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5 things the new Apple Watch can teach us about accessible design

4 min read
Emily Esposito  •  Dec 13, 2018
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The Apple Watch tore down barriers when it was originally released in 2015. By combining fitness tracking and other wellness capabilities with the robust iOS system, it introduced a new level of convenience for iPhone users; instead of checking your phone for information, you could simply glance down at your wrist for the most important updates.

This improved customer experience has made the Apple Watch the best-selling wearable in the market.

The Apple Watch also put accessibility on the center stage. And the new, fourth-generation Apple Watch, the Series 4, takes this to the next level.

Steven Aquino is a freelance tech writer and iOS accessibility expert. According to him, the Series 4 “is the most accessible Apple Watch to date.”

Related: Meaningful design for the Apple Watch

“…[F]rom my perspective as a disabled person, Apple’s smartwatch makes receiving notifications and the like a more accessible experience. As someone with multiple disabilities, Apple Watch not only promotes pro-social behavior, the device’s glanceable nature alleviates the friction of pulling my phone out of my pocket a thousand times an hour. For people with certain physical motor delays, the seemingly unremarkable act of even getting your phone can be quite an adventure. Apple Watch on my wrist eliminates that work because all my iMessages and VIP emails are right there.” –Steven Aquino

Steven had the chance to review the Series 4 model and wrote about his experience for TechCrunch. In his review, he highlights four ways the new smartwatch excels at accessibility, and one way it falls short. His learnings share valuable insights into what makes truly inclusive products.

Here’s what he found after testing the Series 4.

1. Large screens matter

For small devices like the Apple Watch, a bigger screen is a huge milestone for accessibility, especially for visually impaired users. And it’s not just the size of the screen, it’s also what is displayed on that screen.

The larger display allows for “bigger icons and touch targets for user interface controls.” Buttons have more definition with a pill-like shape to accommodate the curves of the new display. This helps with the tapping action, but also visually identifies them as actionable buttons.

Large screens matter.

“This is one area where watchOS excels over iOS, since Apple Watch’s relatively small display necessitates a more explicit design language. In other words, where iOS leans heavily on buttons that resemble ordinary text, watchOS sits at the polar end of the spectrum. A good rule of thumb for accessible design is that it’s generally better designers aim for concreteness with iconography and the like, rather than be cutesy and abstract because it’s en vogue and ‘looks cool’ (the idea being a visually impaired person can more easily distinguish something that looks like a button as opposed to something that is technically a button but which looks like text),” wrote Steven.

Related:How to design mobile interfaces for the visually impaired

2. Prioritize high-contrast, modular watch face

Another way Apple has taken advantage of the Series 4’s larger screen is by creating two all-new watch faces: Infograph and Infograph Modular.

Photo credit: 9to5mac.com

Steven found the Infograph Modular setting much more visually accessible than Infographic.

With Infograph, It’s difficult to tell time. Contrast-wise, the minute and second markers are in a faint, grayish-black hue, all blending together with the black background of the watch. To make matters worse, there are no numerals so “you have to have memorized the clock in order to see what time it is.”

On the other hand, Infograph Modular is not as aesthetically pleasing, but it has much better functionality. “Because it’s a digital face, the time is right there for you, and the colorful complications set against the black background is a triumph of high contrast.”

3. Add sensory experiences

The new Apple Watch comes with haptic feedback on the Digital Crown (the dial that acts like the home button). Haptic feedback is the use of touch feedback to the end-user, also referred to as “Force Touch” by Apple.

“The addition of haptic feedback enhances the user experience, particularly for people with disabilities. The key factor is sensory input—as a user, you’re no longer simply watching a list go by. In my usage, the fact that I feel a ‘tick’ as I’m scrolling through a list on the Watch in addition to seeing it move makes it more accessible,” wrote Steven.

“If I only rely on my poor eyesight, there’s a chance I could miss certain movements or animations, so the haptic feedback acts as a ‘backup,’ so to speak. Likewise, I prefer my iPhone to ring and vibrate whenever a call comes in because I suffer from congenital hearing loss (due to my parents being deaf) and could conceivably miss important calls from loved ones or whomever.”

4. Consider fall detection

Accessibility “isn’t limited to people with medically recognized disabilities.” It also applies to the elderly, who could benefit immensely from accessible features like fall detection.

The elderly are a very vulnerable population, addressed by the Apple watch.

This new feature shows how much thought, and presumably user research, went into creating a feature that really resonated with their customers. Someone who is at risk of falling could purchase the Series 4 for the fall detection feature alone. That’s what happened to Steven’s girlfriend’s mother.

Related: Empathy at the heart of design

“She is an epileptic and is a high-risk individual for catastrophic falls. After seeing Ellen DeGeneres talk up the device on a recent episode of her show, she was gung-ho about Series 4 solely for fall detection. She’d considered a lifeline button prior, but after hearing how fall detection works, decided Apple Watch would be the better choice. As of this writing, she’s had her Apple Watch for a week, and can confirm the new software works as advertised.”

5. Don’t forget about the packaging

According to Steven, “how Apple has chosen to package Apple Watch Series 4 is bad.” The main issue is Apple’s decision to pack everything “piecemeal”—the Watch case itself comes in a pouch, while the band is in its own box. And, the AC adapter and charging puck are in their own compartment.

For accessibility, this packaging is chaotic and stressful. First, it adds a lot in terms of cognitive load.

“Everything felt disjointed until I considered the logic behind doing it this way. But while I can manage to put everything together as if it were a jigsaw puzzle, many people with certain cognitive delays could have real trouble. They would first need to determine where everything is in the box before then determining how to put it all together; this can be frustrating for many.”

Second, instead of the Watch already being put together, you have to attach the band to the Watch yourself.

“If you have visual and/or fine-motor impairments, you could spend several minutes trying to get your watch together so you can pair it with your iPhone. That time can be taxing, physically and emotionally, which in turn worsens the overall experience.”

The most accessible smartwatch yet

Steven has been using the Apple Watch for the past three years and while he could live without it, he wouldn’t want it.

“Apple Watch has made my life better, and that’s not taking into account how it raised my awareness for my overall health.”

Read Steven’s full review of the Apple Watch Series 4.