Apple’s head of accessibility on the company’s determination to make gadgets that work for everyone
How Apple ensures its tech and services work for everyone, regardless of their needs
As one of the world’s premier tech companies, Apple has a whole lot of people using its products around the world.
Earlier this year, CEO Tim Cook confirmed there were in fact 1.4 billion active Apple devices, including iPhones, iPods, Macs, Watches and Apple TV – though about 900 million of these were the company’s smartphone.
With all those devices being used across the world, it’s likely that some of those Apple gadget owners will be disabled. Around 15 percent of the world’s population experience some form of disability – about one billion people – according to the World Bank. In the UK alone, there are around 13.9 million people with disabilities.
As a result, the tech company sees accessibility as one of its core values in order to ensure everyone can use its devices in the best ways to suit them.
Ensuring that this is baked into everything Apple makes, from devices to apps and services, is Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s global head of accessibility. We recently sat down with Herrlinger to talk about this mission and the surprising learnings along the way.
“We all want to be productive members of society and do good things and show the whole of who we are. Being able to create technology that levels the playing field and lets everyone shine is really important,” she says.
Getting the ideas
There are various different accessibility features throughout Apple’s devices, from software like iOS 13 and macOS Catalina to the iPad and Apple Watch. But before the features get to the devices, the ideas need to come from somewhere. Some ideas come from general interactions with customers, whilst a lot of feedback comes through a dedicated email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We get a wealth of emails every day from customers who write to us to ask questions or give feedback that provides us with a different perspective, they may report bugs, all kinds of different things,” says Herrlinger.
Once an email comes in suggesting an idea, the team will look at the individual need and see if it would work for other people. “Knowing that one person may articulate a problem in a certain way – it’s the aha moment – of course we should do that.”
When it comes to accessibility and Apple devices, it’s all about creating customizable features that people can set to their own liking. For instance, being able to set a bigger text size on the screen so it’s easier to read, or invert colors to dark mode in iOS13 can prevent eyestrain as well as benefit people who are dyslexic and may find it harder to read black text on white backgrounds.
Hearing what is on the screen is particularly useful for the blind community. Apple created the VoiceOver screen reader back in 2009 for the iPhone which is available in 35 languages. Braille displays can connect to an iPhone via Bluetooth too, with the company supporting over 100 models of displays. “VoiceOver is built to be available in every nook and cranny of the operating system,” explains Herrlinger. “If you’re trying to take a photo, it’ll tell you how many heads are on the screen, where they are centered if you need to tilt the camera slightly and how to move so you can take a more leveled photo.”
Developers can use Apple’s accessibility API, so VoiceOver works succinctly with their apps, such as Trainline. The company’s CTO Mark Holt told the Standard: “Apple provides a very detailed and rich accessibility API. Considering how to make your app accessible from the very start of the design process will ensure a smooth integration and ultimately a better user experience. Taking the train or coach is an essential part of everyday life for most people and we want to ensure it’s as easy and seamless as possible for everyone.”
Firsts for access
Over the past decade, Apple has made strides with its accessible features. With the iPhone, it created the world’s first touchscreen accessible to the blind community – Herrlinger sits on the board of the American Foundation for the Blind thanks to her work in this area at Apple. For hearing, the company was the first to make an audio protocol for Bluetooth low energy to improve the pairing between iPhones and people wearing hearing aids so they can make crystal clear calls.
When the Apple Watch was launched with its exercise rings feature, following feedback, the company added wheelchair workouts. It conducted the world’s biggest study of wheelchair users, gathering thousands of hours of information on how people used their wheelchairs, in order to change the algorithm for the Workouts app so it accurately calculated calorie burn based on the upper body.
Herrlinger sums up this approach by saying Apple focuses on “thoughtful design.”
“We are trying to give people the tools they need and do it in a way that’s respectful to them.”
Accessible features aren’t just about making things easier for people with disabilities, but often they can improve the lives of everyone. Take Live Listen for instance. This allows you to use the microphone of the iPhone as a directional mic for hearing aids, so they drown out the ambient sound in say a busy restaurant and pick up what you actually want to hear. This feature has worked so well that it is now available in the new AirPods Pro and some Beats headphones products too.
“Things in assistive technology have applicability for a broader audience so it’s always fun when we find things that were originally built for one community that has such great applicability for so many.”
Feedback from customers often shows the interesting ways they use the tech, such as the Watch’s Noise app. The app uses the device’s mic to measure ambient sound levels and duration of exposure and can warn you about the effects of spending a lot of time in a loud environment. One father emailed Cook to say that he and his son had found a different benefit from the app.
“He was using the app with his son, who is on the Autism spectrum, to modulate his voice because it helped him to understand when he was talking very loudly,” she says. “It’s always fun to see how people will take something and use it in ways that work best for them.”
One of the great things about doing this kind of work at Apple, says Herrlinger, is that the company controls its hardware, software and operating systems. “We can infuse accessibility across everything we do and do it in a really holistic way.”
This is also beneficial when it comes to privacy. All the data collected is stored on the device, not in the cloud, so individuals know their private information is kept that way.
Herrlinger says that there is always a new problem to solve or feature to build every day, which is all part of the fun. “I love the fact that year after year, we continue to create amazing technology that may be a lifeline to someone, and that hopefully, the work we’re doing is helping them to have connection and empowerment.”
This article was published on December 13, 2019, by Evening Standard and authored by Amelia Heathman. To read the original article, you can visit this link – https://www.standard.co.uk/tech/apple-head-of-accessibility-sarah-herrlinger-assistive-tech-design-iphone-apple-watch-a4312151.html
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