The Failure of Screen Readers
For the visually impaired, online shopping is a very harrowing experience. Screen Reader is the only available option for them.
For people who have used websites and apps easily, going blind provides a range of problems when it comes to accessing the very same.
That means people, many of whom have successfully avoided new devices like smartphones and tablets, are forced to confront a technology that is difficult to use even for technically proficient people. Imagine your grandmother using email or Facebook. Now imagine her navigating those websites just by using the keyboard.
Chris Mauray faced the same issues when he was diagonised with macular degeneration which is a genetic disorder that destroys the retinal cells in the center part of the eye.
He hated the way Screen Readers worked. It made no sense to him as to why screen readers would present information visually and then, and only then, translate that into audio.
He wondered why not design something that could provide audio from the beginning?
Would it be easier to use, and more importantly, would app developers support this new experience? It’s hard enough to get support for existing accessibility tools let alone something new.
Chris and his team started to research answers to these questions by doing some user testing with blind and low vision seniors at a local senior center. Initially, they just went through existing accessibility tools, like VoiceOver on the iPad and received feedback from users.
The result was the idea of a Siri like Virtual Assistant that could provide conversational experience that grants the same level of access as a Screen Reader with the learning curve and intuition of talking to an assistant.
Taking Conversational UI to the Blind
Thus was born Conversant Labs in 2014. The main aim was to take conversational user interface to the visually impaired and thus commercialize them.
Once a team was formed and some basic funding was received from AlphaLab, they set out to build an online shopping app named SayShopping for the blind.
According to Chris – “…Despite screen reader support, shopping is one of these daily tasks that is still difficult for many in the blind community, and we thought it would be a good place to start testing out a conversational user experience while potentially improving people’s quality of life at the same time.”
SayShopping – Initial Challenges to Building a Conversational UI app for the Blind
While building an app or website for a visual audience, much of the services are already built on. These include UI frameworks and payment systems and it helps the app developers to concentrate on the core concept of the product.
However, Chris and his team had to redevelop all of these as they were building a non-visual app.
The team wanted to develop a rich shopping experience for the visually impaired but not a retail store. This meant that they would need to redirect users to the retailer’s website which had a visual experience that would not help their cause.
After trying a lot of things, they could successfully initiate a conversation with Target who agreed to provide access to their product catalog and more importantly to their checkout API’s, so we could finally allow our users to complete a transaction with their voice.
However this also meant security issue concerns for Target and this meant the company had to undergo external security audit.
Once Chris and his team passed the audit, the product was finally launched in 2015 at the National Federation of the Blind’s annual Convention.
You can read the whole story in Chris’s own words on BackChannel