The Voice Access app for Android allows users to control their mobile devices with spoken commands. It’s a useful resource for people with disabilities that affect their vision, mobility, and motor control — but like many assistive technologies, it provides potential benefits for every user.
In an article for Computer World, contributing editor J.R. Raphael describes Voice Access as “technically an accessibility feature,” but notes that “this [app] can be exceptionally useful for anyone.”
“And once you grow accustomed to having it present on your phone,” Raphael writes, “you won’t want to go back.”
We could say the same for dozens of other accessibility features. High-contrast settings (also called “dark modes") began as a way to reduce eyestrain and improve text legibility for people with vision issues. Today, according to one survey, over 80% of mobile users prefer to use the dark mode on their mobile operating systems.
Other accessibility features with broad appeal include text-to-speech (TTS) software and closed captions. Android Voice Access is another example of how accessible technologies improve experiences for every user.
Below, we’ll explain how to enable Voice Access — and provide tips for creating mobile apps and web content for people who use voice controls.
Exploring the Features of Android Voice Access
Voice Access is available on any Android device. However, it’s not a built-in app: To enable it, you’ll need to visit the Google Play Store’s Voice Access page and install the tool.
After installation, follow these steps:
- Open the Voice Access app on your mobile device. On startup, provide the app with the required permissions.
- Open your device’s Accessibility settings. Find the “Use Voice Access" toggle and turn it on.
- Select the option that reads: “ "Listen for commands whenever my screen is on."
- The app may request additional permissions. If so, you’ll need to provide those permissions to ensure that it works predictably.
By default, Voice Access will automatically activate for incoming phone calls. Users who do not have disabilities may choose to change this setting. To make that change, swipe down on your mobile device and select the Voice Access settings, then turn off the toggle for “Activate for incoming calls.”
For more help with setup, review Google’s Getting Started with Voice Access page.
Using Voice Access to Control Your Device
Voice Access works with Google Assistant. To send a command to Voice Access, you’ll simply need to say “Hey Google" or “Okay, Google,” followed by “Voice Access.”
With Voice Access active, you can control most features of your device without using the touchscreen. Ask “what can I say?” for a rundown of basic commands.
Some of the most useful commands for Voice Access include:
- Open [the name of an app].
- Go back.
- Go home.
- Swipe up/down.
- Swipe forwards/backwards.
- Tap [the name of a button].
View a full list of commands on the Android Accessibility Help page.
Grids in Voice Access
Voice Access also supports grid selection, which displays a grid on the screen to improve functionality. The user can say the number of a grid field to interact with it (for example, “tap 3,” or “swipe left on 12”).
This is especially useful on complex mobile applications — and it’s a feature that developers should consider when planning their products. By testing your app with Voice Access grids, you may find ways to improve functionality by increasing the size of buttons, limiting excessive interactive fields, or improving the clarity of your user interface.
How the Best Practices of Accessibility Can Improve Voice Controls
The international standard for digital accessibility is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG contains pass-or-fail statements called success criteria that can be used to test content.
Content that follows the Level A/AA success criteria of the latest version of WCAG will usually work well with popular assistive technologies including voice control software, screen readers (software that converts text to audio), and TTS apps.
Here are a few WCAG criteria that are especially important for voice control users:
WCAG 2.1 Success Criterion (SC) 2.5.3, “Label in Name”
WCAG requires that when user interface components have labels that include text or images of text, the accessible name contains the text that is presented visually.
This ensures that voice control users can say the onscreen text to trigger an interaction — they don’t have to guess the element’s accessible name.
Related: How to Fix: "Buttons Do Not Have Accessible Names"
WCAG 2.1 SC 2.5.4, “Motion Actuation"
This criterion requires that when functionality can be operated by device motion, it can also be operated by user interface components.
For example, if someone can refresh your mobile app’s feed by shaking their device, they should also be able to refresh the feed by selecting a button. Some voice control users may have limited mobility — and providing your users with options is always a good idea.
Related: Which WCAG Success Criteria Apply to Mobile Accessibility?
WCAG 2.1 SC 1.4.2, “Audio Control.”
This criterion says that if a web page plays audio automatically for more than three seconds, the user must have a mechanism to control the volume.
Autoplay is bad for accessibility, but if you must use autoplay, you need to provide your users with simple controls. Many Voice Access users also use screen readers — if audio plays automatically, it might play over the screen reader output, creating confusion for the user.
Related: Tips for WCAG Success Criterion 1.4.2: Audio Control
Following WCAG helps you provide a predictable experience for all users
Many other WCAG standards are applicable to voice control software. The good news: When you build your app or website with accessibility in mind, you can limit accessibility barriers — and keep users engaged with your content.
By using Voice Access, you can gain some perspective on the experiences of voice control users. However, the best practice is to set a WCAG conformance goal during the first stages of product development.
This helps to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other non-discrimination laws. More importantly, clear goals will help you create better content for every user while reducing the long-term costs of development.
The Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help you build a roadmap for digital compliance. To learn more, read our free eBook: The Definitive Mobile Accessibility Checklist.