The jargon here is “contrast-sensitivity” challenges. People with them can distinguish between text and background on Kindle-line e-readers, but not as easily as others can. The Kindle’s E Ink is low contrast compared to LCD technology, worsening the problem. An all-bold text option would not boost the contrast. However, it would crank up the perceived contrast and be a dirt-cheap fix.
I’ve suffered from E Ink-related contrast hassles for years, the reason I reached out to AARP. Amazon has always ignored me. I’ve tried everyone from lowly customer support peons to email@example.com. All I get back is PR speak.
One of the people the AARP staffer is writing is Peter Korn, the Amazon accessibility architect mentioned today in Len Edgerly’s TeleRead post on new text-to-speech capabilities (TTS) and other benefits for blind people. VoiceView-related enhancements like a USB-based audio adapter for the otherwise-mute Paperwhites are laudable in various ways. But they are far from a full solution, a point I’ll flesh out here later.
Once E Ink Kindles—starting with the Kindle 2—could read aloud for everyone even without add-ons. Yes, I can understand the advantages of the adapter’s optimized interface for blind people, but Amazon could both offer that option and simultaneously restore TTS for the rest of us, including individuals on the way to blindness.
While AARP cannot directly force Amazon to care about these and other accessibility issues, it enjoys a business relationship with the e-book and e-tail giant by way of its Membership Advantages program (“50% off Select Kindle books”—go for it!). Seniors, moreover, are among the biggest buyers of e-readers. But many don’t know they’re missing out on the best font and style for them. This is like wearing the best pair of eye-glasses for you. Sadly, you won’t even realize what you’ve needed unless or until you get the right prescription.
Mystery: Why Kobo offers a boldness control but Amazon won’t
Meanwhile I’ve alerted AARP that Amazon’s rival Kobo deals with the perceived contrast issue through a slider control to vary the amount of bold—an even better solution than a bold-on/bold-off switch. The slider, in turn, makes Kobo e-readers more attractive than otherwise as purchases for schools and libraries.
Although Jeff Bezos talks about caring less about competitors than about his customers’ needs, the two concerns fully converge here.
Stay turned for further details in the next week or so about AARP and the all-bold question. May AARP persist! And may Amazon do the right thing for itself, my fellow AARP members, K-12 kids and others rather than thinking: “Meh. Kobo has already done it!”
If you’re late to this issue, please see an earlier TeleRead post, AWOL: All-text bold on the $290 Oasis: A workaround for aging eyes—including the bold/nonbold comparison in the above photo as well as a direct link to an all-bold file of a public domain book. Try it on your own Kindle if you can puzzle out the tech. You can’t make your Kindle show all-text boldface without adding it to individual files, a challenge for nontechies, especially older people on the wrong side of digital divide who may lack both the right hardware and skills. On top of that, you can’t enhance DRMed files with all bold without violating the DMCA, the federal law that bans circumvention of DRM.
Via Kobo’s slider control, of course, seniors, K-12 kids and others can vary the amount of boldness without the least need to be a techie or worry about breaking the law. What a contrast to the Kindle.
Amazon’s Peter Korn: Dancing around boldness question
Talking to Amazon’s Peter Korn, Len noted the Kobo’s bolding features and our hope that they could reach the Kindle.
Len, just like me, is huge Kindle booster in most respects. And he is not a TeleRead contributor alone. He is also host of the influential Kindle Chronicles podcast. Len questioned Korn for the forthcoming Friday episode and for text posts for TeleRead and the podcast site. A relevant excerpt follows:
I took the opportunity of the interview to see if David Rothman’s campaign for a bold-font option on Kindle text is getting any traction with the accessibility team. Here is the transcript of my questions and Korn’s answers on that topic:
Q. David Rothman at TeleRead has, I think, been pretty persuasive that, for some readers who have difficulty reading, an all-bold option or a slider to increase font boldness would be terrific on Kindles. I think Kobo has this capability. In your scanning of customer requests or perceived needs from customers is that something you’ve heard much about?
A. We’ve gotten feedback from customers on quite a lot of topics, and font choice is certainly one of those.
Q. I can picture you’ve all kinds of possible advances. How do you decide which ones you’re going to try to implement first and which ones are going to have to wait a while, if ever?
A. We continually evaluate ways we can make reading on the Kindle more enjoyable, more comfortable, more accessible. This led us to create the Bookerly font. This led us to include the open source Open Dyslexic Font, so we continue to evaluate and bring innovations to our customers.
Open Dyslexic, whatever—I’m in favor of it. But that certainly won’t help elderly people, K-12 kids and others who instead suffer contrast sensitivity issues. Again, we return to the eyeglasses parallel. One Rx isn’t for all. I’m disappointed that Korn danced around Len’s question.
I doubt Korn needs the photo at the top of this commentary to understand the useful of boldface to the contrast challenged. But via a LinkedIn e-mail, I’ll still point him to my thoughts here with the hopes he’ll ask Kindle designers to include either the bold switch or the preferred slider through an easy-to-make firmware update. If need be, Korn himself could reach up to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Korn should decide. Is this just another technical job and maybe even mostly a way to reduce Amazon’s brushes with regulators on accessibility matters? Or does he genuinely care about the needs of older people and others with fading eyesight? And about the bottom line. Accessibility in this case, as shown by the zillions of older people in the e-reader marketplace, is good business. It’s also good PR and, as noted, good government relations. Lack of it isn’t.
