Natural Language Interface Accessibility User Requirements - Kim Patch edits

W3C Editor's Draft

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Abstract

This document outlines accessibility-related user needs, requirements and scenarios for natural language interfaces. These user needs should influence accessibility requirements in related specifications and in the design of applications that include natural language interfaces. The concept of a natural language interface is first clarified. User needs and associated requirements are then described.

This document is not a collection of baseline requirements. Some requirements may be implemented at a system or platform level and others at the application level.

Status of This Document

This section describes the status of this document at the time of its publication. A list of current W3C publications and the latest revision of this technical report can be found in the W3C technical reports index at https://www.w3.org/TR/.

This document was published by the Accessible Platform Architectures Working Group as an Editor's Draft.

Publication as an Editor's Draft does not imply endorsement by W3C and its Members.

This is a draft document and may be updated, replaced or obsoleted by other documents at any time. It is inappropriate to cite this document as other than work in progress.

This document was produced by a group operating under the W3C Patent Policy. W3C maintains a public list of any patent disclosures made in connection with the deliverables of the group; that page also includes instructions for disclosing a patent. An individual who has actual knowledge of a patent which the individual believes contains Essential Claim(s) must disclose the information in accordance with section 6 of the W3C Patent Policy.

This document is governed by the 2 November 2021 W3C Process Document.

1. Introduction

1.1 What is a Natural Language Interface?

A natural language interface is a user interface in which the user and the system communicate via a natural (human) language. The user provides input via speech or some other method, and the system generates responses in the form of utterances delivered by speech, text or some other method.

Systems that provide natural language interfaces often support spoken interaction. In this case, speech recognition processes the user's input, and speech synthesis generates spoken responses. However, the use of speech is not essential to a natural language interface.

Typical examples of natural language interfaces include:

These examples are not definitive. Variations of the examples and applications that do not fit these patterns are possible.

Note

1.2 Natural Language Interfaces and accessibility

Natural language interfaces can be made accessible users with disabilities at the platform and application levels via multiple modes of input and output. For example, some users with physical disabilities may need speech input, while others may need a keyboard, switch input, an eye tracking system, or some combination.

Similarly, natural language output may be spoken or visually displayed as text. These and other requirements are detailed below. These requirements may best be satisfied by an assistive technology. For example, a chat bot that lacks a spoken interface may satisfy a user's need for speech input via a browser or operating system dictation function.

1.3 Cross disability support

For some disability types, the requirements for authors and designers are straightforward. At the heart of current accessibility testing are technical code specifications that map to accessibility requirements and can be tested and verified to check if certain statements are true or false. For some disability types this may be more of a support continuum rather than a binary model. In some of these areas the criteria for these models may not be clear. A user interface that is responsive, and can be personalized to support shifting user needs, is a good example.

Current work in accessibility guidelines and standards is moving toward accommodating these new ways of measuring more subjective accessibility requirements that support the needs of people with disabilities but may not be easily measured in a binary fashion.

With this in mind, in the context of Natural Language Interfaces, it’s especially important that application design support the cognitive needs of users,especially if the interface includes speech input because speech input is cognitively taxing In several ways.

Speech input commands must be quickly called to mind, which requires cognitive effort for experienced users and more effort for new users. Speech input also taxes attention. Similar to type-ahead results, speech input results must be watched to make sure that the computer has not made a wording mistake that may be difficult to figure out later. At the same time, the language centre of the brain, used for speech input, is also used for many of the thought processes that go into things people do on computers such as writing or coding. Good design can mitigate the extra cognitive effort and is doubly important for those who have learning or cognitive disabilities. Good practices such as discoverability, ease of use and simple affordances are important considerations in making natural language interaction viable for all users and may require particular understanding when designing these interfaces.

For example, there are particular challenges for people with cognitive disabilities using interfaces that rely on memory. The design should accomodate this need by providing step-by-step instructions. By reminding users how many steps they have completed and how many more steps they need to complete supports the user's memory, rather than relying on it.

When speech input is used, it is important to provide command prompts if needed, so users do not have to rely on their memories to come up with commands at the same time as they are completing steps. There are other user needs patterns relating to supporting the needs of people with cognitive disabilities that can be referred to in 'Making Content Usable for People with Cognitive and Learning Disabilities'. [content-usable]

2. Voice user interfaces

Voice user interfaces (VUI) using speech such as those found on a range of commercially available devices for home and mobile use represent a part of the stack that make up natural language interfaces. This document aims to identify accessibility related user needs and requirements for VUIs and indicate further areas of work and research in terms of how they relate to new standards like WCAG 3 and other emerging technologies.

