A Wake-Up Call For Twitter

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2009 has arguably been the year of Twitter. It’s the fastest growing social media service on the web and not a day goes by without Twitter being connected to presidential elections, celebrity revelations, global emergencies and the antics of your best mate’s pooch. Twitter, whether we like it or not, is part of our normal day-to-day conversation.

But social media is a world that moves pretty fast and anything holding a service back can quickly develop into a problem that cripples growth. For Twitter, that crippling problem could be its failure to pay enough attention to accessibility.

The recently released Social Media Accessibility Review from Media Access Australia examined six of the most popular social media services, including Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, MySpace, Skype and Twitter. The results suggest that if a site is accessible, easy to navigate and read, it is typically successful.

Facebook recently undertook a comprehensive design review to improve the way we all share and discover information on the service. As part of this review the company partnered with the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) to make the site more accessible to users who are blind or vision impaired. By focusing their design effort on accessibility, Facebook opened up their service to a new section of the market and in turn improved the experience for all. Facebook is now the number one social network in the US with more than 300 million active users.

MySpace, in comparison, is in free-fall, having lost over 54 per cent of the Australian market in the year to 10 October. MySpace is an inaccessible site. It has failed to deliver any accessibility policy and has no evidence of accessible design built into the service.

But so far Twitter has managed to buck this trend. Like MySpace, Twitter does not list any formal accessibility policy and has never spoken about accessible developments in its official blog. It has also fallen short of introducing a number of easy-to-install accessibility features. Such oversights might be forgiven in such a busy year, but for how much longer and at what price?

A Forrester Research study commissioned by Microsoft (2004) finds that among adult computer users in the United States one quarter have a vision difficulty, a quarter have a dexterity difficulty, and one fifth have a hearing difficulty. Taking into account overlap, the research suggests that 57 per cent of the population has an impairment of some description. This represents a massive part of the online population and equals about 10 million in Australia alone, 130 million in the US and 205 million in China. It could quickly become the difference between success and failure for an organisation like Twitter.

YouTube has recognised the importance of accessible design and has been working on a number of projects to make videos more accessible to everyone. One new feature is the ability to include captions in videos via "CaptionTube", and most recently the announcement that YouTube will soon examine voices in the video and generate captions automatically. TED (a small nonprofit devoted to "Ideas Worth Spreading") has sought to open up their talks to new audiences, nationalities and languages by offering interactive transcripts. TED continues to grow.

Not to be outdone, the incumbent media players have adopted accessible design to cement their position as primary deliverers of content. The BBC recently introduced audio description — descriptive narration for the blind and vision impaired — to its video-on-demand service.

Reena Jana, an editor of Business Week‘s innovation department, suggests that Apple’s success can be put down in part to features that were created to help disabled people use their products more effectively, including voice commands, touch screens (iPhone), and even audible navigation (iPod shuffle). Peter Abrahams, accessibility and usability expert, takes this further and observes a more significant aspect of the Apple product strategy. Not only are they including accessibility features in all of their products, to the benefit of the impaired and regular users alike, but they are actually leading their marketing campaigns with this message. Apple is succeeding, having recently sold more than 5.2 million iPhones in the last quarter and beating all forecasts.

Twitter is also succeeding — but this is thanks, in part, to their philosophy of keeping things simple and intuitive anyway. It’s a solid design principle and has been used to good effect, but given that it’s based on text — which is one of the most accessible mediums available — it’s surprising that the interface has so many avoidable accessibility pitfalls. There is no button or link outlining the accessible features of the website; registration requires potential new users to be able to pass the CAPTCHA (visual verification) test; there is an audio option, but the link is particularly small, making it difficult for a user with a vision impairment to access the service. Other problems occur when users attempt to resize the text — Twitter has text resizing locked.

Other critics report that links can only be activated using a mouse. The links for replying to a tweet, making a tweet a favourite, and deleting a tweet can only be activated using the mouse on the standard Twitter website. The "favourite", "reply", and "delete" links are only revealed when the user hovers the mouse over a tweet. There are no alternative commands for deleting tweets or direct messages.

The problems are minor, in fact they’re mostly easy to fix, and if they were resolved it would probably make Twitter the most accessible social media service of all.

A group of developers recognised this opportunity and came together to develop an alternative to the twitter.com website — "Accessible Twitter". Accessible Twitter is designed to be easier to use and is optimised for disabled users, but it is yet to be seen whether such a move will prompt Twitter into action or have the reverse effect, letting them feel that they can more easily shed all responsibility.

In such a competitive market and with other social media players innovating and leading on accessible design, accessible design is becoming central to the development and continued growth of online businesses. This fact should be food for thought for a savvy startup like Twitter. Leaving it too long might just signal the beginning of the end.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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