Sooner or later the media and regulators will awaken from their slumber on the contrast issue, regardless of its complexities. Before that happens, Korn ideally will be proactive in a positive way in line with his self-portrayal on LinkedIn. There he describes himself as “effective in legislative and regulatory domains, driving governmental policies and regulations on accessibility that maximize social benefits while being achievable at the lowest operational cost to industry.”
Notice the seven words I’ve italicized? At least in the self-description, Korn does not even mention the revenue opportunities of accessibility—the very argument that might have been on Kobo’s mind when it added the slider to adjust the amount of bold. Hello, Amazon shareholders? Maybe you should join my bold-slider campaign.
Granted, I can imagine Korn saying, “Don’t you think we should focus most of all on the needs of blind people?” But I’d reply: “Blindness often comes in stages. Contrast sensitivity issues may precede it.” Simply put, a slider or a bold-on/bold-off switch would help plenty of elderly people enjoy their Kindles more before they went blind through conditions such as macular degeneration. Millions suffer from the condition now or will in the future.
Furthermore, how about the K-12 students who are not blind or dyslexic but who need and deserve bold Open Dyslexic? This is why Amazon should offer an on/off switch or, better, a slider that would control the amount of bold on all fonts, including this one.
Let me anticipate one other excuse from Amazon. It might say, “Don’t worry about contrast in Kindles. Just buy a Fire tablet instead. It uses an LCD display.” But many older people, especially the arthritic who want as light an object as possible in their hands, would prefer E Ink, which, if nothing else, may be more comfortable with their eyes because it is front-lit rather than back-lit. You don’t stare directly into a light, in other words.
Amazon might also say: “Oh, we offer high contrast on the Fire through white text against a dark background, which also reduces glare.” But most users would like the ability to control the level of bolding in black-on-white text, the kind they grew up with.
Keep in mind, too, that many people with contrast-sensitivity challenges would benefit from a boldness adjuster on their LCDs machines, not just their E Ink ones. The Fire likewise needs such a capability.
What’s more, whether on E Ink or LCD devices, this is not just an accessibility issue. The greater the amount of bolding, the more you can turn down the front light or back light and save battery power. Amazon has made a big deal about the battery life of the gold-plated Oasis. Why can’t it also help with a bold-related firmware update to stretch out battery life on existing Kindles and Fires at no extra cost to users?
A long way, too, from a full TTS solution
Via Len’s post and links from it, you’ll also notice that Amazon is long way from offering a full text-to-speech solution.
Amazon has focused on working with VoiceView technology of particular usefulness to blind people. Excellent! But along the way Amazon has dumbed down its special USB-based audio adapter for Paperwhites to reduce the adapter’s helpfulness to the nonblind—either out of callousness or because it has forgotten that full blindness does not necessarily happen at once. I’d prefer to think the latter. Here’s more of Len’s post:
A goal of Amazon’s accessibility team is to enable a blind or low-sight customer to set up VoiceView without the assistance of a sighted person. To that end, when the Kindle Audio Adapter is connected to a Paperwhite, VoiceView will automatically begin running, Korn told me in the interview.
The adapter is purpose-built for VoiceView, Korn said. That means it will not enable sighted readers to turn off VoiceView and still use the adapter to hear general Kindle text-to-speech, Audible books, or mp3 files through headphones or speakers.
When I asked him if Amazon might in the future enable those audio features on the Paperwhite and other Kindles without VoiceView, Korn replied, “We generally don’t comment on our future roadmap, so I’m not going to be able to speak to that.”
Tough luck, then, if you’re doomed to be blind but aren’t there quite yet, and meanwhile would like to enjoy hassle-free TTS and old-fashioned text while you can still see. Similarly commuters and exercisers lose out. Not to mention millions of dyslectic K-12 kids and others for whom VoiceView will not work.
For now, I hope that TeleRead community members will consider following up on some other information from Len:
Korn said Amazon has created a new email address for feedback related to device accessibility. It is email@example.com . For feedback on more general accessibility topics, you can use the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update, 9:45 a.m., May 11: As observed by BDR in the comments section accompanying this post, Amazon has actively worked to deny its customers the ability to customize E Ink Kindles for optimal viewing. Why, after paying as much as several hundred for our devices, must we be treated like trespassers? Yes, I recognize the support costs. If need be, Amazon could charge people just a tad more for customization capabilities and advanced features. Just compare the Kindle to what Moon+ Reader Pro and other advanced reading apps can do in this area. To avoid scaring novices, Amazon could locate the advanced options a special menu that would remain out of the way. T
That said, bolding control isn’t that advanced a feature and should be a conspicuous item in the main typographical menu and free to everyone. And not just on Kindle and Fire devices. Amazon’s iOS and Android apps should also include it.