A Blind Guy’s Take On Unread 1.0

Full disclosure: historically, I’ve sucked at keeping up with RSS.

I subscribe to a good number of feeds, and I have one set up for Steven’s Blog, but I’ve always found myself struggling to achieve the discipline to sit down every day, faithfully, to go through my feeds. I’m plagued with guilt that I neglect RSS — and, for that matter, Instapaper — but at the same time, I would be remiss in not admitting that Twitter has filled the catching-up-on-the-news void. The fact is that Twitter is where I get the majority of my news nowadays, so RSS is left largely forgotten. I’d almost given up on the medium altogether.

Then my pal Jared Sinclair sent me a direct message on Twitter about beta-testing Unread.

Though the 1.0 is iPhone-only, I’m pleased to say that using Unread over the last couple of months has gotten me back to checking RSS again. It’s a splendid app, and has been on my Home screen since downloading the first beta build. I’ve had a lot of fun using it, and I bet many others will too.

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The focus of this piece isn’t, however, a general review of Unread — I’ll leave that to other reviewers. Instead, the aim of this piece is more specialized: I’m going to discuss the app in accessibility terms. (In fact, accessibility was the reason Jared asked if I would be interested in being part of the beta.) As such, my review will critique Unread on three levels: readability, typography, and interaction.

READABILITY


The biggest reason, I think, Unread holds so much appeal is how accessible (pun fully intended) it is in terms of readability. Where by “readability”, I mean the ease by which it is to read in the app. Unread is terrific is this regard, accessibility-wise, for two reasons:

  1. Its clean user interface; and
  2. Its VoiceOver support

First, the interface. Conceptually, a cluttered UI replete with toolbars and buttons galore is generally bad for the visually impaired user. This is primarily because the more items on the screen, the harder it becomes to focus on what’s important. While this does certainly apply to the normally-sighted just as well, it’s even more problematic for someone who’s visually impaired because too many items on screen, often many in close proximity, can be a navigational nightmare. Identifying which button does what, as well and trying to focus on the content itself becomes a real chore because many users’ eyes aren’t strong enough to focus on just a single part of the UI. Hence, the less cluttered and more minimalist the interface, the easier it is to avoid confusion and the better the user is engaged.

Unread is great in this sense because, in essence, all it presents the user with is a list of stories and nothing else. Because navigation in Unread is gesture-based (more on that later), there are no toolbars or buttons competing for my attention. What this means is my eyes are focused on reading, not darting around looking at other on-screen elements. This may seem obvious, but again, to a visually impaired user like myself, it’s a big deal. My legal blindness is such that I have an extraordinarily hard time making my eyes focus on just one thing, something that every ophthalmologist who’s ever examined me can attest to. That all I’m presented with is a headline, a couple lines of metadata, and then the body text means that I can put my visual energy into concentrating on just the text. It makes using Unread much more enjoyable, and also productive, because I’m able to get through more feeds.

Secondly, Unread’s support for VoiceOver. Admittedly, VoiceOver is a feature I don’t use because my vision is just good enough that I don’t need it, but that I did use for the express purpose of testing Unread. In my experience, VoiceOver worked fantastically well in reading my feed, with little-to-no errors. Oftentimes I would invoke VoiceOver when I felt my eyes getting fatigued, so it also can be a feature of convenience as well as one of necessity. There isn’t much else to say here except that Apple’s implementation of VoiceOver is very well done, and it’s nice to know that developers can so easily update their apps so as to include it.

TYPOGRAPHY


Of course, the readability of Unread has much to do with its typography. Unread uses Whitney as its typeface, and it’s glorious. I first learned about Whitney via Shawn Blanc’s app recommendation website, The Sweet Setup, which also features it as its main text font. As somewhat of a typography nerd, Whitney has fast become one of my favorite fonts.

What makes Whitney so good is that its clean look and high legibilty make for reading stories in Unread that much easier. As with user interface clutter, choosing the right font matters to a visually impaired person because the cleaner and better-looking it is — especially at larger sizes — the better the overall reading experience will be. In my experience, my vision is such that I find it much easier to make out sans-serif fonts such as Whitney (as opposed to serif fonts like Times New Roman), thereby reducing eye strain and fatigue. Moreover, Whitney’s legibility is enhanced by the Retina display of my iPhone 5S, which is a must-have for me to use my devices with a high level of effectiveness.

