Apps for Everyone Part 1: What are the Accessibility Features of iOS?
If you are a user experience designer (or a developer) creating an iOS experience and are focusing your efforts on persona definitions, take a moment to consider who you are not including. Make a list. Document the fact that you are excluding the worker that doesn’t yet have a smartphone, the salesperson that uses the fax machine, the woman in accounting that is visually impaired and the gentleman in marketing who lost mobility due to a stroke. Although we can’t do much for the smartphone and fax machine folks, with very little effort, we can create accessible experiences for our other users who may be excluded.
This two-part series will begin by noting the accessibility features iOS offers to address different impairments, followed by how to create iOS experiences that are inclusive of all audiences.
The main accessibility features of iOS can be described in four supportive categories: support for physical limitations, support for cognitive limitations, support for hearing impairments, support for visual impairments. With these categories in mind, you can begin to design your experience around how the accessibility features can provide assistance to your users.
For the visually impaired, a powerful feature built into the operating system is VoiceOver. VoiceOver is an advanced screen reader that reads the elements of the screen out loud to the user. It helps you navigate through application experiences by reading what is touched on the screen. Gesture controls can then be used to forward to the next element on the screen or to interact with the selected one. VoiceOver can even read the entire screens contents to the user.
To interact with content or to create it, a visually impaired user can use Siri by simply asking. In fact, most of us have experienced VoiceOver while using Siri. The results that Siri returns are normally spoken aloud by VoiceOver. If you’d like to input text into an editable text field, Dictation is also built into iOS. You simply have to tap the microphone button and say aloud what you’d like to have written.
Some visually impaired users still have some ability to see. For those users, iOS has ways to adjust the display for readability. You can do things like zoom in on content, adjust the font sizes and weights, adjust or invert the colors, and create higher contrast levels.
If a user is deaf or hard of hearing, iOS includes features that allow for better communication. FaceTime video calls capture gesture and expression and a smooth frame rate even over wireless signals. It’s a great way for a person to use sign language or to assist in communication through lip reading.
Videos have built in support for closed captioning and audio can be adjusted to a mono setting to capture all elements of a conversation, movie or song instead of distinct channels of left and right. Many hearing aid manufacturers now support the “made for iPhone” standard which essentially gives the user a Bluetooth enabled headset for clear audio experiences.
For user with physical limitations, AssistiveTouch allows customized settings for multi-touch controls. This gives a user the ability to map gestures to alternates. If a pinch or zoom is difficult, map it to a tap. Switch Control is an accessibility technology that gives users the ability to navigate the screen using Bluetooth-enabled switching hardware like a joystick attached to a wheelchair arm. VoiceOver, Siri and Dictation are all excellent tools for physical challenges as well.
Lastly, for those with learning disabilities, Guided Access helps by focusing attention to one and only one application at a time. It can be used to limit time spent in an application and allow a user to prepare themselves for the end of a session, avoiding sometimes jarring endings to a session that can cause stress on sensitive users.
All of these features are built into iOS and are essentially free for anyone to integrate and use. In fact, if your application is going to use the native components for iOS, you will have many of these features ready to use without any additional effort. However, in the true spirit of user-centered design, you should conduct an accessibility audit to see how the features are functioning and make minor adjustments to your application to create an optimal experience for your users.
In the next part of this series, Apps for Everyone Part 2: Strategies for Accessibility in iOS, we will discuss how to create iOS experiences that are inclusive of all audiences.