Thoughts on Facebook Paper and Accessible Design

Yesterday, I linked to Brian Lovin's piece on the little touches of Facebook Paper's design. I said, in part:

[D]espite the utmost respect I have for Mike Matas’s design acumen, I’ve found Facebook Paper to be really inaccessible. The thumbnails are hard to read, buttons are small, and VoiceOver support is horrid. It’s too bad, because Paper is so beautiful, but it’s not very usable if you are blind or have low vision. The more I play with Facebook Paper, the more diappointed I get with its utter lack of accessibility support. My disappointment doesn't lie with Mike Matas or any of the other designers who worked on this poject --- although an argument could be had for their responsibility --- rather, I'm disappointed about the obvious lack of foresight during the design process. That is, it seems evident to me that Facebook's team didn't really consider accessibility when creating Paper. As someone with low vision, my experiences using Paper have been pretty absymal, apart from gushing over the app's aesthetic beauty and clever methods of interaction. The headings and buttons are small, the app doesn't support Larger Dynamic Type, and the VoiceOver support is terrible. What good is Facebook Paper aside from the superficial (for the sake of this piece) good looks and gestures? There are many, many visually impaired Facebook users out there with iPhones who, I'm sure, would really like to check out Paper. The problem is the app, as it stands today, is pretty damn inaccessible if you have any significant vision loss. That it looks good and utilizes clever new ways of interaction is all well and good, but all the whiz-bang stuff means jack shit if the story thumbnails are unreadable. It's too bad, because as I commented yesterday, I really admire Mike Matas's work, and there's a lot to like about what he and his team did here. Facebook Paper's inherent lack of accessibility --- where by "accessibility", I mean not only the specialized iOS Accessibility features but the general approachability of the app --- is, to me, a great example of why I do what I do. As I see it, advocating for accessibility is so important precisely because for most people, accessibility is not a context for them. The majority of designers and developers can see just fine: they have 20/20 vision, they can drive, they can read the fine print. More to the point, they can navigate Facebook Paper without hassle. It's not their fault they don't have an accessibility-minded perspective --- on the contrary, that most people don't is the whole reason I write about iOS accessibility and talk about it so much. I do so to advocate, to educate, and to share my unique point of view. Where the lack of accessible design becomes problematic is when apps such as Facebook Paper without the aforementioned foresight to accommodate all users, normally-sighted or otherwise. My issue lies in the notion that after all the advocation and championing of accessibility and bringing technology to people with special needs that companies have a tendency still to "forget" that users like myself exist in the world. Especially in Facebook's case, it's inexcusable that for company of their size and stature that accessibility apparently landed near the bottom of the priority list. As I stated, there's a good chance Facebook is missing out on a good number of visually impaired Paper users because the app, currently, is useless to them. A disappointment indeed.

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The antithesis to Facebook Paper in terms of accessible design is Jared Sinclair's Unread, the brand new RSS client for iPhone. As I wrote in my review, part of what makes Unread so terrific is that it is so accessibility-friendly out of the box, even without flipping on any system-standard Accessibility options like VoiceOver. Unread's user interface is clean, the typography is crisp and readable even at the default sizes, and VoiceOver works splendidly. In a nutshell, Unread is everything that Facebook isn't from an accessibility standpoint. And this is a reading app on the iPhone no less. Here's what I say about Sinclair toward the end of my review of Unread: Unread is proof that Jared really values accessibility. Within the Apple community, he’s definitely among the foremost advocates of third-party developer support of iOS accessibility. Unread does well to uphold his reputation in this regard. My big idea here is I strongly believe the Apple community needs more people like Jared: guys who build things with accessibility in mind, not just for those with special needs, but for everyone. I think all the big name tech companies --- Apple, Amazon, Facebook, et al --- should follow Google's lead and have guys (and gals) on their mobile development teams specifically for the express purpose of being QA-type "engineers" when it comes to real-world usability of apps like Facebook Paper, as well as being able to use their perspective to assist in the design of accessibility-friendly user interfaces. Not only would this be an act of goodwill toward the accessibility community at large, but more importantly, I think the practical benefits of building better things would be the biggest boon of all. Accessibility is too important to neglect, even unintentionally. More bluntly, this shit matters.
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Will Facebook Paper improve over time? Most assuredly, but let's hope they factor in better accessibility as well.