Native iPad accessibility: is it enough?

I’m writing this on a shiny new iPad, having finally made the leap from laptop to tablet. I’m finding the experience generally wonderful & it’s certainly proving a much more comfortable and convenient way to navigate online spaces. I’ve yet to really get to grips with using the keyboard for any serious amounts of writing – touch typing is a while new learning curve – but I think practice will make perfect in the department.

One of the reasons I was keen to give this device a proper road test was to explore the accessibility features. I need to work up close a lot of the time and regularly use the built-in zoom tool on my desktop and notebook Macs. I also tend to vary the screen brightness depending on the task at hand and the lighting conditions. So seeing how I could adapt my iPad experience to make it as comfortable as I could was top of my priority list.

Being able to selectively zoom the whole screen using simple three finger gestures is great, and is a welcome complement to the two finger pinch-and-zoom functionality found in Mobile Safari. And being to invert the screen colours can be a helpful aid when contrast is making my reading or writing experience uncomfortable or tirimg.

Here’s an example to help you understand what I mean.

I’m currently writing this with the WordPress iPad app, which would ordinarily look like this:

The WordPress iPad app as it appears by default

I’ve tweaked the UI though, by switching to “White on black” through the accessibility settings – so my screen actually looks like this:

The WordPress iPad app, with the native "White on black" setting activated

It’s a simple, but really useful feature, which eases the strain on my eyes and makes for a more productive and comfortable experience. It’s not perfect though: the setting simply applies a filter to the whole screen to invert all colours. So although black on white, or greyscale interface elements like the keyboard translate well, the contrast of other UI elements is actually reduced. Just compare the “Save” and “Publish” buttons in the top of those previous screenshots for an example of what I mean.

These little quibbles are bearable when it’s just text-related content, but it becomes a very disorienting experience when it comes to using apps which feature more graphical and illustrative elements. Browsing my Twitter stream, as an example, shows everybody’s avatars in a strange, inverted x-ray fashion:

The iPad Twitter app, with the native "White on black" setting activated

Notice too that because the whole screen is inverted, the subdued dark background which frames the central stream is now hemmed in by two large zaps of light, which detract from the high contrast of the main content.

Page zooming is also great in many situations, but starts to have failings when it comes to creating content, as opposed to just consuming it. Using the WordPress app as an example again, the very clever screen zooming can start to prove cumbersome. The default text size in the app is pretty small, and can’t be changed. Ideally, I’d prefer to be able to zoom in on it while I type – look what happens though:

The WordPress iPad app using the native Zoom controls

Because the entire screen has been enlarged, the keyboard is now practically unusable. So, I just have to guess-type and proofread later on.

Of course, these are just restrictions of these particular assistive tools, and I’m trying to push them beyond what they were designed for. They’re assistive, and can’t be expected to fix the varied needs of different users for every application – one size doesn’t fit all.

But I think it does highlight the number of mainstream apps which are being developed without the consideration of simple, adaptive accessibility features.

Perhaps that’s because Apple have done such a good job of implementing OS-level accessibility: developers don’t see the need to worry about it, safe in the knowledge that at least a basic level of access will be baked right in. I also suspect that in some cases, it’s due to a certain amount of preciousness over pixel-perfect design treatments (and if you remember the terrible trend for pixel fonts on the web at the turn of the century, you’ll know just what kind of route to hell that can lead you down).

But I think it’s important for developers of these apps to consider extra features which allow users to adapt their experience to suit their particular needs or preferences. Simple things like allowing users to choose text sizes, change colour palettes, adjust white space and remove clutter are all simple and effective ways to allow more granular control, enabling the user to adapt their experience so that it’s more comfortable and enjoyable.

Twiiter for iPad is just one example of an app which could quite easily be improved in this respect. Twitter for iPhone allows me to change the font size for tweets throughout the app; but the iPad app is missing that feature, and I would really like to have it. It wouldn’t compromise the design of the app, but with that one simple feature, it would allow me to enhance my experience while using the app.

This post was prompted by the fact that I was considering a purchase of the iA’s Writer app, which is an absolutely awesome distraction-free writing application: simple, elegant and impeccably designed. But when I was trying to find out more about it, I noticed that all of the screenshots showed black text on a White background. I wanted to know if the app supported a setting for white text on black – I really don’t want to spend lengthy periods of time staring at so much whiteness.

Turns out that it doesn’t have that feature, but I bought it anyway because I can use the “white on black” setting built in to the OS – despite it’s annoyances.

But why not include that feature? Why should I have to use generic assistive features when more granular, app-specific settings would do a much better job? The lack of this kind of feature was almost a deal-breaker for me, but when I considered the alternatives, I decided that iA Writer was best-suited to my approach to working, even with the clunky white-on-black compromise.

But I think that summarises my point quite nicely: why compromise? Despite all of it’s little idiosyncrasies and faults, The iPad is a wonderful, enabling device. But I wonder if a lack of imagination amongst the developers of its apps might be stifling that enabling power for a huge number of people looking for a more assistive experience?

Notes

  1. I’m not singling out the iA Writer app for criticism here – I think it’s a wonderful application. I’m just using it as a real-world example of where I’ve had a desire for a feature which would improve my personal experience of their product. And the iA team were very forthcoming with feedback when I contacted them about it on Twitter.
  2. While writing this post, I found that the WordPress app was just too cumbersome and buggy for serious writing, and so switched over to using the iA Writer app in earnest instead. It proved a much more comfortable experience, and the default font size is just perfect for my needs: not too small, not too large. The distraction-free approach really does suit the iPad’s form factor and will prove to be particularly beneficial for many disabled users who are overwhelmed by the usual breed of text editors.
  3. As I’ve written previously, when considering accessibility features, it’s not just disabled users who benefit. Thinking of accessibility as something which only helps people with disabilities is very misguided.

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