The Rings of Google's Trusted Testers program

Over the years, I’ve owned a few Android devices. From the Samsung Stratosphere to the Pixel 1 to the Braille Note Touch, and now the Galaxy S20 FE 5G. I remember the eyes-free Google group, where TalkBack developers were among us mere mortals. I remember being in the old TalkBack beta program. I remember when anyone in the Eyes-free group could be in the beta. And now, that is no longer the case.

In this post, I’ll talk about the Accessibility Trusted Testers program, how it works in practice, in my own experience, and how this isn’t helpful for both TalkBack as a screen reader, and Google’s image as a responsive, responsible, and open provider of accessibility technology. In this article, I will not name names, because I don’t think the state of things results from individual members of the TalkBack or accessibility team. And as I’ve said before, these are my experiences. Someone who is more connected or famous in the blind community will most certainly have better results.

The outer ring

When you open the link to join the accessibility trusted tester program, you’ll find this text:

Participate in early product development and user research studies from select countries.

After signing up, you’ll get an email welcoming you to the program. Afterwards, you get emails about surveys and sessions you can do. This isn’t just for blind people, either. There are a lot of sessions done for people with visually impaired people, Deaf people, and wheelchair users. And yes, there are a lot more of them than blind people. A good many of them require that you be near a Google office, so require transportation. I won’t go into detail about what the sessions and surveys are about, but this overview should give you a good enough idea.

The Inner Ring

Now we get into the stuff that I take issue with. There is no way for someone not in the loop to know. If you contact someone in the accessibility team at Google, you can ask to be placed in the TalkBack and/or Lookout testing programs. Depending on who you ask, you may or may not get any response at all. Afterwards, the process may get stuck in a few places, either in searching for you in the program, calling out to another person, and so on. And no, I’m not in either private beta program. The last time I’ve heard from them is two months ago now.

The things I have issues with are many, and I’ll go over them. First, when someone signs up for these trusted tester programs, they think that, because it’s a “tester” program, you’ll gain access to beta versions of TalkBack and so on. You don’t.

Second, some of these sessions require you to travel to Google’s offices. There are blind people scattered across states and countries and provinces, and few Google offices. So, if a blind person wants to attend a session, they’ll have to travel to California to do so. And that means that only Californian blind people, who are in the program, will even know about the study and attend.

And third, the biggest, is this. When the program opened up after the demolition of the eyes-free group, the people using Android for the longest flooded in. So, throughout all these years, it’s been them, the people used to use Android, providing the feedback. People who haven’t used iOS in years, people who don’t care about images and who have found their preferred apps and stick with that. So, when new people come to Android, the older users have a bunch of third-party apps, for email, messaging, launchers, and so on. Sure, the new users can talk about how the first-party experience is on the Blind Android Users mailing list and Telegram group, but the older users always have some third-party way of doing things, or a workaround of “use headphones” or “mute TalkBack” or “use another screen reader” or “Go back to the iPhone”. And I’ve nearly had enough of that. Sighted people don’t have to download a whole other mail client, or mute TalkBack while talking to Google Assistant, or use a third-party Braille driver like BRLTTY, or use and iPhone to read Kindle books well in Braille or talk to the voice assistant without being talked over.

Also, the Trusted Testers program only covers the US and maybe Canada. Most blind Android users are from many other countries. So, their voices are, for all intents and purposes, muted. All those devices that they use, the TalkBack beta program will not catch. A great example of this is spell checking released in TalkBack 13.1. On Pixels, when you choose a correction, that word is spelled out. On Samsung and other phones, it’s not. It makes me wonder what else I’m missing by using a non-Google phone. And that’s not how Android is supposed to work. If we, now, have to buy Google phones to get the best accessibility, how is that better than Apple, where we have to buy Pro iPhones to get the most and best features?

How this can be Fixed

Google has a method by which, in the Play Store, one can get the beta version of an app. Google can use this for TalkBack and Lookout. There is absolutely nothing stopping them from doing this. Google could also release source code for the latest TalkBack builds, including beta and alpha builds, and just have users build at their own risk. Google could open the beta programs to everyone who wants to leave feedback and help. After all, it’s not just Google phones that people use. And the majority of blind people don’t use Pixel phones. blind people also have spaces for talking about Android accessibility, primarily the Blind Android users list and Telegram group. I’d love to see Google employees hanging out there, from the TalkBack team to the Assistant team, the Bard team, and the Gmail and YouTube teams. Then we could all collaborate together on things like using TalkBack actions in YouTube, moving throughout a thread of messages in Gmail, and having TalkBack not speak over someone talking to the assistant, with or without headphones in.

How can I help

If you’re working at Google, talk to people about this. Talk to your team, your manager, and so on. If you know people working at Google, talk to them. Ask them why all this is. Ask them to open up a little, for the benefit of users and their products, especially accessibility tools. If you’re an Android user, talk to the accessibility folks about it. If you’re at a convention where they are, ask them about this. If you’re not, they’ve listed their email addresses. I want anyone who wants to be able to make Android accessibility, and TalkBack, the best that it can be, to be able to use the latest software, use beta software, provide feedback directly to the people making it. Google doesn’t need to be another Apple. Even Apple provides beta access, through iOS betas, to any eligible iPhone. Since Samsung barely does any TalkBack updates until half a year or more later, it’s seriously up to Google to move this forward. I’ve known people who plug their phone into a docking station, and use it as a computer. I want blind people to be able to do that.

In order to move this forward, though, we need to push for it. We need to let Google know that a few people who have been using Android for the past 10 years isn’t enough. We need to let them know that there are more countries than the United States and Canada. We need to let them know that we want to work with them, to collaborate with them, not for them to tell us what we want through a loud minority.

TalkBack doesn’t have as many options and features as Voiceover, but it’s started out on solid ground. ChromeVox doesn’t have as many options and features as JAWS but has started out on a solid foundation. Together, though, the community and Google can make both of these platforms, with the openness of Android, on both phones and ChromeBooks, and Linux containers on chromeBooks, the best platforms they can be! All it takes is communication!

Devin Prater @devinprater