By: Carolina Hernandez, Accessibility Leader in Windows.
Earlier this year we announced that Four exciting features designed for and with people with disabilities would soon be coming to Windows 11: system-wide real-time subtitling, Focus sessions, voice access, and more natural voices for Narrator. As those features begin to roll out today, we’d like to share a little more about how the culture of inclusion within the Windows engineering team has helped promote the development of more inclusive and enjoyable Windows experiences for everyone. That culture consists of three main elements: the people, the process and the desire.
The constitution of our team: as diverse as the communities we seek to empower
At the Windows Accessibility team, we embrace the disability motto “nothing about us, without us” to develop products that empower us all, ideally in partnership with developers who are as diverse as our audience. When we formed the team that would develop the accessibility experiences for Windows 11, we intentionally hired people with disabilities to drive those investments, so that their experiences would help inform and guide the design of the solutions. Let’s meet some of the product developers behind the new enhancements to Narrator and Focus in Windows 11: Jeff Bishop and Alexis Kane.
Jeff Bishop is the Product Manager behind Narrator, the screen reader built into Windows. Jeff is born blind and has dedicated his career to creating experiences that empower people who are blind. And, over the past two years, Jeff has led the way in making Narrator easier and more enjoyable to use. In his own words:
As a screen reader user, I fully understand the need to make some changes to Narrator’s voice. Listening to that voice all day while I’m working, reading an article or a book, or just surfing the internet on the couch needs to be a pleasurable experience. To develop Narrator’s new natural voices—“Aria,” “Guy,” and “Jenny”—we had to think about what a “great” voice would look like for a screen reader user. I spent a lot of time with our engineering team to improve the responsiveness and other features of the voices, and we tested and collected tons of feedback to ensure they met both my needs and those of screen reader users around the world.
Based on his own experience and community feedback, Jeff helped bring new natural voices into Narrator. The new voices use high quality text to speech much like natural speech, making activities like browsing the internet or reading and writing documents more enjoyable for users who hear their screens rather than see them.
Alexis Kane is the Product Manager behind Focus Sessions, a new experience in Windows 11 that uses proven techniques to build healthy digital habits and be more productive. Alexis has ADHD and has experienced firsthand how notification distractions affect her productivity. This is how Alexis describes her experience:
The way my computer behaves influences my mood, productivity, and energy level. That was most evident when I spent many hours in front of my computer without breaks. The number of notifications I received increased significantly and with it my anxiety levels. When I see a notification, I immediately start thinking about the subject of the message, how I will reply to it, how others will reply to me, and that I should reply to it instantly. I also didn’t feel like I could turn off my notifications because I would spend all day wondering if I was missing something.
Lots of people feel the same way, so I knew we had to do something to calm down the PC and reduce distractions for users. We started thinking about how we could create a calmer environment on PC, and through many design iterations and customer feedback, we created the Focus and Do Not Disturb sessions.
With Focus and Do Not Disturb sessions, users get an easy way to silence Windows and focus on the work they need to do. When you start a new Focus session, Windows will turn on Do Not Disturb to silence notifications and turn off flashing taskbar emblems. Focus also integrates with the Clock app to activate a timer and remind you to take breaks, which has been shown to improve productivity.
The team process: grounded in partnerships with the communities we seek to serve
With a limited number of people on the team, the ideal of fully representing the diversity of our user base will always be out of reach, which is why partnerships and support are such an important part of our process. Partnerships are critical to understanding, developing, and verifying the features we create. Thanks to the conversations with our clients, we know the challenges and opportunities that we have to be able to create more inclusive experiences.
One such partnership, with our mobility advisory council, was instrumental in developing the new voice access experience in Windows 11, currently in preview. The mobility advisory board is made up of people with limited mobility and their support network; for example, occupational therapists or parents of children with limited mobility. From our conversations with members of the mobility advisory board, we learned that our current voice command solutions were not as efficient as they needed to be for our users. So we started a series of conversations with the council that helped us envision and co-create a new experience, one that would allow people with limited mobility (and anyone else) to control their PC and create content in any app via of your voice.
One feature within the new voice access experience that grew directly out of this collaboration was the interactive voice access guide and help experience. Council members, especially occupational therapists, emphasized the importance of teaching users to use new technology as soon as it becomes available. Based on that feedback, we made sure that the first time they used voice access, an interactive guide appeared to teach them how to perform common tasks using their voice. And while using it, they can also ask “What can I say?” for a complete list of commands. Plus, voice access provides real-time feedback on what you heard so you know which word wasn’t correctly recognized when you make a mistake. We appreciate the time and feedback the Mobility Council has put into voice access and look forward to continuing this process together.
The longing for a team: to create pleasurable experiences for each one of us
The personal interest of our team in the quality of the experiences we develop, combined with the depth of our connection with the communities we serve, has always led us to have great desires. We want to envision and create experiences that go beyond “access” to create delightful experiences that inspire us and enable us to work better on Windows. And sometimes fulfilling that dream means rethinking established solutions—as we did when we rolled out the new system-wide closed captioning experience.
Real-time captioning has existed in many applications on Windows for a long time, and from working with employees and consultants who are deaf or hard of hearing, we learned that captioning contained within an application can be inefficient for collaboration and multitasking, since that when you close or minimize the application, the subtitles disappear. So working with people who are deaf or hard of hearing allowed the team to reimagine real-time captioning as a system-wide experience.
Real-time captioning in Windows 11 is now more than just the app. Captions are displayed at the top of the screen (just below the camera on most systems) for easy reading during online meetings. In addition, the user decides where the subtitles will be located, either at the bottom of the screen or in a floating window, so that they can multitask without losing the subtitle and, more importantly, without blocking the content of the screen. the screen.
While this solution solved one of the biggest problems we set out to solve, our desire to deliver delightful experiences took us further and we saw an opportunity to solve a current problem: making conversations in person were accessible. By picking up sound from the microphone, real-time captioning in Windows 11 can also transcribe in-person conversations. And since the captions are produced locally on the machine itself, those conversations—like all captioned content—stay inside the room. This is an innovative feature for a wide variety of scenarios: meetings where everyone wears a mask that prevents lip reading, spontaneous conversations between deaf and hard of hearing people when no sign language interpreter is available, and, personally relevant to me, assistance for those who are not native speakers of the language through audio content and conversations both online and offline.
Join us in our process: give us your feedback
Accessibility and inclusion in Windows 11, just like anywhere else, is an ongoing process, a process we’re committed to in our products, our culture, and our partnerships with you, the community. Your feedback and comments have been instrumental in helping our equipment and products continue to evolve in the right direction. We know there is still a lot to do and we will need your help, so please keep providing your feedback. You can start by installing Windows 11 today, and then give us feedback so we can create better experiences for each of us. Just press Windows logo key + F to open the Feedback hub and share your feedback.
Finally, customers with disabilities who need technical assistance with Windows or any other Microsoft product can contact Accessibility Response Center by phone, chat or ASL (televideo). Do not hesitate to contact us, we are always happy to help.