Obviously, good-looking, sharp typography helps those with normal vision too, but the effects of which are even more pronounced for the visually impaired. Especially for a reading app like Unread, if it aspires to be accessibility-friendly, which I know was a goal for Jared, it has to consider every pixel of the interface. Typographic choices matter, because not only do they have to be aesthetically pleasing, but they have to be approachable enough to be viewed with as little eye strain as possible. Eye strain is a huge concern among those with vision impairments; chronic eye strain can adversely affect reading ability and time spent reading. A big reason why Unread has gotten me back into RSS reading is precisely because Whitney is so beautiful and, more importantly, it’s such a pleasure to read. My eyes aren’t straining any more than they naturally are prone to do, and that means I can read longer and in more volume. Everyone’s vision is different, so it’s difficult to describe exactly the effects typography has on the eyes and the overall reading experience, but suffice it to say that were Jared inclined to choose another, less friendly font for Unread, the feeling of using the app would be a substantially different affair.

INTERACTION


As I stated, Unread’s user interface is pretty spartan in terms of menus and controls. The main screen, where you add your RSS service of choice, has a few tappable buttons for Settings, a Tutorial, and other bits of miscellany. Aside from that, there’s not much else. Instead, Unread employs a gesture-driven system for interacting with the app. It makes heavy use of the new-to-iOS-7 swipe-to-go-back gesture to move from a story to the list view, and so forth. In addition, swiping left in any story will — surprise, surprise! — bring up a panel of action buttons. From this contextual menu, you can mark a story as unread, view it in Safari, share it (usingJared’s OverShare Kit protocol), and so on. The swipe-left gesture also works in the list view, offering options to mark all stories as read, change the theme, etc.

While one could validly argue that a gestural user interface is worse for the visually impaired (mainly due to the lack of explicit visual cues), I have found navigating Unread to be no problem whatsoever. In my case, I feel it’s easier to not have so many things to look at (cf. my previous points regarding UI clutter), and the gesture-based interface makes it easy to get where I want to go. As with its typography, the fact that Unread has so little in the way of UI chrome makes it so that my eyes get less tired because I’m not so often actively looking for what to tap next. While I undoubtedly value and, for the most part, prefer, explicitness in user interface design, I also appreciate the choices Jared’s made for how to interact with Unread. In my opinion, the app is highly accessible. So long as the gestures aren’t totally wacky (e.g., figure-8s) and I feel physically comfortable performing them, then it’s all good.

If I had one quibble about navigating Unread, it would have to be that at times I have trouble initiating the gestures. That said, this has more do with my cerebral palsy than with the app itself. For instance, it sometimes takes two or three tries to register the swipe gestures, because I didn’t pull hard enough or my thumb wasn’t properly seated on the screen. Because of my motor issues, I find that I must be more deliberate in my movements, which in turn causes me to not move around as fluidly as a fully-abled user can. But, I do the best I can; all things considered, I move around Unread pretty well.

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If there’s one big tell about my feelings about Unread, it’s that I regularly use it despite the fact that it’s iPhone-only at this point. Typically, I shy away from reading on the iPhone because of its small size, but since testing Unread, it really doesn’t bother me. Truth be told, I was initially a bit skeptical as to how I’d do with a reading app on the phone, but Jared has crafted it so well that I don’t mind going through my RSS feeds on the small screen. (The 5S’s 4-inch display helps here a lot, as I doubt I’d be so enthusiastic were I still using my 3.5-inch 4S.) It speaks volumes that I enjoy a reading app on a small screen so much.

In a holistic sense, Unread is a great example of the kinds of apps developers can create that are truly accessible to all. It requires some abstract thinking, some thinking outside the box, but Unread is wonderfully accessible —- high praise coming from someone who was told that his vision isn’t very good. Furthermore, Unread is proof that Jared really values accessibility. Within the Apple community, he’s definitely among the foremost advocates of third-party developer support of iOS accessibility. Unread does well to uphold his reputation in this regard.

If you like iPhone RSS clients, I’d say you can’t do better than Unread.