Testing Android skins with TalkBack

10. February 2014

Many Android smartphones come with specific "skins" (graphical user interfaces) to differentiate themselves from Google's stock Android. How usable are these skins for blind users?

The Android operating system is open source, which makes it possible for device makers to create their own customized user interface with a particular look and behaviour of icons, menus and widgets. These interfaces, also called "skins", serve to differentiate smartphones from the stock Android look found on the Nexus and (some) Motorola phones. Many skins also slip in skin-specific custom apps for core functions (dialler, calendar, messaging, mail, etc.) in place of the stock Android apps.

In our test, a blind expert, Robbie Sandberg, investigated whether the different devices were usable with the built-in screen reader, TalkBack. We compared the stock Android version on a Nexus 4 with the skins on recent Samsung, HTC and Sony smartphones.

Approach

We tested the following devices (the respective Android version is noted):

  • Google Nexus 4, Android version 4.4 KitKat
  • Samsung Galaxy S4, Android version 4.2.2 Touchwiz
  • HTC One, Android version 4.1.2 Sense
  • Sony Xperia Z, Android version 4.2.2 Xperia UI

For the test, we defined seven actions which a blind user should be able to carry out if the smartphone is to be considered accessible:

  1. Unlock screen
  2. Set up PIN
  3. Add contact
  4. Dial number / contact
  5. Send an SMS
  6. Add calendar entry
  7. Connect to WLAN

We checked for each of these actions whether they can be accomplished at all by a blind user, and how easy it is to carry out the component steps.

Results

The test revealed significant differences in the accessibility of the four devices / skins. Not surprisingly, Google’s Nexus 4 with its stock Android interface came out on top. Here, all actions and their individual steps could be accomplished (except a problem when setting the event time in the calendar).

The Samsung Galaxy S4 with its Touchwiz Skin did not allow the use of calendar and contacts since focused numbers and data are not spoken by TalkBack. To use the device efficiently, calendar events and contacts have to be maintained via synchronizing, for example, with a PC.

The HTC one skin Sense showed rather little sense for accessibility. The user has to make do without phone number input via the keyboard: the Talkback renders the focused numbers but does not allow input. An SMS can only be sent after an introduction by a sighted person since buttons are masked or have no accessible name.

On the Sony Xperia Z smartphone, most core functions cannot be accomplished due to a completely inaccessible keyboard. Focusing over the virtual keys does not cause a TalkBack output. We tried to install third-party virtual keyboards such as Eyes Free, TouchPal or SwiftKey but we could not get any of them to work.

Conclusion

So far, third-party device makers building on Android seem to be paying little attention to the accessibility of their skins and degrade the level of accessibility built into the Google’s ‘stock Android’ operating system.

Until further notice, blind users are well advised to choose smartphones running stock Android, i.e. Google’s Nexus 4 or 5 devices manufactured by hardware partner LG, or Motorola’s Google Play edition of the Moto G. Not only is stock Android more accessible than the skinned versions, the stock version also receives Android and software updates much more quickly than devices where updates first have to be worked into a custom skin.

Tabular results for by task and device

The following tables show in more detail how the devices have scored in the seven different tasks.

1. Unlock screen

 Nexus 4Samsung Galaxy S4HTC OneXperia Z
Overall use of the function: Possible Possible Possible

Possible.
Only via swipe gestures. PIN or other securitz options not accessible.

Is there a audible hint for unlocking? Yes Yes Yes Yes
Unlocking with PIN possible? Yes Yes

No.
The Submit button ("Eingabe") is not spoken by Talkback.


No.
Virtual keyboard is inaccessible. No input possible.

Are focused numbers spoken? Yes Yes Yes No
Are activated numbers spoken? Ja Yes No No
Is the content of the PIN field spoken? No No No No

2. Set up PIN

 Nexus 4Samsung Galaxy S4HTC OneXperia Z
Overall use of function: Possible Possible Possible Not possible
Call up settings Works Works Works Works
all up lock screen settings Works Works Works Works
CHoose option "PIN" Works Geht Works Works
Are focused numbers spoken? Yes Yes Yes No
Are activated numbers spoken? Yes Yes No No
Is the content of the PIN field spoken? No No No No

3. Dial number

 Nexus 4Samsung Galaxy S4HTC OneXperia Z
Overall use of function: Possible Possible Not possible Possible
Input of number Works Works.
Numbers are spoken, but the cintent of the text input field is rendered incorrecty.
Not possible.
Numbers can be focused, but not activated.
Works
Terminate call Works Works Not possible.
Button "Hang up" not found. Perhaps a gesture?
Works
Dial contact Works Works Works Works

4. Send SMS

 Nexus 4Samsung Galaxy S4HTC OneXperia Z
Overall use of function: Possible Possible Possible Not possible
Message-App öffnen Works Works Works Works
Select "New" Works Works Works Works
Add contact

Works.
Button "Add contact" not announced, input of character inserts suggestions

Works Works.
Taste "Add contact" nit spoken by Talkback but announced by a feedback sound. Incremental search possible.


Works
Enter SMS text Works Works Works Not possible
Send MS Works   Works (with sighted help).
Buttons 'Cancel' and 'Send' are not spoken by TalkBack. Possible after instruction by sighted helper or through trial and error.
Works
Send SMS from contacts Works Works Not possible.
No option to send SMS found in contacts
Not possible

5. Add contact

 Nexus 4Samsung Galaxy S4HTC OneXperia Z
Overall use of function: Possible Not possible
Possible Not possible
Call up contacts Works Works Works Works
Select "New" Works Works Works (with sighted help).
Only works after sighted help since botton has no accessible name.
Works
Enter name Works Works.
Samsung keyboard inserts an options popup after a very short dwelling on a key. Input is therefore difficult and error-prone.


Works Not possible
Wird der Inhalt des Eingabefeldes gesprochen? Yes Yes Yes No
Nummer eingeben Works Not possible Works Not possible
Werden die angesteuerten Ziffern gesprochen? Yes No.
No characters spoken when navigating the screen.
Yes No
Werden die aktivierten Ziffern gesprochen? Yes Yes Yes No
Kontakt speichern Works Works Works Works

6. Add calendar entry

 Nexus 4Samsung Galaxy S4HTC OneXperia Z
Overall use of function: Possible Not possible Not possible Not possible
Call up calendar Works Works Works Works
Select "new" Works Works Works Works
Enter event name Works Works (with sighted help).
Only possible after support by sighted helper. OK button is spoken by TalkBack but inactive since it is obliterated by the keyboard. Keyboard must be collapsed first.
Works Not possible
Set date Works Not possible.
Month and day cannot be set since navigating across the calendar grid does not cause a spoken feedback.
Not possible Not possible
Set time Works.
Entry via the number dial difficult. Set date and time are not spoken in the respective fields.
Works Not possible Not possible

7. Connect to WLAN

 Nexus 4Samsung Galaxy S4HTC OneXperia Z
Overall use of function: Possible Possible Possible Not possible
Einstellungen aufrufen Works Works Works Works
WLAN wählen Works Works Works Works
Netzwerk wählen Works Works Works Works
Enter WLAN password Works Works Works (with sighted help).
Possible only after instruction by sighted helper since delete and  modifier keys are not spoken by TalkBack. Once user knows where they are, it is workable.


Not possible
Are focused characters spoken? Yes Yes Yes No
Is content of WLAN password spoken Yes Yes.
Only after activating show password support in settings
Yes.
The option  "Show password" needs t obe activated in input form.


No

Comments

Comment by lucy greco |

the worst example of this is trying to dial on a note 2 in 4.3 with a at&t skin a person can't even explore the screen at all to dial a number

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