The road to the Windows 10 October 2018 update has ben a hard one for Microsoft as it had to postpone its rollout due to a series of issues including the unintentional deletion of personal files. However, from an accessibity perspective, the update is great news as the built-in Narrator screen reader has received significant improvements, both in terms of features and usability. Happily, my computer survived the update before Microsoft pulled it, resulting in a great opportunity to get acquainted with the significantly improved screen reader.
Keyboard shortcuts are now more familiar
When Narrator is started with the usual Windows + CTRL + Enter command, the first thing that now greets you is a message that the keyboard shortcuts have changed.
While this will mean that existing Narrator users will have to learn a new set of shortcut keys, for users of more popular screen reader such as JAWS and NVDA – which is most blind users – the Narrator commands have become much more intuitive. This is a great move and streamlines the experience for people wanting to use Narrator whether as an ad-hoc or permanent screen reader solution
Narrator Quick Start Tutorial now included
When I realised that the Narrator commands I was used to no longer worked, I was initially a bit worried about the process of relearning everything. However, it turned out Microsoft had already considered this with the inclusion of a clever Quick Start tutorial wizard that breaks down the learning process to a few commands at a time. This is useful for everyone, but its especially useful for users new to screen readers. The tutorial wizard features about a dozen screens, each one providing a sandboxed environment to learn about some new commands and then try them out before progressing to the next section.
The Quick Start screens are as follows:
- Welcome: a screen that explains how the Quick Start guide works.
- Explore your keyboard: this page provides an opportunity for input learning where you can try out a key and hear Narrator explain what it does.
- Scan mode: explains how the arrow keys can be used to scan around the page.
- Reading words and characters: explains how Narrator can read out individual words or characters for proofing and editing.
- Headings: provides a window with sample headings to move around using the ‘H’ key.
- Landmarks: explains how landmarks can be useful to move between navigation, main content and search options.
- Entering text: explains how Scan Mode is disabled when editing text and provides an opportunity to try it out.
- Buttons: explains how Narrator can interact with checkboxes and other controls.
- The Narrator key: Explains the significance of the Narrator key which like other Windows screen readers can issue commands using either CAPS LOCK or Insert.
- Important Narrator commands: provides an overview of Narrator commands typically used in everyday tasks.
- Try it out: provides an opportunity to try using the commands learnt through the Quick Start guide on a webpage.
- Navigating Apps: highlights some general keyboard commands that are not necessarily Narrator-specific but likely to be useful.
- Guide summary: an overview of the key points covered in the guide.
The great thing about the Quick Start guide is that most of the screens not only explain what the functions are but provide you with an opportunity to try out the commands while remaining inside the tutorial wizard. This means that once a user is comfortable with the command they can go to the Next button and learn the new features. While other tutorials like the Android Talkback are effective in providing an opportunity to practice in an environment away from direct interaction until the user achieves the task, Narrator has the bonus of not moving to the next option until the user is ready to do so.
In terms of improvements to Narrator itself, I’ve noticed that it seems to work much better in picking up landmarks along with a faster and easier web browsing experience. It may be the case that such features were in the older version but were difficult to access with the keyboard commands, but the updated Narrator is certainly a step above in ease and usability compared to Windows 10 prior to the October 2018 update.
Is it better than JAWS or NVDA?
The big question likely to be asked by many is whether Narrator has evolved to a point now where it can be used in place of a commercial screen reader such as JAWS or the excellent open-source screen reader of NVDA on Windows. In my opinion, Narrator has finally come of age and for many blind and low-vision users the combination of familiar keyboard commands and an excellent tutorial may be enough for casual everyday use. That said, users that rely on a screen reader for critical work such as researching or interaction with technical information will find Narrator lacking, and despite the improvements the update is unlikely to be any threat to the popularity of existing screen readers. Given that Narrator is already built into Windows and the keyboard commands will now be much more familiar, I’d recommend trying it out when your computer receives the October update but keep your usual screen reader handy as it’s likely you’ll need to return to it for heavy-duty computer use. Where I do think Narrator will be useful though is for people recently diagnosed with an eye condition as they can use the Quick Start guide to get familiar with a screen reader and the keyboard commands they learn are now largely transferrable to other screen readers.
Additional information on the significantly updated Narrator can be found on the Microsoft Accessibility blog Windows 10 October update page.