3. Scope

Natural language interfaces frequently occur as components of larger user interfaces and systems. For example, a chat bot may be included in a web application. A natural language interface may be an essential part of a multi-modal application that uses a combination of language and gestural inputs. An example would be an interactive navigation tool that allows the user to issue spoken commands and to interact with a graphical map with a pointing device.

The scope of this document is largely confined to the accessibility of the natural language aspect of the over-all user interface. It is concerned with the accessibility of natural language interactions to users with disabilities.

4. Services and agents

Behind these interfaces there are services that provide core processing, evaluation and content. This document aims to look at these services and determine to what degree they can and should support the needs of people with disabilities; what system requirements are, or where further research is needed.

Ideally by satisfying system requirements, developers of platforms and applications offering natural language interfaces can meet corresponding user needs. Currently, no stance is taken in this document regarding which needs are best satisfied at the platform level, by an assistive technology, or in the development of applications, but this will change as the document develops. These architectural considerations are left to be decided by system designers, and therefore there may be requirements in accessible system design that they need to be aware of. Often, they also depend on the services provided by the underlying operating system or by the web platform.

If natural language interaction is provided as part of a system that also offers other styles of interaction, this document should be read in combination with guidance provided elsewhere which is relevant to the other interface and service aspects. Notably,

As a general principle, the entire interface of a system or application needs to be accessible to users with disabilities. If only the natural language interaction component is accessible, some users will be unable to complete tasks successfully. For example, a smart agent that answers a user's questions by searching the web for information and then displaying it on screen is only accessible as a whole if both the interaction and the presentation of the information satisfy the user's access needs. If the on-screen information is not accessible, then the user cannot complete the task of acquiring and understanding the information requested.

5. User need definition

The term 'user needs' in this document relates to what people with various disabilities need to successfully use natural language interfaces. User needs are dependent on the context in which an application is used, including the user's capabilities and the environmental conditions in which interaction with the interface takes place. For example, a spoken interaction would be inaccessible to a person who is deaf, or to a hearing person situated in a noisy environment. Although disability-related needs are the focus of this document, the user needs described here are not limited to people with specific types of disability. The capabilities of users vary greatly. They include a variety of physical, sensory, learning and cognitive abilities that should be taken into account in the design of platforms and applications.

6. User needs and requirements

This section outlines a variety of user needs and system requirements that can satisfy them.

6.1 User identification and authentication

Note

To achieve adequate security, voice identification may need to be combined with other factors of authentication.

Note

In some cases, this requirement can be met simply by using authentication mechanisms provided by the underlying operating system or browser environment.

6.2 Means of input and output

Note

This requirement can often be met by supporting the input methods available from the underlying platform, including assistive technologies.

Note

If software that incorporates a natural language interface supports multiple input mechanisms, support for any specific mechanism may be available only on particular hardware devices or in particular environments. For example, a smart speaker may support only speech input, whereas the same smart agent running on a mobile system such as a phone or tablet may support text input via a keyboard or any device capable of emulating a keyboard.

Note

See the requirement to support a keyboard interface specified in WCAG 2.1 [WCAG21], success criterion 2.1.1.

Note

This requirement can often be met by supporting the output methods available from the underlying platform, including assistive technologies.

Note

If software that incorporates a natural language interface supports multiple output mechanisms, support for any specific mechanism may be available only on particular hardware devices or in particular environments. For example, a smart speaker supports only audio/sound output, whereas the same smart agent running on a mobile system, such as a phone or tablet, may support a visual display as well, and be compatible with braille devices.

Note

Support for braille displays is assumed to be provided by a screen reader running under the device's operating system. Therefore, support for keyboard input and textual output is the stated requirement for the natural language interface itself, leaving interaction with the braille hardware to the operating system on which the user interface is run.

6.3 Communicating in a language that the user needs

Note

At present, it is generally infeasible to implement REQ 10a and REQ 10b with sufficient reliability and accuracy to be useful. Sign language processing (including automatic recognition, translation, and production of sign languages) involves challenging research problems. See [Bragg-et-al] for details. These two requirements are nevertheless stated here to encourage further research and development efforts.

Note

Sign languages vary by country and region. Therefore, multiple sign languages may need to be supported, depending on the intended audience of the system.

6.4 Speech recognition and speech production

Note

REQ 13b is only an appropriate strategy if the system's confidence measure is strongly correlated with its actual recognition accuracy for people with speech-related disabilities. This correlation should be established empirically, in a variety of real use contexts, before relying on this approach. Otherwise, the system's prompting for input to be repeated or for confirmation will be insufficiently associated with cases of genuine recognition error.

Note

To ensure this user interface is accessible, it should satisfy relevant accessibility requirements drawn from this document or elsewhere. For example, a system could provide spoken commands, and a settings dialogue in a graphical user interface, as alternative mechanisms for configuring speech properties.

