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Which Screen Readers and Browsers are best for Accessibility Testing?

January 6, 2023 by Matt Guay

Windows, macOS, and ChromeOS. Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and Safari. JAWS, NVDA, Narrator, VoiceOver, ChromeVox, TalkBack, and Orca. Internet Explorer is mercifully (nearly) irrelevant, but there are still well over a dozen browser and screen reader combinations you need to test every time you deploy a change. With all the time in the world, you could do just that. In the real world, time constraints and rapidly iterating products mean you’ll want to streamline your screen reader testing to have the highest impact with the least effort.

Instead, you can simplify things by prioritizing a handful of browser and screen reader combinations that are most commonly used together. That’s the best way to make progress against the accessibility maturity model, which emphasizes testing as a core part of building accessible products. With four combinations, you can ensure your code works well for most of your screen reader users.

Which Browsers and Screen Readers to Test?

Depending on your product, market, and user base, you may already know which browser and screen readers your users are most likely to use. If you've built an enterprise Windows app, you can focus on the Windows-focused NVDA and JAWS screen readers. If you've developed internal tools for companies where IT departments mandate which software teams use, you likely have a clear idea, but check with screen reader users in the company as they may have been granted exceptions.

Other markets may have unique characteristics to consider. Websites and apps for K-12 education are much more likely to be used on ChromeOS, where there are over 40 million Chromebooks used in education as of 2021. That makes it much more important to test your site in ChromeVox, the built-in screen reader on Chromebooks.

Or, if you've built a mobile app, or your site is most visited by mobile users, check your App Store, Google Play, and Google Analytics stats to see which platform is used the most. Even if your primary market uses Android the most, don’t neglect to also test on iOS as well, as iPhones are used by over 72% of WebAIM's survey respondents.

For web apps and sites built for a general audience, your Google Analytics data can help show which browsers and operating systems are popular among your users (check the Audience → Technology → Browser & OS page in Google Analytics to find those stats). You can't see which screen readers your users rely on, though, which from a privacy perspective is good as it helps reduce browser fingerprinting which lets sites track visitors even after they clear their cache and keeps screen reader users in control of whether others know they use assistive technologies. Instead, you'll need to rely on surveying your users, and pairing that with data from 3rd party research. The WebAIM annual survey is the best publicly available data, though it only covers an average of around 1,500 screen reader users per survey—a small fraction of NVDA's 100k+ active users.

We’ve dug into the stats to figure out the most popular browser and screen reader pairings for more general audiences, from a combination of user data and broader usage data from WebAIM’s annual screen reader surveys paired with Statcounter’s browser and operating system statistics.

Then, pair that with the working data from Assistiv Labs’ customers, which include accessibility teams like Zendesk and the UK Government Digital Service, for a perspective on the approach other industry professionals take. Assistiv Labs today supports Windows, NVDA, JAWS, and Narrator, so its stats don’t include macOS/VoiceOver users, but can still help provide details on which tools are most used by industry professionals.

Based on those considerations, the following are our testing recommendations when you’re unsure which screen readers and browsers your customers use.

The Four Most Important Screen Reader Pairings to Test

If you only have time to test a single screen reader and browser pair, use NVDA with Chrome. The open-source NVDA catches 90% of screen reader compatibility issues, while Chrome is the browser used by over 64% of web users today (along with another 4% who use the Chromium-based Microsoft Edge). But if you have more time for testing, we suggest testing in the following four pairings:

NVDA + Firefox

This pairing of the classic open-source Firefox browser and the open-source NVDA screen reader is most popular among developers, with 43.3% of developers using it to test their apps with Assistiv Labs. NVDA uncovers 90% of screen reader compatibility issues on its own, which is why Assistiv recommends it as the first screen reader you should use for testing. If you test in NVDA and get everything working, odds are your site will work well with JAWS and other screen readers, too. Accessibility-focused developer Joel Dodson echoed the feeling, “NVDA does everything I want to do and doesn’t get in my way.” Among the general public, though, WebAIM reports that 9.7% of people use NVDA and Firefox by default. That’s still far more popular than Firefox is with the general public, where Statcounter reports only 3% of general internet users run Firefox today, but it means this pair shouldn’t be the only one you test.

JAWS + Google Chrome

The most popular browser, Google Chrome (used by 53.6% of screen reader users, and 66% of broader internet users), is most commonly used with today's most popular screen reader, JAWS (used by 53.7% of screen reader users). That pairing is the default way over 32% of people surveyed by WebAIM browse the web. It’s slightly less popular with developers—only 7.46% of Assistiv Labs customers use JAWS and Chrome regularly for testing—but it’s the single most popular screen reader pairing. Do note that you’ll need a paid JAWS license, which is one reason the free NVDA is more commonly used in development testing environments.

VoiceOver + Safari

For Mac users, Apple’s built-in VoiceOver software is the only screen reader available. 6.5% of WebAIM respondents use VoiceOver as their primary screen reader—but over 40% use it at least part of the time. Since Safari comes built-in to macOS and is the browser the VoiceOver team designs and tests with, it’s worth testing your site in this pairing to ensure that everything’s ready for anyone using it on a Mac. The Firefox team has been working on Mac and VoiceOver improvements, but for now it’s still most likely that your Mac users will use VoiceOver with Safari.

