Accessibility improvements in Visual Studio 2017 version 15.3

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In 2015, Satya Nadella updated the Microsoft mission statement to a single sentence. Our mission is to “Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” In 2016, Satya and Scott Guthrie looked at the directors in Visual Studio and asked how we’re honoring that mission with respect to the word ‘every’. While accessibility has always been a priority for Visual Studio, Satya wanted to know how much confidence we had in our own assessment.

How accessible is Visual Studio?

In October of 2016, Visual Studio started the effort to really answer the question of how accessible the Visual Studio family of products and services were. We partnered with two independent testing agencies who were trained in the Trusted Tester program, a program established by the Homeland Security Agency of the United States of America to set out guidelines that define exactly what it means to be accessible. Effectively, the division wanted experts on accessibility to help shape and define our goals.

Visual Studio is a very large product with countless screens of UI. To get the level of detail that we wanted, the testing process took 6 months and it discovered hundreds of issues. Many of these were small issues like a name not being defined or certain UI Automation patterns not being implemented correctly. While many users wouldn’t be aware of these incorrect values, for Visual Studio customers who use assistive technologies like screen readers, they made Visual Studio a bit less usable.

Accessibility in Visual Studio 2017 version 15.3

Today’s update of Visual Studio 2017 includes over 1,700 targeted fixes to improve compatibility between Visual Studio and the Assistive Technologies that many of our customers use. Our testing focused heavily on screen readers and high contrast display themes, as well as manually inspecting the automation trees that allow assistive technologies, including refreshable braille displays and specialized pointing devices to work with Visual Studio. There are dozens of scenarios that are more compatible with screen readers, high contrast themes and other assistive technologies than ever before. The debugger, editor and shell have all gotten significant improvements that are worth emphasizing.

The Visual Studio debugger identified some windows that were previously inaccessible to screen readers. This meant that while many users found the Call Stack, Locals, Autos, Watch and Quickwatch windows useful, not all our users could take advantage of them. Now, screen readers can query the properties of these windows, making sure our visually impaired users could take advantage.

A first class code editing experience is the heart of any IDE, and we want to make Visual Studio’s editor work well for every developer – with this in mind we’ve improved the way the editor works for developers with low vision and those who need screen readers. We’ve gotten feedback that all the color encoding in the editor can help users identify the types of different tokens, but in some cases, those colors can make the text more difficult to read for folks with low vision. Visual Studio users now have access to the “Blue (Extra Contrast)” theme which will tweak some of those colors to make sure the color contrast will be more comfortable for users who want a bit more contrast as they code without needing the full “High Contrast” themes.

Blue (Extra Contrast) Theme

Visual Studio’s editor has a rich vocabulary of text adornments that let developers know about characteristics and features available at particular points on a line of code, such as breakpoints, lightbulbs, error and warning “squiggles”, bookmarks, and more. Customers can now discover and navigate between these adornments via the new “Show Line Annotations” command set, which you can find on the editor context menu.

New - Show Line Annotations - Command Set

Are we there?

These are just a few examples of the experiences that we’ve improved upon and with Visual Studio 2017, we now feel confident in giving Satya the answer to the question he asked. To be completely honest though, the answer to Satya is “Better than we were, but not as good as we’d like.” That’s why Visual Studio 2017 Update 3 represents the first significant step toward being the fully accessible development tool that we want to be completely proud of. Later this year, Windows plans to ship the Fall Creator’s Update which will provide some APIs that Visual Studio needs to be the accessible tool that we feel our customers deserve. Windows 10 with the Fall Creators Update and Visual Studio 2017 with its latest update will be a more accessible IDE than we’ve ever shipped before.

This journey that we are on does not stop when the checkboxes are ticked. Visual Studio now has a team dedicated to shaping tools for app developers so the apps they create will be accessible by default. We’ve also reached out to developers with a range of disabilities to come and use Visual Studio and give us direct feedback. We’re asking folks to continue to use the “Give Feedback” button in Visual Studio (Help -> Send Feedback -> Provide a Suggestion) to continue to provide this feedback. If you’re a user of assistive technologies and you’ve got something that you can’t get to work, or even if you have suggestions on how to get things to work better, please send us that feedback.

It’s not only Visual Studio that is getting our attention. We’re going through all of the tools in the Visual Studio family, like Blend for Visual Studio and making sure their compatibility is up to our standards. Visual Studio for Mac has also gone through our testing process, and the updates to make Visual Studio for Mac more accessible are well underway and will be released soon.

We’re very proud of today’s update of Visual Studio 2017, as it’s the first time our customers will get to see the fruits of this accessibility effort and our dedication to the mission to empower every person and every organization to do more.

Dante Gagne, Senior Program Manager, XAML Experiences
@DanteGagne

Dante was one of the first testers for Expression Blend and his love of XAML has never faded. When he’s not playing board games or walking in the sunshine, he’s designing features in Visual Studio. His passion lies in diagnostics, accessibility, and localization with an eye toward UX design and polishing.