How Not to Deploy a Twitter Feature

Twitter announces a new feature is rolling out for iOS, the ability to record audio tweets. It demonstrates this with an uncaptioned video of its Twitter avatar making bird noises:

Twitter’s support account acknowledges it is inaccessible and seemingly alludes to a lack of plan to address it:

Twitter’s dedicated accessibility account has not tweeted anything about it. In fact, its last tweet was on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, three weeks prior to this new feature being launched.

Twitter Able? Nothing since June 11.

The project lead is proud and, based on the team involvement, rightly so for getting solid representation.

Users rightly excoriate Twitter for failing to include any accessibility affordances with this new feature.

After many people called Twitter out for deploying this feature, the project lead repeatedly argues that this is an experiment. An experiment they felt must be shipped immediately instead of in a year to build the accessibility. And yes, the first and second tweet of this set have been deleted since I wrote this post.

Here’s where all of that falls down. Nobody appears to have requested this feature. In fact, you can do it today by recording a video on your iOS device and keeping your thumb over the camera lens. Arguably, the only new part of this experiment is an animated avatar instead of a black screen.

This was built as if it was an MVP from a start-up. Twitter is not a start-up. Its user base, net worth, geo-political influence, all tell us this is a mature business, if only by age and mass. Yet it continues to behave like a start-up.

In a mature business, you go back and fix broken code, enhance existing features. You deploy new features based on requests, market research, and competitive analysis.

Twitter could have deployed this same feature by adding a “disable camera” or “audio only” button to its video recording feature in the iOS app. That is an MVP. It likely requires far less code and can be rolled out quietly, without all the fanfare of a new feature and its accompanying scrutiny. I suspect adding the avatar and the surrounding animation would have been trivial.

Then that team could have moved on to working with the speech API built into iOS or Android, making it possible to auto-generate captions from voice recognition software already on the phone, giving the user the ability to correct it.

That, in my opinion, would have been a far better use of their time. It would have given them a quick-hit project to test the waters, while going full-steam toward supporting a significant feature that currently leaves video on Twitter limited to those who are able to listen.

None of this speaks to the potential abuse, of course. Twitter’s algorithms for identifying hate speech lean on parsing text. There is likely some image recognition in there. But have they stood up any process to parse audio?

If I report an audio tweet because I feel someone is at risk of self-harm, or there is hate speech, or targeted harassment, does Twitter have the human capacity to listen to all of them?

I’ll close with Chancey’s tweet, which came in just before I hit the button to publish.

If you are generally interested in making your tweets more accessible, I gathered some tips under an obvious post name: Improving Your Tweet Accessibility

Update: 19 June 2020

Quite a lot has happened since I wrote this Wednesday night and published it Thursday morning. By Thursday afternoon the lead on the project (who is also Twitter’s Head of Design and Research) posted a mea culpa:

One can probably make a convincing case that his title is not user-centered design and user research, so arguably designing new features and throwing them out into the wild to research how popular they are is on-brand for his current title.

Not everybody was on board with the statement.

While an open secret for a while, this is the first time most users became aware that Twitter does not have a dedicated accessibility team (nor process). Instead, employees kick in time where they can and often never know when new features are coming.

Twitter also had its own crow-eating, but only from its support account:

The takeaway here should be that Twitter is not pulling the feature, it will release accessibility fixes for iOS only, it is not building a dedicated accessibility team, and therefore Twitter is going to continue to treat accessibility as an afterthought.

Probably the best, most honest, and most hopeful response from Twitter came from one of the designers on the team as a nine-part thread (actually a two-part Voice Tweet with nine tweets acting as its transcript):

It is Friday afternoon, and this inaccessible feature has gotten some press:

I hope this cock-up on Twitter’s part helps drive home the value of building in accessibility from the start. Some of its team seems to understand it, but Twitter has a long history of not getting it as a company (five years from supporting images to allowing alt text, four more to turning it on by default, for example). The best thing the rest of us can do is not make Twitter’s mistakes.

Update: 20 June 2020

Headliner is a product for podcasters that also provides free captioned clips from a podcast when you tweet its account. Ashlee Boyer put it to the test with Twitter’s new audio tweets.

I did the same and in under two minutes had a response with a video that contained nearly accurate captions from my own audio tweet test.

There are other tools that provide automated captions as well as an API for third parties to access them. While automated captions are not a good overall solution, Twitter could at least lean on these in the short term, maybe even letting users generate and correct them before posting.

Obviously this will not address audio clips that are not voice, nor voice under non-ideal conditions, but it is dramatically better than what Twitter offered at launch or promises it will deliver in the near term.

Update: 2 July 2020

Twitter’s Voice Tweets Upset Users Again Over Accessibility at Wall Street Journal.

Update: 16 July 2021

It took just over a year, but Twitter has enabled captions for Voice Tweets. Which are automated captions. And cannot be edited. And are only for iOS. And have to be enabled in accessibility settings. And which are preceded by the text (Transcriptions auto-generated by Microsoft). And which are not transcripts.

But yay, progress! After only a year!



Thanks for taking the time. We appreciate it.

Jonathan Holden; . Permalink

Thank you for this comprehensive summary of the issue. Twitter introduced the audio only live feature in September 2018, which allows what you suggest – an audio only feed of the Periscope (video) live. So, they have been dabbling with this and testing it for some time. Which makes it even more unbelievable that they have hit go on the audio tweet feature, even if only to limited users, without consideration of accessibility….

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