Narrator (or JAWS) + Microsoft Edge

JAWS and Microsoft Edge are used together by 12.6% of the people WebAIM surveyed—and Edge is one of the fastest-growing browsers among their stats. Edge is Chromium-based, so if your site works in Chrome, it should usually work well in Edge. But if you want to test on every screen reader, and have already tested JAWS with Chrome, it’s worth testing Microsoft’s built-in Narrator screen reader with Edge to use the combination relied on by 3.6% of WebAIM respondents. Since both Narrator and Edge come built into every Windows PC, it’s the lowest common denominator pairing for users getting started with screen readers (or using a public PC where they can’t install new software). That’s the pairing most commonly used to test Narrator by developers on Assistiv Labs, too.

Moral of the story…

If you test your site in these four combos, you’ll directly cover the exact screen reader setup over 60% of desktop screen reader users rely on—and you’ll have at least tested the screen reader another 24% of people use, even if with a different browser. And if you can test your site on ChromeOS, iOS, and Android’s built-in screen readers—something you’ll need to do manually, with an iPhone or Android device, or in the Android emulator which can run Talkback as well—you’ll have covered the most-used mobile screen readers as well.

Expand Your Testing to Cover Everyone

It’s not enough to test only one browser and screen reader pair, though, even if your user data and research seems to indicate that, say, most of your customers use NVDA and Chrome.

“People tend to test on NVDA more because it’s free—and works well with Visual Studio Code,” shared Joel Dodson. And NVDA is popular; with over 100,000 active users and hovering between first and second place with 37% of the screen reader market in WebAIM’s survey, it is still the second most-used screen reader. Much like web browser and operating system market share, there are constantly shifting loyalties in the screen reader market. Testing only one screen reader isn’t enough.

For example, at one time, Dodson tried using LinkedIn with screen readers, and found that “LinkedIn doesn’t work well in Chrome, but it works well in Firefox.”. Both browsers displayed the site without any discernible differences, but screen readers picked up on minute differences in how it recognized keypresses—something that made it almost impossible to publish a post on LinkedIn in Chrome with a screen reader, where the same task worked fine in a screen reader with Firefox. That underscored to Dodson how important it is to test in multiple browser and screen reader pairings.

Your site might work perfectly in one browser or screen reader, only to fail in unexpected ways with another. Knowing your site works well in one pair could tempt you to think that's good enough, but we can do better than the days when the web was riddled with “works best in IE” banners. That’s why you need to test more than one—but you still don’t have to test every possible screen reader and browser permutation.

Testing Older Versions of Screen Readers and Browsers

Our top four recommendations only cover people running the latest Windows and Mac operating systems. Those still using Windows XP or even Windows 7 are stuck on older versions. And screen reader users are, statistically, a bit more likely to use older software. In 2019’s WebAIM survey, the writers noted that “Many respondents reported still using very old versions of Internet Explorer - there were more users of IE6, 7, or 8 than of Microsoft Edge.” That’s changed over the past few years with Edge growing fast, but even in their 2022 survey, 3.3% of screen reader users were still using IE (while only 0.3% of total internet users counted by Statcounter used IE). Upgrading your computer to support the latest versions of both Windows and JAWS can be quite expensive, which causes many people to still stay on older versions to save money.

To make sure your site works for _everyone—_not just those with the latest software—if possible it’s also good to test in:

JAWS 21 with Chrome 109

That pair is the last supported versions of JAWS and Chrome that work on Windows 7 (or, to reach back further and support Windows XP, test on JAWS 15 with Chrome 49)

NVDA 2017.3 with the latest Firefox

All versions of NVDA and Firefox are still supported on Windows 7, for now—but this pairing will let you test the last supported NVDA on Windows XP as well.

JAWS 21 with Internet Explorer 11

Nearly 2% of WebAIM respondents still use Internet Explorer 11 with JAWS—and since that’s the last version of Internet Explorer that works on Windows 7, it’s the pairing worth testing. Or, if you want to cover XP users as well, JAWS 15 with Internet Explorer 8 would cover them as well.

Check everything, every time.

Most of those core, Windows 7-supported options are available on Assistiv Labs, the hosted screen reader testing platform. With Assistiv, you can run JAWS, NVDA, or Narrator along with Chrome, Firefox, or Edge in your browser to test your sites and apps without installing anything. You can run JAWS 20 and newer, NVDA 2018.1 and newer, and the latest version of Narrator in Assistiv to test both on older versions and the latest software.

For Safari and VoiceOver, your best option today is to test your site or app directly on a Mac. To test NVDA 2017 or JAWS 15, your best option is to make a Windows XP virtual machine specifically for testing. Neither are supported or have the latest security updates, so don’t do any critical browsing using those combos—but if you want to test everything your users might possibly need, it could be worth the test.

While testing, be sure to use everything in your site or app the way screen reader users will use it. Navigate by element type, use the virtual cursor, and validate that single-letter navigation works on JAWS and NVDA. Then, make testing in screen readers a part of your standard development workflow to ensure your code works great for everyone.

Happy testing!

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