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What 3D Touch could mean for accessibility

Steven Aquino | Sept. 15, 2015
When it's hard to tell a button from a link, the iPhone 6s and its 3D Touch feature could put more power into the hands of the visually and motor impaired.

iphone6s rose gold
Credit: Apple

In March, I wrote a piece for MacStories on the accessibility merit of Force Touch. I said, in part:

Imagine, for example, iOS 10 or 11. Apple will almost assuredly bring Force Touch to the iPhone and iPad, and they could utilize the technology in a slew of ways. They could effectively solve the problem with buttons in iOS 7 and 8 by using haptic feedback to denote a “button press” everywhere in the system. Thus, visually impaired users like me wouldn’t have to struggle so much in figuring out what’s a button versus a text label. Likewise, Force Touch could save those with motor challenges from the work of extra taps by allowing force-pressing to bring up contextually specific controls. There are lots of possibilities here.

My assumption that it would take two or three years for Apple to bring Force Touch to an iOS device was silly in hindsight. That’s because Apple is bringing Force Touch—namely, “3D Touch”—to the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, announced last Wednesday.

Apple is calling 3D Touch the “next generation of Multi-Touch,” with Peek and Pop and Quick Actions. My first impression is that the new technologies look pretty cool. From an accessibility perspective, there are some obvious benefits that jump out at me, but so too are there potential downsides.

The good: Less visual scanning and fine motor issues

Force Touch is useful simply as a time- and energy-saver. In visual terms, scanning a user interface can be daunting because it can be hard to find a certain button or icon. This is especially true in apps with busy or cluttered UIs [like Apple Music](http://www.macworld.com/article/2953973/ios-apps/apple-music-in-ios-9-gets-a-much-needed-redesign.html). Too much scanning is problematic in another way: it causes frustration, as well as eye strain and fatigue. Similarly, some users with fine-motor delays may feel frustration and/or even literal pain by having to tap a bunch of buttons to, say, send an iMessage or email.

iphone6splus 3dtouch phone
Quick Actions streamlines the process of calling your most frequent contacts. Credit: Susie Ochs

Enter 3D Touch’s Quick Actions. What this feature allows is quick scanning and fewer taps. For example, instead of having to launch the Phone app, find the right tab, find a name, and tap it, someone like me can just hard-press the Phone icon on the Home screen, and tap a person’s name to call them instantly. It seems trivial, but the few seconds that are shaved off by Quick Actions really does have the potential to make a significant difference for the motor impaired. It makes a laborious task much more accessible.

 

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