Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Voice control combined with text-to-speech

I attended a demo of the well known assistive technology 'BrowseAloud' today. I have known about this service for a long time and there are several similar services available which all work in very similar ways. The idea is to offer assistive services on a website which allows the device to read text on the website out loud, translate the site into other languages (and read it out loud too), convert sections of text into an MP3 file and a few visual aids like enlarge text and colourise text for high contrast.

The model works by selling the rights for the service to a website owner which is installed via a JavaScript code snippet on all pages of the site.  The cost to organisations varies but it can cost between £600 - £1000 per year.  Often, this cost is seen by organisations as a 'Tick-box' exercise to ensure that accessibility is covered.

My concern is that none of this helps a person who has a disability very much.  They cannot dictate which websites they browse to will have assistive tech installled and if so, which one. It is likely that most will not have BrowseAloud or a similar service so for these sites, they are going to have to cope without.  For those with some assistive technology installed, the use will have to use whatever is there. This means having to switch to whichever one is on offer. Each website offers their assistive technology in different ways - some have a link at the top of every page, others at the bottom of every page.  Some will offer some kind of icon and others will require you to locate the 'accessibility' link.  Once loacted, some will offer a link to load up a Javascript toolbar whilst older tools have to be downloaded as software to be installed to the computer. The last option is OK if the user only ever uses a single device but for use on several devices or in a public space like a library or at work, it is likely that the download and install of software will be banned.

So to sum up, a disabled user who uses the web to browse many sites is faced with a minefield of issues, even if assistive products are offered.

This got me thinking about mobile devices and their options for voice control and text-to-speech.

Siri for OS devices and Google Now for Android devices both offer some extensive voice control. They also have some excellent tools to convert text into speech.  The trouble is that there isn't any combination of the two technologies to offer a complete solution.

What is the point of using speech control to search for a web page if the page you find can't be read out loud to you? It is like asking a person a question but requiring them to write the answer down on a piece of paper for you to read rather than simply listening to the answer.  Surely what is required is to transform the most commonly used applications - READ TEXTS, READ MAIL, and READ WEBPAGE.  Some recent updates on both Siri and Google Now seem to have added the ability to deal with texts and email but why have they missed the other most commonly used app on any mobile device - the web browser?

What I'm suggesting is to develop a voice control which will work the web browser AND instruct that the page should be read out. This would means there is no need for assistive tools to be bolted-onto individual websites because every website would be treated the same way.

The best way to test such a service is to blindfold the user. Right from start-up, there should be a voice command which will search for content on Google AND announce the results. If the result is a web page link, there needs to be a voice control to OPEN that link which will load the page in the web browser.  Once loaded, a voice command is required to READ PAGE. The reading of the page needs to include hyperlinks and allow the user to follow those links with a voice command. In this way, a user could browse multiple websites using only spoken word commands combined with text-to-speech spoken content. Headphones could be used to listen to the content.  If translation tools like Google Translate were to be incorporated, the use could use voice commands to TRANSLATE PAGE and then READ PAGE in the selected language.

This isn't only going to revolutionise the way blind and partially sighted people access and navigate the web.  It could easily be used by everyone.  Imagine a driver who wants to listen to a Wikipedia page about the company they are visiting?  Or perhaps a baker in their kitchen who has their hands covered in flour but still needs to listen to the next instruction in the recipe they are following?  Or a motor mechanic who's hands are covered in grease and with their head stuck inside an engine but still needs to hear the next instruction from the webpage they found on their iPad propped out of reach on the bonnet?

Imagine any science fiction story or film you ever saw. Chances are that they all used voice control to request answers from the 'computer' who 'spoke the answers back'. This is no longer science fiction - there are both voice control and text-to-speech software which can mimic all that we've seen in the movies. I just feel that both Siri and Google Now are trying too hard to be clever when they've missed out on a golden opportunity to transform a very basic function of all computing technology - to search for web content and hear the results without typing or touching the device.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Tip on returning goods to

I wrote this as a review of the monitor which became faulty and which I have now returned to Amazon. I don't think they'll publish it though so I thought I'd blog it in the hope it may help someone who is finding the 'returns policy' frustrating.

Any attempt via the website to send an item back to Amazon outside 30 days of it being purchased sends you in circles which will infuriate you and is probably designed to put you off. If Amazon or any other retailer suggests that you return the item to the manufacturer for a repair or replacement, they're wrong. Under the Sale of Good Act, your contract is with the retailer that you bought the goods from. This advice is extracted from the January 2014 issue of the Which? magazine in the article "Returning faulty goods|Investigation". Amazon scores only 1/12 in the review (the worst score).

