How Apple could make iOS accessibility even better

Since it began in July, I've been using the public beta of iOS 9 on my iPhone 6 and iPad Air, and I've enjoyed the experience very much. Not only do I get to try marquee new features like multitasking on iPad, but I also get to enjoy smaller (but not insignificant) ones such as Search in the Settings app.

One area that I pay close attention to during the beta period is, of course, accessibility. But I don't mean only the discrete Accessibility features --- in fact, iOS 9 includes fewer new options than previous years. Rather, what I mean is that I try to focus on the "little things" that make iOS usable (or not) to me as a visually impaired person.

An example of this are the new background and font choices in Safari Reader View. Reader View is one of my favorite parts of iOS, and Apple has enhanced it nicely in iOS 9. There are four new choices for improving contrast, as well as several new font options. Moreover, Apple has replaced tapping the 'aA' button to size text with the much simpler pinch-to-zoom gesture. Put together, this new functionality makes Reader View even better. In my opinion, it's one of the best, if unheralded, new features of iOS 9.

Yet for as great as the readability enhancements in Safari Reader View are, there remains parts of iOS that I feel could stand improvement in terms of visual accessibility.

Text size in the App Store needs to be bigger

I've pleaded for this before. The App Store (and the iTunes Store and the iBookstore) sorely needs a way to bump up the text size. Without it, reading app descriptions and release notes are an exercise in futility because the text is so tiny.

Apple would do well to add a text slider or (ideally) give the App Store support for Large Dynamic Type. The small font issue is something that has irked me for years, and I think it's one of the Store's biggest problems. Much has been written about improving search and discovery, but to me, what good is search going to do me if I can't read the results? Bottom line: Apple needs to fix this sooner than later. Pretty please.

Enlarge the cursor and magnification loupe

As a writer who loves working from my iPad, I spend a lot of time manipulating text on iOS. While I get by fairly well, one thing that needs improvement is placing the cursor.

As it is today, when you hold your finger on a block of text in an text editor, for example, the cursor appears under a magnification loupe. The problem for me, though, is that both the cursor and the loupe are still small to comfortably see. I always struggle some to find the cursor and move it where I want it. In fact, this is the biggest problem I'm having with using the iPad as a "trackpad" in iOS 9; the cursor just isn't big enough to see where I'm moving it.

To remedy this, I'd love it if Apple would allow users to resize the cursor and loupe; on the Mac, there's an option to resize the cursor to one's liking. As well, it would be neat if you could "scribble" your finger on the screen to find the cursor in a document --- this would be similar to El Capitan's new shake-the-mouse-to-find-the-cursor gesture.

Add a 'dark mode'

iOS has the Invert Colors and Grayscale features in Accessibility for those who need better contrast. But one feature has been notably absent: dark mode.

The lack of a dark mode in iOS is interesting insofar that there's precedent for including it. iBooks and Yosemite have it, and the aforementioned new backgrounds in Safari Reader View have it too. Even Apple Watch's user interface—and the Watch app in iOS—is effectively dark mode.

I oftentimes like reading white text on a black background for the higher contrast, and I think it'd be cool if Apple added a system-wide dark mode. Aside from achieving feature parity, a dark mode would give users one more option for changing iOS's contrast.

Make the Camera app's grid lines bolder

I take a lot of pictures with my iPhone 6. In taking photos, I have the grid lines showing at all times in the Camera app. This is because I try to adhere to the rule of thirds when capturing an image.

I say I try to follow the rule of thirds because, unfortunately, the grid lines are awfully low contrast. The lines often tend to blend in with whatever I'm shooting, which makes it difficult for me to see where they are.

It would be nice if Apple would make the grid lines much thicker, so as to make them easier to see. It also would make it easier to ensure that my subject is aligned correctly when taking a photo. The larger benefit is grid lines with more contrast would probably improve my photography skills.

Accessibility's low hanging fruit

If these ideas sound familiar, it's because all of them are things that I wrote about for Macworld earlier this year. In that piece, they were my iOS 9 wishes.

As it turns out, Apple hasn't granted any of them to date.

But I write about them again here because, in my view, they're prime examples of "low-hanging fruit" for accessibility. Many people often ask me how Apple can improve accessibility in iOS, mostly in terms of the dedicated Accessibility features. The honest truth is, though, that I'm unsure of what more Apple can do in this regard. To me, the Accessibility feature set is mature; it's full of so much breadth and depth that it's hard for me to imagine what else Apple could cram into those preferences.

As such, I believe the future of accessibility on the platform ought to focus more on the kinds of things I mention above. All of these are things aren't true "accessibility" features like VoiceOver, but they nonetheless contribute greatly to the general accessibility and usability of iOS. Put another way, it's the small details that, I think, will end up having the most overall impact --- at least for someone like myself. In my mind, the things I mention here will absolutely make iOS more accessible to me, without being for accessibility in the conventional sense.

Steven Aquino

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.