What’s new in Ulysses 2.6? In a series of blog posts, we’ll closely look at each of its new features and examine how they can help writers to get their work done. Today we talk to Lucas, development trainee at The Soulmen, who was in charge of optimizing Ulysses for VoiceOver users.

With the latest version, Ulysses claims to be accessible for visually impaired writers. Could you please explain the difficulties blind and visually impaired are facing when using a computer? How can they be solved?

The obvious problem is of course that blind and visually impaired can’t see what’s on the screen. This, however, also leads to other problems, like the fact that the mouse pointer is basically useless for them, because they can’t see it. Even if a blind user remembered where the mouse pointer is, he still wouldn’t know what he is doing, because most actions give no acoustic feedback.

That’s why Apple has included VoiceOver on Mac and iOS. VoiceOver reads the interactable elements on screen aloud, like buttons, sliders, text fields and so on. VoiceOver is controlled using the keyboard, since keyboards don’t change and are easier to navigate blindly than mice. On iOS, there are special gestures, for example you can swipe right to focus the next interactable element. These gestures are independent from the location on the screen, so you can always access everything just by swiping through the elements. If you know where something is located, e.g. the back button, you can still tap the respective location to move the VoiceOver focus directly to this position. Many VoiceOver users have built muscle memory for actions like these, since this is much faster than swiping through everything.

What exactly did you have to change in Ulysses to make it accessible?

In Ulysses most buttons are small icons with no associated text, so I had to label all of them. Since sometimes a label isn’t descriptive enough, many buttons also got short help texts, that explain what exactly they do.

Lucas, Development Trainee at The Soulmen
Lucas, Development Trainee at The Soulmen

Generally, VoiceOver does a pretty good job at figuring out what it needs to read out loud. However, in some cases important parts are skipped. For sheets in the sheet list, for instance, only the preview text of the sheet was read on Mac (on iOS VoiceOver didn’t read anything at all). The goal status, a sheet’s attachments or a favorite marker etc. weren’t part of the description, so I had to fix this. On the other hand, there were parts of the user interface that the sighted user can’t see, but VoiceOver would still read. As an example, VoiceOver had access to the editor search at all times. This was very annoying if you had to step through each interactable element to navigate the app. Now, editor search can only be accessed by VoiceOver if it has actually been opened, instead of just always being there.

During development you have teamed up with visually impaired users. Can you describe how the collaboration went?

Shortly after we’ve published the first beta of version 2.6, we received some emails of VoiceOver users describing what they had troubles interacting with or which features they didn’t understand. In a few cases users even sent us screencasts, which made it extremely easy for me to understand their problems and helped me greatly to fix them. You have to understand that it isn’t easy for someone without eyesight to describe what exactly isn’t accessible. If you don’t know what’s there, how would you know how to describe it?

Without these active beta participants Ulysses wouldn’t have become nearly as accessible as it is today.

For example, we weren’t sure about the best way to make the editing of text elements (like links) accessible, so we asked our beta users for their opinion. Without these active beta participants and their valuable comments Ulysses wouldn’t have become nearly as accessible as it is today.

How is the feedback so far?

The feedback has been great. The past two weeks we’ve been getting many positive responses and great ideas on how to further improve our VoiceOver support. Ulysses has the advantage of markup-based editing, which is perfectly suited for visually impaired writing. You don’t have to worry about the looks of your text, since they don’t matter anyway, and you don’t need to search for buttons like “Hyperlink”, because you can just enclose your text with two characters. Especially the way we handle links in the editor has been praised by many of our users, which is awesome considering the editor is the most important part of the app.

Making an app accessible does not only mean assigning labels to every button. The app should also still be fun to use, just like without VoiceOver.

In the Help & Support section of our website you can find further information about using Ulysses with VoiceOver.