Accessibility features within apps are those features that enable an app to be more easily utilized by people with visual, hearing, or physical impairments. Such accessibility features have been steadily increasing in recent years. This is due in part to recognition by both Apple and Google that technology can be instrumental in fostering independence and empowerment for those with disabilities.
While the impetus may have roots in aiding those with impairments, the reality is that accessibility features are widely used by the entire population. If you have ever sent a message using voice to text, changed the contrast level on a display, or used voice commands to control devices in your home, you are benefitting from accessibility features. They simply make products easier to use by all.
As a result, every new operating system release has offered more capabilities. While some of those capabilities were directly available via the device, many others required conscious implementation by the app developer in order for the functionality to be fully realized.
The latest versions of both iOS and Android have made a step change in that regard. Even though a better in-app experience would be possible with developer involvement, iOS 13 and Android 10 offer some exciting built-in accessibility features that are going to improve all apps. We’ll review some of the latest advances in accessibility features in this post.
A Little Background on App Accessibility
By way of background, it’s worth noting that app accessibility features have historically fallen into several broad categories related to addressing impairments that affect vision, hearing, or dexterity.
Within each category, there are numerous accessibility features that can be utilized independently or in tandem with others. For example, for those who suffer from impaired vision or colorblindness, there are accessibility features that can do things like alter transparency or provide larger text. Dexterity challenges can be addressed through simplifying in-app commands or by creating large buttons that are easier to select. We previously explored each category in more detail in our post App Accessibility: Valuable for all Apps, so check it out if you’d like more examples.
Lines are being blurred a bit, though, thanks to recent advances in voice technology (see our post on the impact of Voice Tech). By leveraging verbal commands as a replacement for touching the screen, voice tech can often address challenges across all three areas of impairment.
The Latest Advances in Apple’s Accessibility Features
To that end, from our perspective, Voice Control on Mac and iOS devices is the most revolutionary advance this year. It enables users to control their devices solely by voice. It is comprehensive — everything from powering up to opening apps to creating documents — is possible. Numerous improvements have come together to make such touch-free control possible.
Rich diction and editing advancements, including improvements to speech detection to better handle impairments like a stutter, are one key facet. Built-in commands like “Replace,” “Select,” and “Capitalize” also make the writing and editing from speech-to-text easier than before. Additionally, the ability to recognize voice inflection now helps differentiate text from a command — e.g. when you tell your phone to “send text,” Voice Control will send the text rather than writing “send text.”
Basic navigation controls, like changing volume and opening apps are easily handled by simple commands. The introduction of “Overlays” facilitates more complicated interactions. Overlays label the actionable items on the screen with numbers, names, or even a grid so its easier to identify the item you want to interact with.
The operating system also has “attention awareness,” letting the device know if you are still talking to it by registering the location of your gaze. And one of the best parts, from both a security and usability perspective, is that all voice recognition processing occurs on the device itself.
While Voice Control is impressive, it’s not the only accessibility feature that Apple introduced. For those who don’t need or want the capabilities of Voice Control, there are many other upgrades (all easily turned on through the Accessibility menu in Settings) like Live Listen, Hover Text, and Mouse Support that improve usability. More details can be found on Apple’s accessibility page.
The Latest Advances in Google’s Accessibility Features
While Google did not introduce accessibility features that are quite as comprehensive as Voice Control, the Android 10 operating system does have several significant enhancements.
Probably the most notable one is Live Caption. Live Caption adds automatic captions to any video or spoken audio (except phone/video calls), including videos on social media and podcasts. The captioning happens on device, meaning it works even without an internet connection.
Though Android has long offered hearing aid support, Android 10 now includes compatibility for a new open-source hearing aid specification that operates on Bluetooth LE. The new spec will help optimize performance and improve battery life for both the hearing aid and phone.
In addition to these new capabilities, the Android Accessibility Suite (a group of apps bundled together that helps users access their device eyes-free or using a switch device) continues to improve. Features include a large menu that can lock your phone from the screen, volume and brightness preferences, switch access from either a switch device or a keyboard, and the TalkBack screen reader that reads to you in real time.
Both Apple and Google have made notable changes to their operating systems that further accessibility on their devices, even if the developer of a particular app doesn’t do a thing.
While this is exciting, we believe that accessibility features are no longer simply a nice-to-have in the development process, but rather an essential consideration for all app developers. It’s both the right thing to do and the best thing to do.
If you have questions about what accessibility looks like in apps or want help building accessibility features into your own app, reach out to our team today.