Twitter’s Approach to Accessibility

Posted on 19 June, 2020

Twitter recently had a soft launch of a new feature. You can now post “voice tweets” (currently restricted to iOS).

Not gonna lie, I don’t see the point of this feature. Nine times out of ten my phone is set to mute and I don’t even watch Instagram stories with the sound on. I do that by choice. So this feature is obviously not for me.

But that’s not why I’m annoyed at this ‘”feature”. I’m annoyed because this feature got all the way to a soft launch and it doesn’t have any accessible options. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, there is no way for you to consume these “voice tweets”. No captioning, no transcriptions, nothing.

Accessibility is not an afterthought

Needless to say – the initial feedback Twitter got was not great. Many people in the industry were very angry that a tech giant like Twitter is treating accessibility as an after thought.

Twitters excuse is that this feature is in its early days and so doesn’t need to be accessible. This is just not true. For one, the feature has been launched. This isn’t a closed alpha or a show and tell which Twitter live streamed where you would expect the feature not to be fully formed. Its live!

The obvious downside to treating accessibility as an afterthought it it exposes what your company thinks of people with disabilties. That those users aren’t as important as your users who don’t need captioning or other accessible features.

By delaying even thinking about accessibility in regards to new features, you’re automatically adding technical debt to your dev team. The devs who build this feature are going to have to go back and rework their production ready code to make this feature accessible. It would save Twitter a lot of dev time if they had just said “hey, before we launch this can we make sure its accessible?”. Twitter have also burned through a lot of good will in the community now which won’t help them in the future. They are Twitter though so they probably don’t care that much about community good will.

Accessibility is a team effort

As it turns out, Twitter don’t have an accessibility team. They don’t even have someone in each team who has accessibility as part of their job.

What they have, is a group of volunteers who look at accessibility themselves. Because of this, they obviously don’t have a lot of visibility of new features getting launched.

I applaud these devs for working to make their products accessible. Its not much fun being “that person” who seems to always want to delay launches and increase testing time to build accessible products. But its obviouly very much needed.

The devs also made a point that they are all actually Twitter employees who do accessibility work on top of their regular jobs. They also made it clear they don’t do this in overtime, just find time in their day to work on it.

Going forward

Since the backlash – Twitter have backed down from their “early days” excuse.

The @TwitterA11y account (run by volunteers, not a dedicated team, because Twitter doesn’t have one) has retweeted @TwitterSupport with an update.

Its nice that Twitter are reacting to this rather than ignoring it. I do however have an issue with their response.

They weren’t “testing voice Tweets”. They had launched it as a feature on iOS. There was a blog post about it. Tweets were sent. Just because you launch to a smaller group initially before rolling it out to everyone doesn’t mean its a test. Neither alpha nor a beta test would have had a blog post about them. Twitter did a rolling feature launch, not a test.

Also note how their closing sentence doesn’t say they were going to build an accessibility team, just that they were going to look into how to build the team. Nice cop-out there.

Bit harsh?

Is it though? Twitter are a hugh company with over 4000s employees. A dedicated accessibility team might be nothing but a pipe dream for smaller companies and startups but Twitter have been around for long enough to have either hired people in, or built up their current devs skillset to build their own team. Twitter are also big enough to be able to have a lawyer who will have informed them on laws as the ADA or the Equality Act 2010.

Accessibility features are important. They’re not a “nice to have” or “maybe in V2”. They’re a launch requirement.

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