Android 6.0 and Talkback 4.5 Accessibility Improvements
With Android 6.0 and Talkback 4.5, some significant accessibility improvements have been made. The gestures seem more forgiving when inputs aren’t perfect, web browsing is much better, and the overall experience feels more fluid. I’ve attempted to use Android a few times in the past, but have always been frustrated by inconsistent interpretation of my gestures, random focus jumping if any other part of the screen is touched, and a lack of navigation granularity on the web and in other apps. With the current versions, things are much better. While the overall navigation is not as seamless as on iOS, the gap has narrowed significantly. Unfortunately, as Brailleback has not received an update since December and the introduction of Unified English Braille, Braille accessibility was not tested for this review.
Basic navigation and setup
When navigating with the newest version of Talkback, a couple of noteworthy changes have been made. The context menus are now defaulted to displaying in a list. Additionally, to change granularity, you now flick up or down to cycle through the different options. Once a granularity is selected, flicking left and right now moves using that granularity, rather than the standard object movement. The downside to this is that unlike on iOS, where it is possible to flick down by heading to a section then immediately flick right to read it, it is necessary to cycle back to “Default”, which is the normal navigation granularity. The setup of a new phone works mostly the same as before, except that a new Talkback tutorial is presented upon first launch. The new tutorial has simplified the structure, and now provides a lesson, followed by a review where you can practice the gestures.
Navigating the web
Where the Talkback changes are by far most noticeable is when navigating the web using Chrome. Heading announcements alone make navigating a much more pleasant experience, and the ability to navigate by heading, control, link, etc. bring the experience much closer to that of iOS.
When I have previously tried Android, two very common issues I experienced were the inability to get multi-part gestures to work and frequent misinterpreting of gestures, (recognizing a touch instead of a flick, recognizing a double tap as a touch then flick, etc.). With the latest Android and Talkback, using a down+right gesture to activate a context menu works almost every time where before it worked maybe one in five times. Also, the two-finger slide to scroll through lists works much more consistently than before. I can now double tap with minimal issues. One problem that still exists, though somewhat improved, is focus randomly jumping while flicking through items. The gesture is still occasionally misinterpreted as a touch, which can cause the user’s place to be lost.
Many of the standard Google apps work well with Talkback. However, the lack of heading navigation still makes them more difficult to navigate than they could be. For example, in Settings, the different settings are divided up into categories. Each category has its own heading, but they are not announced as headings, and there is no way to navigate between them with Talkback. The same issue exists in the Play Store, where not having headings to navigate by is even more of a navigation issue. Now that heading navigation is possible on the web, structured navigation within apps needs to be a priority for Talkback.
Another issue is that sometimes there is too much information given as separate navigation items. An example of this is in Gmail, where after each message, there is something labeled “star” and then another item labeled “tap to select this conversation.” Talkback uses the word conversation even if messages are being displayed individually rather than by thread. Having two items that do similar but not identical things is also confusing, as it is unclear which you are supposed to interact with.
Things that still need improvement
As mentioned previously, bringing heading and other structure navigation to apps outside of the web view would probably be one of the changes that would most enhance Talkback going forward. Gesture detection, while much improved, could still use some refining as there are still times where gestures don’t register or are misinterpreted. Now that movement by various granularities has been made easier, Talkback could greatly benefit from something equivalent to the actions rotor item in iOS. This would make it easier for app developers to implement custom actions in a way that Talkback users can take advantage of. As of Android 6, the volume buttons now adjust the ringer volume, rather than the media volume, which Talkback is tied to. This prevents Talkback’s volume from being adjusted using the volume buttons on the side of the device. This problem is made even worse if the media volume becomes muted as there is no way to accessibly unmute Talkback.
One other complication with Talkback’s screen dimming feature (equivalent to the screen curtain feature of iOS) is that when it is active, you cannot make certain changes to permissions and other settings. An error message is generated that another app is drawing over the screen, and thus your response cannot be verified. This can be problematic in certain situations, such as when attempting to add a credit card, where screen dimming would likely be most used.
With the newest version of both Android and Talkback, Android accessibility continues to improve. The new announcements and navigation levels on the web have made browsing much more pleasant, and better detection of gestures makes the whole experience less frustrating. While there is still definite room for improvement, the outlook for Android’s accessibility with Talkback is very positive.