Google TalkBack: An Overview of Android's Free Screen Reader

April 12, 2022

TalkBack is Google's free screen reader for Android devices. The software responds to familiar touch and swipe commands, allowing users to interact with websites and apps. When activated, TalkBack announces where the user’s focus is located, enabling people to control their phones, tablets, and other Android devices without using visual cues. In certain apps, users can input other touch and voice commands. 

As part of our series of articles on assistive technologies, we’ll review some of TalkBack’s unique features — and provide tips for using the software to evaluate mobile accessibility.

Related: Why Screen Readers Are Essential for Website Accessibility

How Google TalkBack Improves Mobile Experiences

TalkBack helps the user browse the content of the screen and understand where to click. As a user drags their finger along their screen and they point to a button or a link on a website, the tool will ask if the user wants to click and provide them with a variety of options for proceeding. The software interprets user gestures for navigation. For example, rather than using the device’s “back” button when browsing the web, the user can swipe down into the left to navigate to the previous page.

TalkBack is part of the Android Accessibility Suite, and according to Google, it’s installed on more than 5 billion devices. Here are some of the screen reader’s basic features: 

  • Gesture Support. Users navigate by dragging their finger(s) along the screen in a predefined pattern that corresponds to commonly used commands. 
  • Voice Commands. By using TalkBack with Google Assistant, users can navigate with dozens of predefined voice commands. 
  • Braille Support. Users can enter 6-dot braille to control TalkBack. Currently, the screen reader only supports Unified English Braille. 

In addition to TalkBack, Google provides a variety of assistive technologies through the Android Accessibility Suite including live captions, hearing aid support, display magnification, and Action Blocks (customizable buttons that trigger routine actions on the Android home screen). 

By enabling these tools, Android users can customize their devices to perform tasks quickly and comfortably. However, like all assistive technologies, the Android Accessibility Suite relies on content creators. To ensure that your mobile app or website works with TalkBack and other tools, you’ll need to follow the best practices of digital accessibility.

Related: 5 Myths About Screen Readers That Can Hurt Accessibility

Can I use TalkBack to test website accessibility?

The best way to create content that works for people with all types of disabilities — including screen reader users — is to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Published by the World Wide Web Consortium, WCAG is a simple framework for improving your design and development practices. It’s based on four principles: Content should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. 

Content that conforms with WCAG’s Level AA success criteria should be reasonably accessible for most screen reader users. To determine whether your website conforms, you’ll need to use a combination of manual and automated evaluations. Read about our mobile app accessibility testing and website accessibility testing services to learn more.

Unfortunately, you can’t verify whether your content is accessible — or if it follows WCAG success criteria — by performing a single test with a mobile screen reader. However, using TalkBack can help developers understand the experiences of real-life users with disabilities. If you’re considering an accessibility test with TalkBack, here are a few important points to consider: 

  • If you’re testing content with your own device, you might encounter lagging load times, changed keyboard preferences, and other unpredictable behaviors. 
  • Avoid drawing broad conclusions. Experienced screen reader users will have a better understanding of TalkBack’s features, so if you feel frustrated or confused, remember that your experience doesn’t necessarily indicate accessibility problems.
  • Remember that TalkBack is an Android-only service, so take into account that desktop and Apple users are using a different screen reader and will be having a different experience with your content.
  • TalkBack requires some set up. Google offers tutorials and support for installing and activating the screen reader.

Tips for Reviewing Web Content with TalkBack

To use TalkBack to evaluate accessibility, start by downloading the Android Accessibility Suite. While you’re installing the tools, practice single-finger and multi-finger gestures (note that some devices do not support multi-finger gestures). Google provides a list of TalkBack gestures for different versions of the software.

Here’s a quick guide for evaluating your content:

  • To turn the TalkBack tool off (or on), press both volume keys for 3 seconds. Alternatively, use Google Assistant to turn it off ("Turn off TalkBack"), or open Settings, navigate to Accessibility, and then tap TalkBack.
  • Open your app or website. Navigate while listening to the audio output.
  • Ask yourself questions about the experience. Can you understand the content? Are you able to interact easily, or do you encounter issues? 
  • Pay close attention to images and other visual content. Does your website or app provide text alternatives for screen reader users? 

Remember, while TalkBack is a popular screen reader, it’s not the only option available. Desktop computer users might prefer NVDA or JAWS, both of which are built for accessibility; Apple users might prefer VoiceOver, which is available on both iOS and MacOS. Each of these screen readers may interpret content in different ways, so you’ll need a strong audit strategy to reach the widest possible audience. 

And while screen reader accessibility is important, web accessibility isn’t limited to people who use assistive technologies. WCAG checkpoints help to ensure your content works better for everyone — regardless of how they access the internet. 

To determine whether your site follows WCAG accessibility standards, start with a free, confidential website accessibility scan or talk to a digital accessibility expert.

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