When an item develops a fault before it would reasonably be expected to do so, you have a remedy against the retailer, even beyond the warranty period. This is determined by the Sale of Good Act. You are entitled to a full refund if the fault is identified within 4 weeks of purchase. Outside 4 weeks, you are not entitled to a full refund but you are entitled to ask for a replacement or repair. This also applies to good bought in a sale - the only exception is any goods bought were fault or damage was declared at the point of sale.

So here is some advice on how to resolve the issue with Amazon:

Go straight to and select the yellow 'Contact Us' button under 'General Support'.

Skip Option 1 and select the issue and issue details. I selected 'Problem with an order or item' and 'Item does not work, is damaged or a part is missing'.

Then go to Option 3 and select 'start chatting'.

Don't be put off by the Live Chat feature. It is the best way to get the issue resolved. Before you start the chat, select the option to have the conversation sent to your email. This is really useful if you need to make a complaint later on - especially if the contact handler provides incorrect advice or information.

The opening gambit is to politely provide the order number, the make/model, when it was purchased and a clear description of the fault. After a few exchanges and a few minutes delay, the contact handler will tell you that the item is outside the 30 day return period and then copy and paste several paragraphs of text as follows:
"I've checked and found that return window has expired on [XYZ Date]. Rest assure your item is still under warranty. One option that we find often enables our customers to get to a quick resolution of their issue is by visiting the manufacturer's website or contacting them directly as they may be able to offer helpful troubleshooting and support for this issue. If you would like to do that we can send the manufacturer’s details to you. We'd suggest that you check with the manufacturer to find out whether this is a known issue. They'll have specialist knowledge of their own products and in many cases they may be able to diagnose and resolve the problem immediately. Of course, if they can't help you, please let us know and we'll be happy to help."
The correct response to this is something like this:
"I know about your returns policy and that the 30 day window has expired. However, I am also aware of my rights under the Sale of Goods Act to return a product which develops a fault before it would be reasonably expected to do so directly to the retailer. Respectfully, I would prefer to send it back to you for either a replacement model of the same or higher specification, a repair or for a full refund."
After this, they will still try again to suggest it is easier for you to approach the manufacturer but they should also offer to 'process a refund or replacement as per your choice'. Thank them very much and then they'll email a postage-paid returns label which you can print out and send back via I opted for a refund as they offered it but I'd have been very happy for a replacement.

If it doesn't go well, you can try mentioning 'Sale of Goods Act' again with the words 'I am aware of my rights' and 'My contract is with the retailer, not the manufacturer'. If you still don't get any joy, try mentioning that you've read the Which? report in the January 2014 issue and noted that Amazon only scored 1/12 'very poor'. Amazon are also reported by Which as saying:
"Products that become defective within 12 months can be returned for a full refund or replacement, irrespective of any manufacturer warranty. After 12 months, we advise customers to contact the manufacturer for support and troubleshooting. Thereafter, we will take into consideration all facts and circumstances on a case-by-case basis to provide a fair solution. will review the instances highlighted by Which? as they do not appear to be consistent with the typical customer experience."
It is clear than Amazon have a long way to go if they are to remedy the poor score in Which? but I have found that if you follow this process, you'll not go far wrong.

Here is my customer feedback:

I scored you 'Very Poor' on your policy because my experience matches the 1/12 score in the Which? report in the 'Returning faulty goods | Investigation' in the January 2014 issue. However, I anticipated your approach and planned ahead. I knew that your website sends you in circles when you try to return goods after your '30 day returns window' so I went straight to the 'Contact Us' section instead and used your 'Live Chat' feature.

Once here, I scored the 'Ease of working with Amazon' as 'Average'. This is because, as expected, your contact person immediately threw in the standard paragraphs used to defer me to the manufacturer (just as the Which? report said would happen). I firmly quoted that I was aware of my rights under the Sale of Goods Act and was soon offered the chance of a refund and sent a returns label.

I scored your service rep 'Excellent' because, given his situation, he did what he was told but  he was very polite and very quickly realised that the only sensible option was to offer the refund.

Can you please consider altering your returns policy and get rid of the loop a user of your site experiences after the '30 days' is up?  Your quote in the Which? magazine clearly indicates that the company will give a full refund or replacement on goods returned within 12 months. Please reflect this in the website and retain the 'returns' buttons next to products for a full 12 months.