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Accessible Notifications

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As we interact with user agents on a variety of devices, a growing number of asynchronous events, such as alerts and notifications, can arise that seek to capture the user's attention. These events arise from a hierarchy of sources, with varying urgency and relevance to the user. For users of assistive technologies, notifications can be disruptive to ongoing tasks, and techniques, such as ARIA live regions have been developed as a means to define when screen updates should be announced. Can the ARIA model serve as a more general model for defining how alerts and notifications should be handled in user agents? Further, should alert and notifications be re-thought to enhance both usability and accessibility, and specifically, to ensure that alerts can be detected and understood by all?


Page author(s): Markku T. Hakkinen, Educational Testing Service

Other contact(s): Helen T. Sullivan, Rider University


notifications, alerts, interruptions


We live today in an environment rich in notifications. Our systems and devices provide personal notifications of convenience, such as alarm clocks, email or chat notifications, or news updates. They also provide notifications of necessity, such as warnings of system failures, severe weather alerts, or other events of an urgent nature. With the move toward a Web-centric model of information access and consumption across devices, the concept of the user agent providing a standard mechanism for handling and presenting notifications has multiple advantages. In a move toward that concept, the W3C Web Notifications [1] draft specification has been proposed.

Notifications are generally designed to attract the attention of the user, with the actual mechanisms including visual, auditory, and on some devices, vibration cues. Personalization of a subset of notifications is commonplace on mobile devices and would likely serve as a model for notifications within the user agent, particularly in allowing users to select notification styles that cue the importance of the message or event. Though there is a significant body of research on alarms, primarily in the healthcare and aviation contexts, there is limited research looking specifically at personalization of notifications, especially in the context of both convenience and necessity alarms. Research into the effects of interruptions and the effects of notifications on task performance (e.g. [2] [3] [4]) provides some guidance, but touches only part of the problem and does not address accessibility. Accessibility of notifications has received attention in the context of public warning of disasters and other emergencies [5] [6] [7] [8] [9], but no significant research has been identified thus far concerning accessibility of generalized, non-critical notifications.

This proposed symposium would bring together researchers from academia, industry, and government to examine the state of research into accessible notifications. Researchers are expected to participate from the accessibility, cognitive science, human factors, public warning and standards domains. Suggested research topics may include:

  • WAI ARIA live regions as a model for notifications
  • Multimodal notifications
  • Personalization of notification presentation
  • Integration of national public warning systems (e.g. IPAWS, CMAS, METEOALARM, etc) with user agent notification
  • Design of notifications for sensory and cognitive disabilities
  • Interruptions and impact on assistive technology users

Findings from this symposium should prove valuable to the Web standards community and those engaged in developing notification implementations.


[Additional background on the subject matter]


[Specific questions that need to be addressed]


1. W3C Web Notifications API Working Draft

2. Horvitz, Eric. "Balancing Awareness and Interruption: Investigation of Notification Deferral Policies". Microsoft Research.

3. M. van Dantzich, D. Robbins, E. Horvitz, M. Czerwinski (2003), Scope: Providing Awareness of Multiple Notifications at a Glance, In: Proceedings of AVI 2002, ACM Conference on Advanced Visual Interfaces, Trento, Italy, May 22-24, 2002. ACM Press.

4. McCrickard, D. S., Czerwinski, M., & Bartram, L. (2003). Introduction: design and evaluation of notification user interfaces. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 58(5), 509-514.

5. Wireless RERC Emergency Alerts Page

6. Access to Emergency Alerts for People with Disabilities

7. Malizia, A., Onorati, T., Diaz, P., Aedo, I., & Astorga-Paliza, F. (2010). SEMA4A: An ontology for emergency notification systems accessibility. Expert Systems with Applications, 37(4), 3380-3391.

8. Malizia, A., Onorati, T., Bellucci, A., Diaz, P., & Aedo, I. (2009). Interactive Accessible Notifications for Emergency Notification Systems. Universal Access in Human-Computer Interaction. Applications and Services, 385-394.

9. Sullivan, H. T., Hakkinen, M. T., & DeBlois, K. (2010). Communicating critical information using mobile phones to populations with special needs. International Journal of Emergency Management, 7(1), 6-16.

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