The iPhone X: What does Face ID mean for Accessibility?

hand holding iPhone X facing themselves as if to take a selfie, photo credit to bagus hernawan from unsplash.com

With Apple’s announcement of iOS 11 and its latest iPhone, the iPhone X, consumers have spent the last several weeks discussing the Home button, or lack thereof. While the lack of the Home button means changes in UI, it also means new considerations for accessibility. We’ve written before about how typography, color, and zoom can make crucial differences to mobile users who are visually impaired. Visually impaired users typically take advantage of these features while using tools like VoiceOver, but without a Home Button and with the introduction of Face ID and its unlock capability, the landscape for mobile user experience is changing. We’ll discuss the new color and zoom capabilities of the iPhone X and dig into how accessible we predict FaceID will be to visually impaired users.

VoiceOver and Face ID

For a visually impaired user, VoiceOver has been crucial because it allows you to use the iPhone without looking at it, via spoken cues and gestures. With the iPhone X, a new and exciting feature that is crucial to the user experience is Face ID. The Home button is replaced by a swipe-up gesture and the iPhone X’s infrared camera makes a 3D map of the user’s face with Face ID, which unlocks the phone and grants the user access. While Touch ID felt natural because once you touched the Home button, the phone became unlocked, the same intuitive feeling can be expected for the unlock function with Face ID; a simple swiping-up motion of your finger unlocks the screen. However, Face ID’s look-to-unlock feature requires an active gaze, which is not something all visually impaired people have. While the iPhone X does give users the option to turn off the necessity of Face ID, the visually impaired community has been quick to speak up about this feature. In addition to disabling Face ID, you can disable the need to hold an active gaze in Settings→ Face ID & Passcode → Require Attentions for Face ID. The caption for that setting reads, “TrueDepth camera will provide an additional level of security by verifying that you are looking at iPhone before unlocking. Some sunglasses may block attention detection.” Many people with blindness or visual impairments have difficulty looking in a specific direction or cannot do it at all and so they tend to disable these features. But even when disabling these features Face ID still isn’t natural. Many visually impaired users tend to use headphones for audio feedback while holding their phone in their hands in a comfortable position i.e. around waist level, rather than holding it up to their face to unlock.

Using the iPhone X

While some actions remain the same on the iPhone X, others change, including actions that activate or deactivate accessibility features. We collaborated with our friends at the Perkins School for the Blind to let you know which actions will do what with the new iPhone X:

  • To activate VoiceOver or Zoom: click the Side Button (the one on the right side of the phone) 3 times. *This is if VoiceOver or Zoom are set as the only options for your Accessibility Shortcuts. A new iPhone X will do nothing if you triple-click the Side Button and if you have multiple options, it will show you a menu instead of automatically enabling one setting.
  • Power Phone Off and Disable Face ID: Press and hold the Side Button and either of the volume buttons at the same time for the option to power the phone off; this will disable Face ID until the passcode has been entered.
  • Go back to the Home screen: swipe up from the bottom of the device.
  • Open Notification Center: Drag down with your finger from the top of the phone until you feel one haptic click on the phone.
  • Open Control Center: Drag down with your finger until you feel two haptic clicks on the phone.
  • Activate Siri: Press and hold the Side Button, or say “Hey, Siri.”
  • Apple Pay: Double tap on the Side Button.

Testing is Important

Now that you know some of the new ways to activate accessibility features on the iPhone X, are you thinking about updates that should be made to your company’s app or mobile website? With seemingly simple things like removing the Home button from the hardware, come new challenges for companies who want to ensure they continue to include their customers who have visual impairments and other accessibility needs. One way to ensure that your products are intuitive to users of all abilities is to test them with a usability testing process, that can verify your assumptions on how easy or difficult product is to use for someone with accessibility needs.

Thinking about Accessibility while Building an App

Most companies will think about how their apps and websites can remain up-to-date for new operating system updates and the latest hardware so that their consumers remain loyal to their brands and products. It’s important to keep accessibility in mind when making these updates, too. In fact, you may be surprised that similarly to outward accessibility features, such as elevators and ramps, there are ways to make digital products more accessible as well. If a company has a product that performs a service, the product itself should be accessible to those who it intends to serve and the product should keep in mind users with specific accessibility needs, such as visual impairments.

We’re constantly aiming to learn more about how our design and development teams can build the best possible products for all consumers, including those with accessibility needs. If you’d like to learn more about how your team’s product can be accessible to all or have questions about tech and accessibility, get in touch!


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