April 21, 2021
TL;DR Live chat (livechat.com and helpdesk.com) provide the most accessible customer service and help desk software at an affordable price.
As a blind business owner, I am constantly looking for desktop or web software that is accessible with a screen reader.
In certain software categories, there is already a known clear winner in the community. For example, Audacity is excellent for accessible 2-track audio editing and Reaper is similarly a great choice for multi-track audio editing.
Microsoft Office is well supported by the various screen readers. And Microsoft Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code are both well known in the community to be accessible software development tools.
Similarly, on the web, gmail is now known to work well with a screen reader and there are training resources readily available. Craigslist, with its text-only interface is accessible, as is EBAY and Paypal with its slightly more complex interface.
however, as the category of software becomes more niche, there is often not a lot out there on what works well and what is inaccessible. For users of Apple products, an excellent resource is applevis.com which has crowdsourced accessibility and usability information on many different IOS apps. Sadly, no such definitive resource exists for desktop or web software as a service (SAAS).
Here are just a few examples of software I've had to research with the primary emphasis on being usable with access technology like a screen reader:
Mailing list management software
Customer service and help desk software
Payment processing software
Crypto exchanges and wallets
e-commerce store software
Online banking website comparisons
Online brokerage comparisons
As there are often 4 or more candidates in a given category and it is generally impossible to simply ask the company whether their software or platform works with a screen reader, it is often necessary to spend a great deal of time evaluating all the candidates.
This generally involves signing up for trials, spending time on initial training, completing what may be a one-time or ongoing setup process, doing test website integration, working through each candidate, and dismissing solutions early on or much later in the evaluation process.
As an example, I recently had need of Customer Service software to support my e-commerce website. I was looking for something to manage real-time customer chats, submission of e-mail request tickets, and build a knowledgebase of frequently asked questions.
Briefly, here are the solutions I signed up for, and worked through until either finding them a dead-end or (in 2 cases), a workable solution:
Salesforce Service and Support
Live Helper Chat and OS Ticket (free or open-source)
Zendesk and Freshdesk
livechat.com and helpdesk.com
Each of these solutions took me from 2 days to over a week to evaluate.
Briefly, here are my experiences:
Salesforce Service and Support
Salesforce actually does have a reputation for being largely accessible so this is where I started. Quickly, it became apparent that Salesforce is huge and while the training resources are excellent, getting up to speed with even one of their services (Salesforce Support in my case) was a massive undertaking.
In the end, I found the accessibility of Salesforce to be excellent. But as I began researching the features I wanted, the "subscription creep" began to set in. While the initial "Essentials" subscription was attractive, each new feature I wanted seemed to push me into further tiers and levels. Before I knew it, the "Essentials" versionat $25 per month per user had become nearly $275 per user per month.
Salesforce grade: A for accessibility, D for affordability
Live Helper Chat and OS Ticket
Fearing going far over budget, my next choice was free or open-source solutions. Two often mentioned candidates were Live Helper chat for customer chats and OS Ticket for e-mail support inquiries. Both required extensive web server setup on my back end and it was only after I'd completed this setup process that I found the Live Helper Chat interface to be hopelessly complex, confusing, and unproductive. OS Ticket required a similar amount of setup on the backend, and while I found it more accessible, it was clear that it would not grow to accomodate my future needs.
Live Helper chat grade: D for accessibility and A for affordability
OS Ticket grade: B for accessibility and A for affordability but D for features
Zendesk and Freshdesk
Zendesk and Freshdesk aim to fill the middle ground between the very capable and expensive salesforce and the very confusing and limited open-source solutions.
Each required the setup of a trial account, initial training, and test integration with my website and e-mail service provider. While Freshdesk initially looked promising and cost-effective, there were various parts of the setup process in which sighted assistance was needed because various graphics were simply not clickable with a screen reader.
Zendesk was a better experience and pricing was attractive. In the end though, I found the Zendesk agent interface to be cumbersome because each new request was not in a logical and easily navigable table. Also, enough of the buttons were unlabeled that it became difficult to navigate the UI without a lot of memorization.
Zendesk grade: B for accessibility, B for affordability
Freshdesk grade: C- for accessibility and B for affordability
Accessibility disaster from the git-go. This is one solution I didn't have to waste a lot of time before dismissing.
Live Agent grade: F for accessibility and cost doesn't matter at that point
Shortly after finding some success with Zendesk, I began to wonder whether there was a slightly more accessible solution with less complexity and lower cost. Happily, I stumbled upon livechat.com and their related helpdesk.com service.
livechat.com provides an all-in-one chat, e-mail support, and ticket tracking system. HelpDesk.com is an upgrade For more comprehensive e-mail ticketing support and building a knowledgebase.
Since they used their own software to provide real-time customer chat, I was please to interact with them in this way for support inquiries. I found their responses to be both timely and accurate. And the chat worked quite well on the customer side using a screen reader.
The setup process was well documented and I did not encounter any accessibility challanges requiring sighted assistance. This gave me confidence that the agent user-interface had a good chance of being accessible and it was. Happily, unlike Zendesk, the support inquiries are displayed in a navigable grid and the individual request support form is straightforward with only a minimum of unlabeled buttons. the agent chat software was accessible just like the customer facing version.
In addition, I was pleased to find livechat.com had an API so that any custom solutions I might want to build in the future would be possible. The subscription price was also attractive at just $19 per month per user for the features I would require. Even the most comprehensive plan was $59 per month with no annual commitment, a real bargain compared to Salesforce Service and Support.
LiveChat grade: A- for accessibility, A for pricing
So after about a month of searching, my choice was clear. LiveChat would be my solution. As a blind business owner, I find the task of uncovering desktop and web software that works well with access technology to be about 300% more time consuming than when I was sighted. This is primarily because there are so many accessibility deal killers that are not evident until far into the setup or testing process.
Until an "applevis" for desktop and web software exists, I will try to do my part to save others the tremendous effort of researching accessible desktop and web software.