Browse one of our Windows Insider blogs for the latest preview features and chances are, you’ll find news about our accessibility tools. Designed to empower every person (including those with disabilities) to achieve more, these tools have benefited from a surge of innovation over the past several releases of Windows.
We’re proud to say that a driving force behind much of this innovation has been our Windows Insider community. We are continually monitoring and collecting feedback from Insiders through multiple channels, including the Feedback Hub. We also have special Advisory Boards through which we invite Insiders to help us brainstorm future development.
In this article, we’ll focus on how Insiders have helped shape our Vision settings, including the Narrator screen reader and the low-vision tools (all of which can be found in Settings > Ease of Access).
Back in the early days of Windows, the accessibility experience was limited. Windows 98 provided a few accessibility tools including a high-contrast feature and an option to change text size on certain UI elements. Narrator came out with Windows 2000, which provided basic functionality for visually impaired users.
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, features like text scaling disappeared altogether.
Hearing the call from Insiders
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.
Clearly, we had our work cut out for us. But rather than simply re-introduce the earlier functionality, we expanded text re-sizing to cover the entire OS including re-sizing of text within UWP and third-party apps. We re-introduced the feature in the October 2018 Update (RS5). As is so often the case, our Insiders’ sentiment was dead-on accurate: in just six months, over 500,000 people were using text re-sizing. Media coverage was equally positive, with Verge rating it a top ten feature in the October 2018 Update.
Next on our list: Magnifier. Up until the Creators Update (RS3), the Magnifier experience tended to look jumpy on the screen. We made improvements in RS4 to reduce pixelization and smooth out text. But as Insiders told us, these improvements put a serious drain on machine resources, especially on older machines. By the time we hit development on RS5, we’d managed to improve efficiency by over 30%.
And we weren’t done, yet. Insiders also told us that, even with these performance improvements, it could be tricky to track the mouse pointer. This was especially important to users with peripheral vision loss. The solution? As many Insiders suggested, add an option to center the mouse on the screen in magnifier mode—something we also introduced in RS5.
Still, many users (including people without visual impairments) were having trouble tracking their mouse pointer, especially on high resolution displays. During our last Windows 10 Insider Preview release cycle (19H1), we introduced new sizes and color options for the pointer. Interestingly, we received more Insider requests for new colors versus new sizes (especially yellow). Sure enough, research backed this up: users are five times more likely to change pointer color than size. So, it wasn’t surprising that the change was a big hit: when we introduced the update in a Quest, over 100,000 users decided to keep the option turned on.
Narrator gets a major update, too
While all this work was happening on our low vision features, we were also busy working on some exciting Narrator innovations, as well. We started with the basics, focusing on performance which led to a complete overhaul of the code base. In fact, we ended up re-writing almost half the code in Narrator. The hard work paid off. By RS5, Narrator would work continuously (in the words of Insiders) “all day, every day” just as users needed it to.
Next, we focused on the top features requested by you, the users. This included things like support for Narrator to run in Safe Mode, a more familiar keyboarding model and a popular Insider request: Narrator support for Chrome.
Another top request was for improvements to Narrator’s natural language capabilities. Up to RS5, Narrator would often stumble on basic phrasing. We also heard that Narrator would pause randomly during continuous reading. Through RS5 and 19H1, we made big progress on both fronts.
Insiders also kept us focused on the finer details of the Narrator experience. For example: URLs. As many Insiders reported, there was often no need for Narrator to read out an entire URL. Now, when Narrator comes to a URL, it simply announces “link” (far simpler and more efficient). On a similar note, we adjusted Narrator’s verbosity so that you can get as much or as little information on the controls and content when navigating Windows and related apps. (Although we made sure that, based on feedback, you can always identify headings even at the lowest verbosity setting).
We also heard from Insiders that it was complicated to personalize the Narrator experience as settings were scattered across the Narrator UI, Control Panel and the Settings app. Users often had to go to multiple places to find different resources to learn about Narrator. To solve this issue, we introduced Narrator Home—a convenient, central place where you’ll find all resources, learning, settings and news (including all the latest updates in our Windows 10 Insider Preview builds.)
Interestingly, another important piece of Narrator feedback didn’t actually come from our active users. It came from people who’d turned on Narrator accidentally. We initially picked up on this through telemetry showing a larger than expected number of devices running Narrator. When we dug further into feedback, we were able to verify that many users launched Narrator by accidentally entering a shortcut during device set up. By moving the shortcut to the foreground and making it easier for users to turn off Narrator, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in accidental starts. More control equals more happy users!
Into the future
Since Windows 8, we’ve made exciting progress on our accessibility toolset. And the work continues. We have already introduced some exciting new updates in the latest Windows 10 Insider Preview Builds (20H1) , including a new webpage summary command in Narrator and a Magnifier option to center the text cursor in the screen, making it easier and smoother to type.
As Insider’s remind us every day, the updates we make are used and appreciated by not only our visually impaired users, but by everyone looking for an easier-to-see, easier-to-use Windows experience. With that in mind—and with the help of our Insider community—we’ll continue to work on updates that benefit people of all abilities.