The accessible power of pinch-to-zoom

It forever changed the way people interacted with smartphones; not only was Multi-Touch an impressive technical achievement, but it was fun and delightful to use. More importantly, Multi-Touch changed people's expectations for their devices. We've gone from seeing hardware buttons everywhere to seeing simple slabs of glass. This is especially true for young children, who expect everything electronic to be tappable; touch is all they know, as they have no prior context of olden ways.

The concept of touch is so ingrained in our collective muscle memory at this point that I think it's taken for granted to a degree. An example of this is using the pinch-to-zoom gesture in order to zoom in on text and/or photos. I use it so often that it feels like second nature, and I don't think about what it really does. But it occurred to me the other day that pinch-to-zoom's impact on my computing life is far more profound.

The reality is that pinch-to-zoom is (and always has been) wonderful for accessibility. With one quick motion, I can zoom in as close on text and/or a photo as I need to see comfortably. I don't need to use the discrete Zoom feature under Accessibility; all I need to do is use the system-standard Multi-Touch gesture. As a person with low vision, I find pinch-to-zoom to be a godsend in terms of visual accessibility, even if I'm not always consciously aware of it.

I use pinch-to-zoom most often in Safari on my iPhone and iPad, and it works great in most cases. (I do the same with my Magic Mouse and on my MacBook's trackpad as well.) I find myself reading articles in Safari (or in Tweetbot; long live UIWebView) using pinch-to-zoom to read, and I enjoy it very much.

It's not all roses, however. Many times, I'll read something on a "mobile-optimized" website that doesn't support the pinch-to-zoom gesture, which I find frustrating. In order to combat this, I'll try requesting the desktop site, which is hit or miss, or I'll switch to Safari's Reader View. Still, it's perplexing to me that many sites don't work with pinch-to-zoom because they think their optimization is somehow better. Most of the time it isn't, and I wish that I could just use Multi-Touch like I know Safari obviously supports.

As I wrote when extolling Apple Pay's accessibility merits, the appeal of pinch-to-zoom --- and Multi-Touch in general, really --- as an accessibility tool comes down to its inherent design. Like with Apple Pay, the ingenuity of pinch-to-zoom is that enlarging text requires no special modes; it's just part of how we interact with our iOS devices. Best of all, pinch-to-zoom is yet another example of inclusive design; it's accessible and useful to everyone, from the visually impaired to the fully-sighted.

It's worth noting, too, the significance of my assertion that pinch-to-zoom is terrific for accessibility. I fully concede that there is a certain level of minutiae here, but that's actually a good thing. As a person with disabilities, every day is filled with small victories and struggles. I have to look at everything in my environment with a fine-tooth comb in order to be successful, and using my iOS devices is no different. Using pinch-to-zoom in Mail lets me correspond with my various editors, and using it in Safari allows me to stay abreast of what's happening in the world. Put another way, using pinch-to-zoom is a small victory for me, and I can't be the only one who feels this way. It changes the perception from mundane implementation detail to critical facet of my iOS experience.

The moral of this story is that even a that's-just-the-way-it works feature like pinch-to-zoom has tremendous impact on everyday life if you really think about it. And I think it's worth pointing out because it ultimately reflects on Apple. They pioneered the technology, and it's making a sizable dent in the universe.