The Breakroom

Listening to Poo, Your Emoji and You

July 13, 2018

By Ged Maheux

A 1950's PSA style woman gazes up from behind a book to floating emoji above her head including the smiling poo

Let’s face it, it’s a struggle to get attention in 2018. Users wage a constant battle for eyeballs in the ever-widening war of compelling content versus fake news and funny memes. One of the ways people stand out from the pack is to employ Emoji and special characters in their names. Scroll through your Twitter timeline and you will undoubtedly spot more than a few people relying on this technique: it acts as a visual cue to pay special attention and adds an extra dimension of personality to a profile.

But these benefits have a significant downside.

The problem with using these special characters centers around how they are presented to folks with vision difficulties. If you’re relying on a screen reader, like Apple’s VoiceOver technology, Emoji can make browsing Twitter a nightmare. This is because VoiceOver reads the name of the character: you may see a simple 😊 Emoji, but a blind person hears “Smiling face with smiling eyes”.

In a tweet, it’s helpful to hear something like “Awesome job! Smiling face with smiling eyes Emoji”. But when this same character is used in a screen name, you’ll hear “John Doe Smiling face with smiling eyes” at the beginning of each tweet. This adds friction and dramatically slows down the process of “reading” your timeline because this longer phrase is read every time.

There are more characters within Unicode than just Emoji, and some of the codes let you change the way a name appears visually on your screen. You can pick a different font like Copperplate Gothic or add funky symbols – thanks to standard support across a wide variety of platforms, your unique creation will look great everywhere.

But what happens if you’re not looking at it and relying on a screen reader? Compare what you see for this tweet to what the VoiceOver user hears in the audio clip below:

Tweet from Janie Plum with her name defined in unicode characters

The user name takes over half of the total reading time and is difficult to understand because it must be spelled out as J-A-N-I-Pulsating heart-P-L-Small Latin Letter Capital U. You’ll also note that a few letters are missing as VoiceOver attempts to speed things up. Looks can be deceiving.

Now imagine hearing this over and over as you scroll through your timeline – a tweetstorm by Janie will be excrutiating! And then her friends pick up on the trend and add to your frustration!

So what’s the solution?

The Iconfactory recently introduced a new feature in Twitterrific that allows users to turn off Emoji in names. When activated, these problematic characters are no longer displayed or used by VoiceOver, resulting in a smoother reading experience. We’re also looking at ways to remove other characters that need to be spelled out. While this all helps our customers, it remains a problem on the web and in other apps.

If you want to make your tweets accessible to the widest possible audience, consider removing Emoji from your online user names. This goes doubly for the stylized Unicode characters that some people have fallen in love with. Sure, they may elevate your online profile to the social media equivalent of the Matrix code, but for folks with disabilities, it’s just making their lives more difficult.

Now you know, and as they say, that’s half the battle. The accessibility community thanks you!