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Usability Evaluation of Email Applications by Blind Users

Brian Wentz and Jonathan Lazar

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 6, Issue 2, February 2011, pp. 75 - 89

Article Contents


Email usage is an essential component of communication and collaboration in the workplace (Gruden, 1991; Lewis, Bajwa, & Pervan, 2004). While a significant amount of time that a user spends working with an email application might be spent reading and replying to email messages, features such as email reminders and calendars have also become more important (Kay, 2004). The volume of email that we find in our Inbox on a daily basis continues to increase, while spam and malicious email pose a great challenge (Grimes, Hough, & Signorella, 2007).

Email is one of many desktop applications that have become increasingly portable and web-based. However, web-based applications can introduce many usability problems, and technology like Flash and AJAX can create problems for blind users (Borodin, Bigham, Raman, & Ramakrishnan, 2008). We know that blind users are more likely to avoid something when they know that it will cause them accessibility problems, such as the problems often presented by dynamic web content (Bigham, Cavender, Brudvik, Wobbrock, & Ladner, 2007). We also know that application problems that slow down a work task cause the most frustration for blind users (Lazar, Feng, & Allen, 2006). The 70-75% unemployment rate of individuals who are blind in the US (National Federation of the Blind, 2007a) makes it essential that we identify any email usability problems that could negatively impact blind users in the workplace.

Related Literature

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are nearly 314 million individuals worldwide who are visually impaired (low vision), and this figure includes 45 million individuals who are completely blind with no residual vision. A screen reader (such as JAWS, System Access, or Window-Eyes) is software that reads the content of a computer screen out loud in computer-synthesized speech, and this is the primary way that blind users access computers and websites. Braille devices are often too expensive, and the rate of Braille literacy among blind users is only 10 to 20% in the United States (National Federation of the Blind, 2007b). 

Many email frustrations, such as spam and general email overload, impact both blind and sighted individuals (Williams & Williams, 2006); however, blind users face additional challenges when they use computer software, websites, and mobile devices. Examples of website usability challenges that are faced by blind users are poorly labeled links and forms, missing or confusing alternate text for graphics, and problems with PDF files (Lazar, Allen, Kleinman, & Malarkey, 2007).

In 2008, we conducted a focus group at the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, Maryland to discuss email problems that could be negatively impacting blind users (Wentz & Lazar, 2009). These included spam, email search and organization, web-based email navigation, and also problems with calendars, contacts, and visual CAPTCHAs (distorted text used to verify that a user is human and not an automated security threat). In 2009, based on the results of this focus group, we conducted a web-based survey of email usability with 129 blind users (Wentz, Hochheiser, & Lazar, 2010). The results of our web-based survey revealed several important areas of email applications that can be improved for blind users, including web-based interfaces, calendaring, and the email address book. The people who took part in the survey noted concern with search usability, spam, and email attachments. The results of the 2009 survey formed the basis for many of the tasks that we selected for this usability testing.


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