6.5 Visually displayed text

Note

In some cases, this requirement can be met by capabilities of the operating system or browsing environment.

Note

See the text spacing requirement specified in WCAG 2.1 [WCAG21], success criterion 1.4.12.

6.6 Designing for understanding and effective use

6.6.1 Understanding how to interact with the interface

  • User Need 16: A user who is unfamiliar with the system or who has a learning or cognitive disability needs to know what the system can do and how to ask the system to do it.
  • REQ 16a: Provide commands so the user can request help or instructions.
  • REQ 16b: Provide commands that give an overview of what the system can do.
  • REQ 16c: Provide documentation in a form that satisfies accessibility guidelines which explains and gives examples of how to use the system.
Note

This need is particularly applicable to systems which can serve a wide range of requests, such as personal assistants. All users need to know how to interact with a system to start using it. It is important that people with cognitive disabilities can easily access designs that make two things obvious: what the system does and how to set about doing it.

  • User Need 17: A user who is unfamiliar with the system or who has a learning or cognitive disability needs to know how to interact with it to achieve a particular goal.
  • REQ 17a: Provide prompts or menus of options that inform the user of what choices are available and what information is requested at each step of a dialogue with the system.
  • REQ 17b: Provide commands or menu options for requesting explanations and instructions that help the user to complete tasks successfully.
  • User Need 18: A user who is unfamiliar with the system or who has a learning or cognitive disability needs to use it without having to learn specific commands, requests, phrases or vocabulary.
  • REQ 18a: Design the system to respond appropriately to a variety of alternative words, phrases and sentences that may be used to ask the same question, to give the same command, or to supply the same information.
  • REQ 18b: Design the system to respond appropriately to words and phrases that are likely to be familiar to users of other systems with similar features.
  • REQ 18cEnable users to suppress or change commands and utterances recognized by the system, to save them, and to share these customizations with other users. This allows an individual user to configure a set of recognized utterances that is familiar to them, and to import customizations created for similar systems.
  • REQ 18d: If the user's input is ambiguous or cannot be processed, prompt for clarification or additional information, or present a menu of relevant choices.
Note
Note

Commands for performing a variety of functions typically supported by speech interfaces used for telephony and multimedia applications are standardized in [ETSI-ES-202-076].

  • User Need 19: A user with a learning or cognitive disability needs to review information, prompts or questions before deciding how to respond.
  • REQ 19a: Design the system to comply with a user's requests for its natural language output (e.g., spoken utterances) to be repeated.
  • REQ 19b: Summarize or present information that has been supplied by the user, then ask the user for confirmation, before performing irreversible actions such as financial transactions.
  • REQ 19c: If the text of the dialogue between the user and the system is presented in writing (e.g., on screen or via a braille device), ensure that the user can review the entire history of the conversation (scrolling the display, if necessary).
Note

See WCAG 2.1 [WCAG21], success criterion 3.3.4.

6.6.2 Giving users enough time to interact

  • User Need 20: A user with a learning or cognitive disability needs ample time to decide how to respond during a dialogue with the system.
  • REQ 20a: Unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary, do not limit the amount of time available for the user to respond.
  • REQ 20b: If a time limit is unavoidable, allow the length of the time limit to be adjusted, or for the time limit to be eliminated, or prompt for the user to extend it before it expires.
  • REQ 20c: Warn users of time limits before any period of time that is subject to a limit begins.
  • REQ 20d: Provide a mode of operation in which the system reminds the user periodically that it is waiting for input, and of any time limit that has been imposed.
Note

The mode of operation described in requirement 19d may be distracting or anxiety-provoking for some users. Therefore, it should be optional.

Note

See WCAG 2.1 [WCAG21], success criteria 2.2.1, 2.2.3, and 2.2.6.

6.6.3 Communicating in language that is clear, simple, and appropriate to the audience

  • User Need 21: Users, especially those who have learning or cognitive disabilities, need the system to use language that is clear and comprehensible to them.
  • REQ 21a: Use language (including vocabulary and syntax) that is no more complex than is necessary for clear communication.
  • REQ 21b: Use vocabulary (including terminology) that is reasonably predicted to be familiar to the intended users of the system, including users who may have learning or cognitive disabilities.
  • REQ 21c: Provide a mode of operation in which simpler language than the default can be requested.
  • REQ 21d: Provide definitions or explanations of terms that are likely to be unfamiliar to intended users of the system, including users who may have learning or cognitive disabilities.
Note

See WCAG 2.1 [WCAG21], success criteria 3.1.3, 3.1.4, and 3.1.5.

