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What Web Designers Can Learn From Apple’s Assistive Access Feature

Jul 3, 2023

If you’re interested in accessible digital design, pay attention to Apple. The company seems to approach accessibility from the perspective of users with disabilities

Apple’s messaging treats accessibility as a fundamental design principle: Accessibility must be built into digital systems from the start, not tacked on as an afterthought. In other words, they take an accessibility-first mindset, and their commitment seems consistent.

The company’s track record continued in May 2023, when Apple announced its latest suite of accessibility features to launch later that year. One of these features, Assistive Access for iPhone and iPad, holds valuable lessons that web designers can apply to their own work.     

Here’s what Apple accomplished with Assistive Access, plus a few ways web designers can achieve similar goals.

What Is Apple’s Assistive Access?     

Assistive Access is a software feature for iPhone and iPad designed to make these products more helpful for users with cognitive and developmental disabilities. Crucially, Apple’s designers built the feature based on extensive feedback from the community it hopes to serve.

Assistive Access was “designed with feedback from members of the disability communities every step of the way, to support a diverse set of users and help people connect in new ways,” said Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s senior director of Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives, in a press release

The optional Assistive Access user interface does a few things to ease the cognitive load on users: 

  • It limits the number of apps on the device, prioritizing the apps people with cognitive disabilities requested. That includes apps for making video and voice calls, texting, taking and viewing pictures, and listening to music.
  • It redesigns the visual interface. With Assistive Access turned on, buttons feature high color contrast and large text labels.  
  • It combines related apps into a single experience to reduce complexity. For example, users of traditional iPhones can place calls through FaceTime or the Phone app. With Assistive Access, these are collapsed into a single Calls app. 

Assistive Access also gives users and their supporters choice over how the home screen looks. Visual learners may prefer the grid-based tile layout, while users who prefer text can display app buttons in labeled rows. 

This feature demonstrates a few principles of accessible design that would work just as well on a website. Here are three lessons web designers can learn from Apple’s Assistive Access. 

Related: What Designers Can Learn From Apple’s New Accessibility Updates (2021)

3 Assistive Access Takeaways for Web Designers

The most broadly accepted standards for accessible web design are found in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Compare the features of Apple’s Assistive Access to WCAG, and you’ll find a lot of overlap. 

In particular, Assistive Access achieves many of the goals of WCAG’s Third Principle: Content must be understandable. Here are a few specific guidelines Apple seemed to follow in creating Assistive Access.   


1. Design based on feedback from the communities that will use your site.

Apple’s press release notes that their newest accessibility features are based on feedback from members of the disability communities they’re designed for. People who are affected by accessibility barriers quickly become experts. Ask them what they need. 

With Assistive Access, for example, Apple asked people with cognitive disabilities which iPhone features they really used. Without that perspective, they couldn’t know which apps to center in the new experience. 

“To have a feature that provides a cognitively accessible experience on iPhone or iPad — that means more open doors to education, employment, safety, and autonomy,” said Katy Schmid, senior director of National Program Initiatives at The Arc of the United States, in the Apple press release. 

Your website may not share the same set of goals, but listening to the voices of your users will help you build successful online experiences. 


2. Simplify site functionality wherever possible.

In many ways, accessible design is also user-friendly design. Apple built Assistive Access to support people with cognitive and developmental disabilities. But a simpler digital experience is usually more helpful for everyone who visits your site, regardless of disability status.  

How do you simplify a website’s user interface? One way is to reduce unnecessary choices. Apple’s Assistive Access collapses the Facetime and Phone apps into a single Calls app. 

Related: Why Consistency is Important to Accessible Design


3. Give users power over how your content is displayed. 

Different users have different needs, abilities, and preferences. That means no single website can really be accessible to everyone — unless you provide options. 

Apple’s Assistive Access is an interface mode you can turn on and off. The first choice it presents is whether to use it in the first place. From there, users can adjust the visual interface, choose emoji-only keyboards, and further personalize the experience with options.  

Making these choices must not present a barrier in itself, so user options can be tricky to introduce. Consider building some level of choice into your website. For example: 

These are just a few examples meant to illustrate an important idea: Many different users will interact with your website. They’ll have different abilities. They’ll use different technology, including assistive tools like screen readers. They’ll have different preferences and expectations.

When content is designed with an accessible mindset, it works well for everyone — and Apple’s Assistive Access provides an excellent example of inclusive design. 

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