Accessibility Best Practices: Apple

Yağmur Ayan
Commencis
Published in
10 min readDec 25, 2023

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Apple has been at the forefront of making technology more inclusive through its range of accessibility features. From enabling people with disabilities to access and use their devices seamlessly to incorporating innovative features that benefit all users, Apple’s commitment to accessibility has redefined the way we interact with technology. In this article, we’ll delve into the diverse array of accessibility features embedded within Apple’s ecosystem, exploring how these functionalities empower users and contribute to a more inclusive digital experience for everyone.

Let’s kick things off by addressing the significance of accessibility and what it entails.

What Is Accessibility and Why Is It Important?

One of the common misunderstandings is that accessibility is only for people with disabilities, such as loss of hearing or vision, wheelchair usage, or color blindness. However, accessibility means reaching out to as many people as we can, prioritizing those in need. According to the World Health Organization, 16% of the world’s population has specific disabilities.

Designing while considering users’ needs means helping nearly 1.3 billion people. Still, accessibility is not limited to that number. By designing a feature considering accessibility, you may reach many people regardless of disabilities. For example, text-to-speech technology has been developed for people with difficulty in hearing and vision loss, but it can also be useful for multitaskers or those who prefer listening to content instead of reading it. It’s also important to understand the types of disabilities, which include situational, temporary, and permanent.

New parents may face challenges using both hands when holding their baby, which is an example of situational disability. Someone who has just had an arm injury may temporarily face challenges using both hands and for the permanent disability type, a one-armed person can be given as an example. One can’t know when they will face challenges in their lifetime, so accessibility should be considered to equalize conditions for everyone.

Examples of permanent, temporary, and situational disabilities

For me, accessibility is like figuring out the trick of designing better user experiences. With numerous resources and guidelines available, we can verify the correctness of our color choices, ensure our input fields are appropriately sized for tapping, and guarantee our fonts are sufficiently readable. This process aids in establishing a cohesive design system.

Therefore, considering a group of people leads designers to reach out more, and makes people’s lives easier by increasing the usability of both digital and physical products. I’d like to add a quote, which sums up the whole point.

When UX doesn’t consider all users, shouldn’t it be known as ‘Some User Experience’ or ‘SUM’?— Billy Gregory, Senior Accessibility Engineer at Ubisoft

Accessibility In Apple Products

Apple has been in our lives as a brand for a long time with its products and we are familiar with it in some way. It may be controversial but Apple makes our lives easier, and today we’ll see how it does this by developing a range of accessibility features.

Apple has divided its accessibility features into four categories, which are Vision, Hearing, Cognitive, and Mobility.

Vision Features

Apple offers various accessibility features to assist individuals with vision impairments. Among these, one of the most crucial is VoiceOver, serving as a screen reader designed for those who are blind or have low vision. Screen readers, commonly found in assistive technological devices, are integral components of Apple’s VoiceOver, encompassing features such as reading aloud the screen, navigating through on-screen elements, adjusting speaking rates and languages, and more.

VoiceOver extends its utility beyond aiding people with disabilities. It proves valuable for individuals managing multitasking scenarios, like listening to audio while working on a report or following recipes while cooking, where screen viewing isn’t feasible. This feature adeptly describes people, text, objects, and graphics displayed on the screen.

Consider the scenario of designing a navigation bar without adding alternative text below the icons. While VoiceOver may recognize some icons, it’s not guaranteed to describe them accurately. Therefore, including alternative text ensures that VoiceOver effectively conveys the intended message. Embracing these considerations during design enables us to harness the capabilities of screen readers, significantly enhancing the overall user experience.”

Another feature is Magnifier and it allows users to magnify their device screen, aiding in reading small text or viewing details. Its standout capabilities include object detection, using the device’s camera to identify objects, and door detection, which provides notifications and vibrations for easier navigation through doors.

The left image is an example from Apple’s website, introducing door detection. In the right image, I tried out the object detection feature.

Reduce Motion is one of my favorites and I think one of the most thoughtfully designed features. It reduces the amount of motion that appears on the device’s screen, and this way it helps people who are sensitive to motion or who experience discomfort when viewing animations or transitions on the device.

I’ve tested the reduce motion feature, and here are the differences between reduce motion off and on:

Reduce Motion Off
Reduce Motion On

From the examples, it can be seen that when Reduce Motion is on, the transitions are sharper, and when you press the “like” button on Twitter, the animation doesn’t appear.

Button Shapes is another accessibility feature benefiting people with visual impairment by underlining clickable parts on the screen. Also, it can reduce frustration by preventing people from thinking if a part is clickable or not when it is not obvious.

Button Shapes Off / Button Shapes On

Increasing the screen’s contrast, adjusting text sizes, and displaying the screen in greyscale are some of the many accessibility features of Apple.

Hearing Features

Similar to screen readers, Live Captions hold immense significance and continue to undergo improvements. Although Apple’s live caption feature is in beta and might occasionally contain errors, its development remains noteworthy. Live captions provide users with a real-time transcript of spoken audio, aiding individuals with hearing loss to actively engage with conversations and other audio content. Notably, live captions are also available during FaceTime calls.