  • User Need 22: Users, especially those who have learning or cognitive disabilities, need the system to use language that is appropriate to their social and cultural context in order to be clear and understandable.
  • REQ 22a: Provide a mode of operation in which the use of language, including terminology, currency, units of measure, and date and time formats, is localized according to the user's preferences.
  • REQ 22b: By default, localize the use of language, including terminology, currency, units of measure, and date and time formats, to the user's country and region.

6.6.4 Pronunciation

  • User Need 23: Users, especially those who have learning or cognitive disabilities, need spoken language to be pronounced correctly in order to be understood.
  • REQ 23a: Provide a mode of operation in which the pronunciation (e.g., accent) of spoken language is localized according to the user's preferences.
  • REQ 23b: By default, localize the pronunciation of spoken language according to the user's country and region.
  • REQ 23c: Ensure that spoken text is pronounced correctly, including names, rarely occurring words, and words that have different pronunciations depending on context.

6.6.5 Avoiding and recovering from input errors

  • User Need 24: Users, especially those who have learning or cognitive disabilities, need opportunities to correct data entry errors using the input method of their choice.
  • REQ 24a: Check information provided by the user for errors.
  • REQ 24b: If errors are detected that can be automatically corrected with high reliability, make the correction and then prompt the user to confirm the information provided.
  • REQ 24c: For errors that cannot be reliably and automatically corrected, provide an explanation to the user and request valid information.
  • REQ 24d: Provide suggestions for correcting the error, if there is a known and relatively short list of alternative, valid responses.
Note

See WCAG 2.1 [WCAG21], success criteria 3.3.1, 3.3.3, 3.3.4, and 3.3.6.

  • User Need 25: Users, especially those with learning or cognitive disabilities, need opportunities to avoid making errors that are irrevocable.
  • REQ 25: Provide means of reversing actions that can be made reversible.
Note

See WCAG 2.1 [WCAG21], success criterion 3.3.6.

6.6.6 Using multimodal interfaces to enhance understanding

  • User Need 26: Some users with learning disabilities need textual information to be spoken and presented in written form simultaneously.
  • REQ 26: Provide a mode of operation in which textual information is spoken and presented on screen concurrently, with synchronized visual highlighting of the text as it is spoken.
Note

The purpose of this multimodal presentation of text is to enhance comprehension of the material, especially by people with learning disabilities that affect reading.

  • User Need 27: Some users with learning or cognitive disabilities need graphical content that complements and reinforces the meaning of textual information.
  • REQ 27: If appropriate graphical conventions exist for presenting information that is provided to the user, then display a graphical presentation in addition to any textual (e.g., spoken) output.
Note

Information presented graphically must also be available as text. See '6.2 Means of input and output' above.

7. Enabling funders

This work is supported by the EC-funded WAI-Guide Project.

A. References

A.1 Informative references

[Bragg-et-al]
Sign language recognition, generation, and translation: An interdisciplinary perspective. Danielle Bragg; Oscar Koller; Mary Bellard; Larwan Berke; Patrick Boudreault; Annelies Braffort; Naomi Caselli; Matt Huenerfauth; Hernisa Kacorri; Tessa Verhoef; Christian Vogler; Meredith Ringel Morris. The 21st International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility. October 2019.
[content-usable]
Making Content Usable for People with Cognitive and Learning Disabilities. W3C Web accessibility Initiative (WAI). April 2021. URL: https://www.w3.org/TR/coga-usable/#user_needs
[ETSI-ES-202-076]
ETSI ES 202 076 V2.1.1: Human Factors (HF); User Interfaces; Generic spoken command vocabulary for ICT devices and services. ETSI. URL: https://www.etsi.org/deliver/etsi_es/202000_202099/202076/02.01.01_50/es_202076v020101m.pdf
[personal-assistant-architecture]
Intelligent Personal Assistant Architecture and Potential for Standardization Version 1.2. Voice Interaction Community Group. 19 July 2021. URL: https://w3c.github.io/voiceinteraction/voice%20interaction%20drafts/paArchitecture-1-2.htm
[raur]
RTC Accessibility User Requirements. Joshue O'Connor; Janina Sajka; Jason White; Michael Cooper. W3C. 25 May 2021. W3C Working Group Note. URL: https://www.w3.org/TR/raur/
[uaag]
User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) 2.0. W3C. 15 December 2015. URL: https://www.w3.org/TR/UAAG20/
[WCAG21]
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. Andrew Kirkpatrick; Joshue O'Connor; Alastair Campbell; Michael Cooper. W3C. 5 June 2018. W3C Recommendation. URL: https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG21/
[xaur]
XR Accessibility User Requirements. W3C. 16 Sept 2020. URL: https://www.w3.org/TR/xaur/