Browse one of our Windows Insider blogs over the past several releases of Windows and, chances are, you’ll find a section highlighting yet another set of innovations and updates to our accessibility tools. These are the features designed to empower every person, including those with disabilities, to achieve more.
In this article, we’ll focus on the Vision settings, including the Narrator screen reader app and the low-vision tools (all of which can be found in Settings > Ease of Access). Together, these tools have benefited from a surge of innovations over the past several releases of Windows.
This path has been driven by an equally impressive stream of feedback from Insiders. As with other Windows features, we tap into multiple channels including the Feedback Hub. We also have special Advisory Boards through which we invite Insiders to help us brainstorm future development.
This is an exciting story that supports our broader diversity goals for Windows and we’re happy to tell it here, from the Insider’s perspective.
Compared to where we are today, the Accessibility experience in Windows started out with a much smaller set of features and functionality. Windows 98 provided a few accessibility options to change text size on certain UI elements, as well as a high contrast feature. 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, the text scaling feature 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.
We promptly got to work for the April 2018 Update (RS4). But rather than simply re-introduce the earlier functionality, we set out to go far beyond selected text in the UI 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) and, 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.
Then we moved to another feature that generated strong feedback from Insiders and other users: 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 these improvements put a serious drain on machine resources, especially on older machines. That prompted a quest for a more efficient Magnifier. By the time we hit development on RS5, we’d managed to improve efficiency by over 30%.
But 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 with high resolution settings. With 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 and an overhaul of the code base. In fact, over the next 4 releases, we re-wrote almost half the code in Narrator. 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 and a more familiar keyboarding model.
One of the most important things we heard from Insiders and other users was feedback around Narrator’s natural language capabilities. Up to RS5, Narrator was still stumbling on basic phrasing, for example, phrases with special notation—like dollars and cents. We also heard that Narrator would pause randomly during continuous reading. Through RS5 and 19H1, we made big progress on both fronts.
Another top request from Insiders: you wanted Narrator to work flawlessly with your favorite apps. Many of you directly asked for Chrome support and as a result we have added support for Chrome with Narrator.
Insiders kept us focused on the finer details of the Narrator experience as well. 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 also adjusted Narrator’s verbosity so that you can get as much or as little information on the controls and content when navigating Windows and Apps. You also helped us fine-tune this experience as we heard from Insiders that you always wanted to 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 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. Already in 20H1, we have introduced some exciting new updates, including new features in Narrator and Magnifier.
As Insider’s remind us through their feedback, 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.