, we went a step further and introduced new options to customize the size and color of the mouse pointer.
Being able to customize the color was particularly popular with Insiders. Research backed this up: users are five times more likely to change pointer color than size. Sure enough, when we introduced the update in a Quest, over 100,000 users decided to keep the option turned on. Another big hit with Windows fans everywhere!
The text cursor also got easier to find.
If we could make the mouse pointer easier to see, why not do the same with the text cursor? This was just one of many suggestions that came from our Advisory Board of Insiders and we made it a top priority with the latest 20H1 release. Now you can make the cursor stand out with an indicator and customize the design with a range of sizes and colors. We even introduced a preview pane within settings, so you can see exactly what your customized indicator looks like before it shows up on your screen.
Narrator gets a big overhaul.
While all this work was happening on our low vision features, we’ve also been busy working on some exciting Narrator updates in 20H1. Based on feedback from Insiders and other Windows fans, we focused on three areas improved usability, browsing and Outlook mail experiences:
- Usability improvements: We’ve introduced two key usability features in 20H1. First, the team looked at the Narrator sound scheme. Insiders had mentioned that we were missing sounds for important things like Scan Mode switching and links. We updated the sounds to ensure they were conveying more information. Second, we added a way for Narrator to denote capitalized words, as we received feedback that this would make it easier to proofread documents and e-mails.
- Improved browsing: For this bucket, we introduced four features with a focus on making browsing the web. The first feature helps users know when a web page has been loaded by having Narrator automatically start reading content from the top of the page. The second feature provides more context to web pages with an on-demand summary providing information on links and page structure such as heading and landmarks. The third feature is part of this summary. We know that a lot of sites today are link farms (think of Amazon) with only a few popular links. And so, we have added a list of popular links to the page summary to help with wayfinding. The fourth feature aims to solve a problem called out in one of our user surveys around “click me” or “click here” links – that, is, links that don’t described where they navigate to. To help solve this issue, we added the ability to query the name of the destination page from the link. Additionally, we’ve added support for Firefox to build on our Chrome support added in the last release.
- Improved Outlook experience: We heard from users that triaging their mail in Outlook and Narrator could be cumbersome and so we made the triage message list more succinct by reading data in the expected order. We also discovered that many users like to use Scan Mode and so we turned on Scan mode by default. Finally, we gave Narrator the ability to recognize and ignore layout tables to improve the reading experience.
Into the future
Along with the highlights mentioned here, we have introduced many other new accessibility features in 20H1. As usual, we look forward to your feedback on these features in the Feedback Hub. With the help of Insiders like you, we’ll continue to work on more innovations that provide all Windows fans with an easier-to-see, easier-to-use Windows experience!
If you have a disability, visit the Disability Answer Desk (DAD) for support with Microsoft Office, Xbox Accessibility, and Windows.