Skip to main content

Apple Watch makes Apple Pay even better for accessibility

That's how Tim Cook prefaced the reveal of Apple Pay last September—by talking about the many issues with physical credit cards. To me, Apple Pay is emblematic of what Apple does best: integrating hardware and software in a seamless, easy to use way that truly does "just work." It feels like magic every time I use it.

I wrote last year about the accessibility merits of Apple Pay in context of my iPhone 6, and those words remain true today. But with the advent of Apple Watch, Apple's payments service is taken to the next level in terms of accessibility. For as great as Apple Pay is on my iPhone, it's my strong belief that the experience is even better on my wrist.

It's the motor

For me, the big reason why Apple Pay on my Apple Watch is a usability win is it saves my muscles from hard work.

By "hard work," I mean that, as a person with cerebral palsy, my muscles are weaker than normal --- hence, I suffer from motor delays, particularly on my right side. In this case, even a seemingly mundane task like getting my phone out of my pocket can be difficult. It takes a lot of energy for me to reach my hand into my pocket and use my fingers to grasp my phone. This is true despite the fact that I always keep my phone in my left pocket, as my left hand is dominant (and strongest).

With Apple Pay on my watch, however, I needn't reach into my pocket at all. All I do is bring up my Starbucks card in Passbook, hold my wrist near the reader, and wait for the tap. To again quote Tim Cook, "that's it!"

There is one minor annoyance with Apple Pay on the watch. I wish that Apple would make Passbook (now Wallet) available as a Glance. As it is now, I need to go to the apps screen --- which itself isn't the most visually accessible --- to find the Starbucks app. It would be easier (and quicker) to get to my Starbucks card if Passbook were in Glances. (Perhaps this is a feature Apple can add later to watchOS.)

Why dexterity matters

I felt a sense of de ja vu writing the previous section, because the reasons for using the watch over the phone are the same reasons I cited for using the phone over a tactile credit card.

The difference may seem trivial, but it isn't. I feel so much better --- freer, even --- using my Apple Watch to pay for my coffee at Starbucks, for instance. I don't feel anxious or frustrated by struggling to get my phone out to pay; I also don't feel any physical pain either.

As someone who isn't as dexterous as a fully-abled person, these little things mean a lot. Not only is Apple Pay on the watch alleviating me of physical stress, but it reduces much emotional stress. More importantly, it raises my self-esteem, insofar that I'm more able to use and enjoy such an inclusive and empowering feature.

My point isn't that Apple Pay on my iPhone is worse than on Apple Watch. I've loved using Apple Pay on my phone. Rather, my point is simply that the Watch's form factor makes Apple Pay more accessible to me.

What Apple Pay says about the Apple Watch

I recently wrote a piece for Macworld in which I discuss the accessibility of Apple Watch apps. In a nutshell, my high-level take is that I don't see the watch as an app-centric device like I do the iPhone. Moreover, because of my visual needs, I try hard to be uber selective about which apps I want to interact with on my wrist.

As I alluded to in that story, Apple Pay has proven to be one of my "killer apps" on my Apple Watch. I think Apple Watch was made for something like Apple Pay --- much more so than scrolling through one's Instagram feed. From an accessibility perspective, the watch is not only great for paying for stuff, but I can see how helpful the watch could be for opening doors or turning on and off lights in the house (via HomeKit). For the motor-impaired, the watch has a lot of potential as an accessibility tool. My experiences with Apple Pay is just one example what's possible (and what will be possible).

The future is bright

Using Apple Pay on my watch has made me even more bullish about the Watch's future.

As I wrote at the outset, I think Apple Pay is quintessential Apple. The company has made paying with credit cards easier, faster, and more secure. More to the point, Apple's created a system that's accessible to anyone --- now more than ever with Apple Watch.

Steven is a freelance tech writer who specializes in iOS Accessibility. He also writes at Steven's Blog and co-hosts the @accessibleshow podcast. Lover of sports.

  • Steven, I can imagine the difference. Maybe too well, for I can imagine that the moves you must make on your Apple Watch (like pressing the crown, then finding and starting Passbook) also constitute an effort. But I understand from your words that this is still far easier than wielding your iPhone. I might as well utter my wish (and probably yours too) here: that the apps screen will soon get the option of organizing apps in folders. I currently have some forty icons flocking there, some of them very similar to others (like iState and MAPS.ME).
  • At present double-tapping the side button on the Watch brings up credit cards. Perhaps swiping left from that screen (or up, or down) could show your passbook passes? Does it speak which card is showing on that screen when voiceover is enabled, by the way? it should do. Incidentally, I also think we need the ability to name our credit cards, (or maybe to choose alternate pictures.) I have three cards from the same provider and it is difficult to tell the joint, personal and business cards apart as they all have the same design.
  • Yah, I find it odd that tickets and store cards are not in the Passbook menu when you double click the People button on the side of the watch. All they have to do is add those cards to that screen and it solves the problem!
  • I have three cards that can be used with Apple Pay. Instead of being able to add them to my Apple Watch using text verification or signing in to the bank's app, they all require a phone call for verification. That isn't very accessible for people with hearing or speech difficulties. I realize that the methods of verification available are currently set by each bank, but Apple should encourage or even require that alternate methods of verification be made available.
  • If you add your Starbucks card to Passbook and you set your favorite Starbucks locations within the Starbucks app then you will get a push notification whenever you are near your Starbucks. All you have to do from there is tap on the notification and scroll down to reveal the bar code. It takes a little bit more set up but the pay off is that you don't have to go hunting for the Passbook app every time you want to access your Starbucks card.
  • I just wish Apple next makes a Wallet / Pocket watch, without health features, connected to iPhone also. This for people who do not use or can use apple watch.