Talk is cheap – screen reader testing on mobile

Testing your content on mobile need not be as painful as you think. If you have an Android and iOS device then you already either have a free mobile screen reader in your pocket or it’s a short download away. This is a quick guide to get you set up.

I’ve not covered Nokia/Talks as Talks is costly at over £200 in the UK. Blackberry also don’t have a viable speech output solution in the UK but you can buy Oratio (formally Orator) in the US.

There are so many mobile devices, browsers, OS’s and screen readers out there it can be hard to know where to start but you can’t cover them all and you have to start somewhere. I think Android and iOS are as good a place as any to start testing with as both can test how well your websites fare in mobile browsers as well as also test device specific apps.

The bottom line is that talk is cheap: the screen reader options listed here are free, or comparatively cheap, and widely available so there really is little excuse to not be testing website and web apps on mobile. I’ll post a guide to what to test soon.


OS: Android 2.2.2 (Froyo), Android 2.3.7 (Gingerbread), Android 3.2.2 (Honeycomb), Android 4.4 (Ice-cream sandwich)

Android doesn’t have the best speech output support but is one to watch. There is no native speech output but you can install third party solutions such as Talkback (from Google), IDEAL Web Browser and Mobile Accessibility (from Code Factory).

Talkback is free and comes pre-installed in later versions of phones but has no support for browsing using touch – I believe you have to have an external keyboard but I’ve not tested this myself.

IDEAL is a back-ported version of AndroidVox which was originally an Android port of the ChromeVox (a built-in screen reader for Chrome OS) designed to run on Ice Cream Sandwich. This is very interesting because if Google can mirror Apple by bundling an OS, browser, handset and speech output the mobile market for blind users is really looking up.

Mobile Accessibility is built by Code Factory and is free in the US but costs £59 in the UK. It works as a screen skin that allows the user to access applications using speech output. The interface is less complex with bigger, more discoverable icons for key apps such as web, SMS, email, contacts, calendar, phone, settings, alarms and ‘Where am I?’.

Mobile Accessibility skin with larger icons for apps, numbers and ringtone options

Enabling speech output on Android:

  1. Go to Settings > Text-to-Speech (it may be inside “Voice input & output settings”)
  2. Click “Listen to an example”. If it doesn’t play, try clicking “Install voice data”, and follow the instructions. Note you can also adjust the speech rate and language here
  3. Go back to the main Settings screen and open Accessibility settings
  4. Select the checkbox next to Accessibility and OK to the alert asking for confirmation
  5. Select the checkbox next to Talkback and OK to the alert asking for confirmation

This should enable speech for all the speech output packages above. Just a quick note: I have found this can be a bit hit or miss but keep persevering. The Google Eyesfree Project has more in depth instructions about installing speech output software should you hit any problems.


Devices: iPhone 4, 4s, iPod Touch, iPad and iPad2

iOS has the best speech output support on the market today and is bundled free with the handset and iOS. It’s because Apple own all three that the experience is far superior to anything else out there. It’s also the easiest to use and test on.

Switch Voiceover on:

  • Triple press the home key, OR
  • Go to Settings, General, Accessibility, Voiceover On/Off

iOS Voiceover settings

Basic touch commands:

  • Tap: highlight an element
  • Double tap: activate an element
  • Flick three fingers: scroll
  • Double tap hold: Voiceover pass through key to activate an element. Can be used to activate a slider then drag to manipulate the slider
  • Flick right or left: select next/previous item
  • 3 fingers, 3 quick taps: turns the screen curtain on
  • 2 fingers and hold: simulates hovering then clicking (this should reveal the controls on the EMP for example, or open a drop down menu)
  • Turn an imaginary dial: this activates the web rotor where you can choose to navigate via container (block level elements, landmarks, headings, lists, words etc). Once done just

Web rotor:

The web rotor allows you to navigate using elements such as characters, words, lins, headings, links, form controls, tables, lists, landmarks, visited links, non-visited links, buttons, text fields, images, static text, zoom, in-page links, hints, search fields, same item and vertical navigation. It also includes customisation options such as speech rate and volume.

  • Rotate two fingers on screen as if turning a dial
  • Select ‘Headings’ for example
  • Flick up or down to jump from heading to heading

iOS web rotor showing headings

Voiceover screen curtain:

This is the pièce de résistance: to test how well content is communicated when you can’t actually see it is by my switching off the screen while Voiceover is running. Turn off the display by triple tapping the screen with three fingers then use the phone as normal.

13 thoughts on “Talk is cheap – screen reader testing on mobile

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  4. Hi Henni,

    Just would like to add for Android, one does not require a keyboard, just select “Talkback” as the input method:
    This can be done from Language & Keyboard settings, available from settings under the Menu Options from the Home screen.

    Talkback input gives you 3 input modes:
    Navigation: A virtual D-pad appears on the screen to help you navigate;
    Typing: soft keyboard is displayed to type;
    Hidden: can be used to access web pages using self-voicing Ideal Web Reader browser: as it has its set of gestures to help users interact.

    One can switch between Talkback modes by holding the physical volume down button.
    For the Talkback input to function, one needs to long-press in an edit field after selecting Talkback as the input mode, it will ask for default input method – select Talkback & you are set to go.

    Note: I have tried this on Android 2.3 (ginger) & even with all this speech support is far from satisfactory as compared to iPhone.

    Always BPositive!
    Priti Rohra
    Independent Accessibility Consultant

  5. Thanks Roger for your kind words. While I think it’s now widely advocated that mobile web content must be accessible there’s not a huge amout of practical advice out there yet. I hope more people share findings on it as I know there’s work going on behind closed doors!

  6. Hi Priti, sound advice from you as always, I’d love to see what you wrote above expanded into a blog post for users *hint* 🙂

    The main problem with Talkback is the lack of support for browsing hence my not going into any depth here. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Android 4.4 and wil be trying out the new free Nokia Screen Reader as soon as I can too.

    Priti Rohra Reply:

    Thanks Henni for the appreciation!

    I shall definately write a blog on post on many other things related to ICT Accessibility in January hopefully!
    I am planning to start blogging again & include this as one of the posts.

    I haven’t tried my hands on the Nokia free screen reader but opinions of one of my blind friend is it isn’t good.

    Always BPositive!
    Priti Rohra

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  8. Hey! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an
    established blog. Is it tough to set up your own blog?
    I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast. I’m thinking
    about creating my own but I’m not sure where to start. Do you have any points or suggestions? Cheers

  9. i am blind guy ..i newly buy Samsung Galaxy Chat B5330 to i setup talkback application?..i not use this kind of mobile before ..friends please give some information and tips

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