Live Caption tutorial from Apple Support.

Conversation Boost, an accessibility feature in the hearing category, enhances speech clarity in noisy environments. While it significantly aids individuals with hearing loss in following conversations, it also proves beneficial for those attending meetings or gatherings in bustling places like cafes — a trend on the rise due to the shift towards remote work.

FaceTime Sign Language is another feature, it makes people who use sign language more prominent in the call and also detects each gesture and facial expression. The feature currently offers American Sign Language and British Sign Language, but it continues to improve. Because sign language is the main communication tool for deaf people, a tech-led company needs to improve this feature to promote accessibility all around the world.

There is also a Sound Recognition feature, which allows users to turn on sounds like fire or a baby crying, and when the phone detects these kinds of voices, it notifies the user.

In addition, Apple does not manufacture hearing aids, however, it has worked with manufacturers of hearing aids to develop a feature called “Made for iPhone Hearing Aids”, which allows users to connect their hearing aids directly to their devices, and control them using the Hearing Aid Control panel. Therefore, most Apple devices are compatible with certain hearing aids to improve hearing ability.

Cognitive Features

I’ll start with my favorite, Safari Reader, which allows users to read an article without any advertisements on the device’s screen. By turning on Safari Reader, users can block ads and read without distraction from the content. Because ads both distract people and make them frustrated, this feature reaches out to quite many people regardless of their disability, gender, or age. I’ve been using Safari Reader since I discovered it, and I can say that it’s worth trying!

Safari Reader Off / Safari Reader On

Another feature is Screen Time, for me, this is a little bit odd feature because each time I check my screen time, it bothers me to see how much time I’ve spent on my phone. Still, people need to track their screen time to organize their work and have a balanced life.

Guided Access is another feature, that prevents users from navigating one app from another accidentally, enabling them to focus more on a task and stop surfing. For people with ADHD, for example, it may be hard to focus as they get distracted easily, so this feature allows them to stay on track. You may have seen the Focus feature, which helps users stay on task by blocking or limiting access to certain apps and features, and it also allows users to set goals. It has different focus areas like Do Not Disturb, Work, or Sleep, and it is surely beneficial for people with focus issues.

Mobility Features

Designing accessible features for mobility is also quite important because this way designers may affect the process of moving around and accessing different spaces and features for people who have mobility impairments.

Switch Control, like live captions and screen readers, are commonly used in different devices and operating systems, and Apple has developed quite useful tools. This feature allows users to control their devices using a variety of external switches or other input devices such as physical buttons, joysticks, touchscreens, and head or eye tracking devices.

For example, Apple’s TrueDepth camera allows users to perform some actions by tracking their head movements and facial expressions. I’ve tried this feature on macOS, but they are available on iPhones and iPads as well. I could be able to close a tap by raising my eyebrows, drag and drop a file by blinking my eyes, and the pointer tracked my head moving around the screen. The camera was able to detect my facial expressions directly and fast, and I could perform the necessary tasks successfully.

Still, I’m not a reliable resource, we should ask people with mobility disabilities if these features work for them. Yet, when thinking about how many people are unable to use a mouse or keypad, it can be seen that head-tracking devices are life savers and a great way to improve accessibility.

Blue2 Bluetooth Switch by AbleNet

Assistive touch is another feature that helps users who have difficulty physically pressing buttons or gestures. Turning off sounds by using assistive touch instead of pressing the volume-down button on the side of the phone may be a lot easier. Regardless of disability, I think assistive touch is used by many people, myself included, and it is more sustainable as well.

We face VoiceOver, here again, which allows users to control their devices by using voice commands rather than tapping the screen.

Back Tap is another favorite feature to me, I used it first when it went viral on the internet. By tapping the back of the iPhone, users can activate Siri, turn on or off the flashlight, and take a screenshot, which is great for me because taking a screenshot by pressing the side button and the volume up button at the same time takes too much effort.

Actions that can be performed by tapping double

Key Takeaways

Over the years, Apple has made significant efforts to make its products more accessible to users. On one front, it develops crucial technologies like head-tracking and text-to-speech devices, which minimize the use of a keyboard and mouse, and allow users to move through the device more freely. Simultaneously, it refines the user interface — incorporating features like bolder text, enhanced screen contrast, colorblindness options, and more (too numerous to detail here). Both of these improvements touch people’s lives regardless of their disability, and the more we think about it the more we understand how these features are helpful for disabled people.

Another important point is Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, which designers and developers can benefit from. It includes suggestions for color usage, button sizes, font choices, text field sizes, typography rules, and more. For example, Apple says that we should avoid relying solely on color to differentiate between objects, indicate interactivity, or communicate essential information. This is because there are people who may not understand due to their visual impairment, so we should provide the same information with different alternatives. There is so much to learn by taking a look at Apple’s guidelines on accessibility and reviewing its features. So, let’s design & develop for all, not for some!

Resources

https://www.udemy.com/course/the-ux-designers-accessibility-guide/

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