How to Improve Screen Reader UX

Reading Time: 4 minutes
A human ear coming through a hole on a sheet of paper.
An ear coming out through a hole on a white sheet of paper (listening to component interaction is key to improving Screen Reader UX).

This is a non-comprehensive list of recommendations on how to improve the Screen Reader User Experience (UX). This list has worked for me in the past to get consistent results between planning and deployment. This article is mostly addressed to developers, visual and interaction designers, and QA testers. Not all recommendations apply to every role, but all outcomes are helpful for everyone. Other project stakeholders, like Project Managers, can benefit from knowing these recommendations. This is not a formal checklist but it can be the foundation for one.

There is a layer under every User Interface (UI) that “speaks” to the users. And I mean literally speaks to them. If it doesn’t, then something is wrong with the UI. Most of the time, individuals unfamiliar with Web Accessibility don’t realize this.

Same as we usually test by visually browsing and testing with the mouse. Performing tests with keyboard-only navigation and Screen Readers are becoming a requirement. To hear what components and their interaction sound like. Needless to say: silence is bad.

There is no replacement for hands-on manual in-person Screen Reader testing. To the writing of this article, there isn’t any automatic test for Screen Readers. Testing the Screen Reader UX from conception to implementation is one way to improve it.

General Improvements to Screen Reader UX

  1. Define user journeys for every UI or page. Write it down as a numbered list. E.g., “User Tabs to component A, then uses the down-arrow key to reach element A1, …”.
  2. Video record screen reader sessions based on defined user journeys. Make sure to enable “computer audio recording”, otherwise it will result in a video without audio. Video recordings are a great reference when explaining to a developer how to reproduce screen reader bugs.
  3. Test in as many different screen readers as possible. Some are free, some are pricy, some are strict, and some are very forgiving.
  4. Test accessible gestures for mobile devices, but also small devices with external keyboards. E.g., Android Tablets with external mini keyboards.
  5. Beware of cross-screen-reader bugs and aim towards cross-screen-reader solutions. E.g., VoiceOver for Mac will vocalize just about everything, including dynamic content. As opposed to JAWS/NVDA for Windows, which may need a preloaded parent tag for similar results. That is to say, vocalization varies from one Screen Reader to the next, depending on implementation, platform, and devices.
  6. Be patient while testing ARIA attributes. Testing vocalization will take much longer (even at expert levels) than the usual “Mouse + Browser” testing. This is normal, adjust expectations and time estimates.
  7. Make sure to test for consistency and double-check screen reader vocalization across different environments. E.g., localhost, development, staging, live.
  8. Video record experimental approaches to improve Screen Reader UX that didn’t make it to the final implementation. Save for future recycling.
  9. Video record the approved “final” outcome to avoid and spot regressions.

Improving Screen Reader UX by Role

  1. As a Designer, explore examples and references using a screen reader (desktop and mobile). Listen to what components and elements sound like. Video record the screen reader exploration sessions to show to developers and other stakeholders. Point out cross-screen-reader vocalization differences as soon as spotted; they tend to be forgotten.
  2. As a Developer, test with a Screen Reader while developing. If designers provided a video recorded session of the expectations, try to aim for a similar result (desktop and mobile).
  3. As a QA tester, add video recordings of screen reader bug detections to QA tickets (desktop and mobile). This will help developers reproduce and debug issues faster than reading text and interpreting the instructions on how to reproduce. It saves on explanations about how to reproduce and issue.
  4. As a stakeholder, be aware of cross-screen-reader differences and limitations.

What to Avoid

  1. Avoid using Chrome extension to replace or emulate Screen Readers software. The only focus of emulation should be to emulate the user, not the software. As of the writing of this article, I haven’t come across an extension that emulates some ARIA scenarios. Such as aria-expanded, or aria-live which already have some cross-screen-reader issues when using real software, so avoid emulators.
  2. Avoid turning off the screen reader when it starts vocalizing. Instead, listen to it speaking, and try to associate the speech with the UI component and the interaction. I have to admit this happened to me at the beginning. Then I realized THIS is exactly what I should be testing: vocalization. Last year I wrote an article about overcoming the uneasiness of screen reader testing. It’s a helpful guide for slowly adapting to that new environment.
  3. Avoid browsing the UI with the mouse while using a screen reader. This prevents hearing some additional instructions the Screen Reader might be vocalizing by default. E.g., specific keyboard key combination to interact with the component. Don’t skip components or elements with the mouse, always use keyboard-only navigation.
  4. Avoid including ARIA attributes without actually testing them with a Screen Reader and listening to how they sound.
  5. Avoid listening to music while testing with screen readers. Some developers and designers like to hear music or watch videos while working. Honestly, so do I, but then suddenly hearing the computer speaking might be distracting. This could make a slow process even slower.

In short

  1. Listen.