An In-Depth Look at Apple Watch Accessibility Features

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Apple has today made available a wealth of specific information regarding the implementation of accessibility features on Apple Watch. While it was recently announced that the watch would contain support for VoiceOver, Zoom, and Dynamic Type, there have—up until this point—still been many questions about how these features would be implemented. It is our hope that this information will be of some assistance to blind and low vision users thinking of purchasing the wearable. As more information becomes available in the coming days and weeks, we will do our best to update this post accordingly.

Overview

The Apple watch is rectangular in shape with rounded edges. With Watch on your left wrist, the layout is as follows:

  • Front: The touch screen; the screen ends at the curved sides of the watch face.
  • Right Edge: Digital Crown at the top; oval-shaped "Friends" button at the bottom.
  • Back: Raised convex housing for the watch charger; watch sensors; two small holes where the two ends of the band connect with the watch.
  • Left edge: The speaker is directly across from the Digital Crown, and the microphone is directly across from the "Friends" button.

Apple Watch includes a range of features to meet the needs of people with a wide variety of disabilities. Watch includes VoiceOver, Zoom, an extra large watch face, Bold Text, Grayscale, Reduce Motion, Reduce Transparency, On/Off Labels, Mono Audio, and a taptic engine with optional Prominent Haptic feedback. As with other Apple products, Watch is accessible right out of the box; simply tripple-click the Digital Crown to enable VoiceOver, or ask Siri to enable Zoom and then use the feature by double-tapping with two fingers. Following is a detailed look at each accessibility feature, based on the information provided to us:

VoiceOver

VoiceOver is fully integrated into the Apple Watch OS, and all of the built-in apps are completely accessible. (David Woodbridge, member of the AppleVis Editorial Team, previewed the Apple Watch and noted, "this is not just text to speech on the watch, its VoiceOver.")

To enable VoiceOver during the set-up process, simply tripple-click the Digital Crown. Alternatively, you can ask Siri to enable VoiceOver, or you can enable it in the Watch app on your iPhone.

Once VoiceOver is enabled, below are some of the gestures you can use to interact with the Apple Watch:

  • Navigate by Item: One-finger flick left or right
  • Activate an item: One-finger double tap
  • Go Back to the Previous Screen: Two-finger flick left
  • Explore the Screen by Touch: Move one finger around the screen
  • Adjust Volume: Two-finger double tap and hold, then drag up or down
  • Adjust Options within an App: One-finger flick up or down
  • Deep Press (brings up clock faces or additional app controls): One-finger tap and hold
  • Access Notifications and Glances: (at the Clock screen) two finger flick down Notifications, two finger flick up Glances

As with iOS, third-party app accessibility will depend on individual app developers.

The Extra-Large Watch Face

Apple Watch comes with an extra-large watch face to make it easier for users with low vision to see the time. When the extra-large watch face is enabled, numbers take up the entirety of the screen.

Zoom

Zoom is a built-in magnifier (which magnifies up to 15 times the native size) that works across the Watch OS. To use Zoom, use the Digital Crown to navigate across the screen by rows, or simply use two fingers to move around the screen. Zoom can be enabled on the watch itself, in the Watch iPhone app, or by using the Accessibility Shortcut.

Dynamic Type and Bold Text

When Dynamic Type is enabled, text in many apps such as Mail, Messages, and Settings is enlarged—thereby making it easier to read. Alternatively, one can also enable Bold Text to make the text heavier across all built-in apps.

Grayscale

Apple Watch includes a Grayscale feature; when enabled, the home screen, various apps, and more are shown in different shades of gray.

Reduce Transparency

For features like alerts, Siri, and Glances, you can increase the contrast on Apple Watch screen by reducing the background transparency.

Reduce Motion

Reduce Motion limits the amount of movement of user interface elements. For example, the movement of icons on the Home screen will be simpler and more directly associated with your navigation gestures.

On/Off Labels

Apple Watch can show an on/off switch to make it easier for you to see whether a setting is enabled or disabled.

Mono Audio

When using Bluetooth headphones, Apple Watch supports Mono Audio for those who have hearing impairments. Additionally, Apple Watch allows one to adjust the left/right stereo balance of audio.

Taptic Engine

The Taptic Engine is a linear actuator inside Apple Watch that produces haptic feedback. When a notification comes in, Apple Watch will gently tap you on the wrist; Prominent Haptic is also available to pre-announce some alerts.

Getting Started with Apple Watch Accessibility Features

  • To enable VoiceOver during the Apple Watch setup process, tripple-click the Digital Crown.
  • The following features can be enabled/disabled directly on Apple Watch: VoiceOver, Extra large watch face, Large Type, Bold Type, Zoom, Reduce Motion and On/Off Labels.
  • All accessibility settings can also be controled through the Apple Watch iPhone app.

In addition to the information provided above, David Woodbridge, Senior Assistive Technology Consultant at Vision Australia and member of the AppleVis Editorial Team, had the opportunity to get some hands-on time with Apple Watch. If you haven't already, be sure to read David's notes on the experience here: http://www.applevis.com/blog/apple-watch-assistive-technology-news-opinion-reviews/hands-apple-watch. Also, be sure to check back on the AppleVis website in the coming weeks, as we plan to release a comprehensive set of materials dedicated to using the Apple Watch with VoiceOver.

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20 Comments

so not really Intuitive

thank you so much for this post, but from reading, it sounds like you'll have to stop to flick your way through the watch, so you may as well just take your phone out of your pocket and respond?can we not use the crown?when notifications tap us do we have to raise our rist flick and tap our way through, just to read it whereas sighted people can literally just lift wrist, that's a text from my mum i'll respond later, and then put their arm down, whereas we will it seems have to interact with it just like the phone it is running off?not sure what i was expecting but it just seems cumbersome and just as quick to use the phone.please, am i missing something

Speculations on Speaking of Notifications

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Hello Will,

Based on the reading I've done, there are two possible ways I envision the notifications working. Note that since I haven't seen Watch yet, these are just best guesses.

  • A notification comes in, the user lifts their wrist, and VoiceOver automatically starts speaking the notification. or
  • A notification comes in, and the user must interact in some way with the device to get VoiceOver to speak the notification.

The more I think about it, given the level of thought and detail that Apple has put into the accessibility implementation, it seems likely that all one need do to hear a notification is simply lift the wrist.

Not as much thought as one would think

Having just been into my local Apple Store to look at a watch, it turns out that Apple in their wisdom have disabled many features on the demonstration watches - including the accessibility features. Go figure.

Sounds Interesting

Thank you for posting this. It is certainly a good thing that the Apple Watch does indeed have accessibility features. The watch sounds pretty cool, and perhaps if and when I'm at my local Apple store again I can get a hands-on look at one. That said, I am still not interested in purchasing one at least for the time being..

Here's Why We Don't See VO in the Demos

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

According to early reports, it appears that all demo Apple Watches are just that: demos. They are locked into a loop of features so users can see how the screen is, and what kinds of things to expect, but there's no way to take a Watch for a true test drive. Hence, no VoiceOver in the demo units; Apple knows that the vast majority won't need these features, so showing them off would be a waste of time to most of its customers I have to wonder, though, if Apple Store employees would be willing to set up something if they know a VoiceOver or Zoom user is coming in? Tell them in advance, and see what they can do. It's worth a shot.

A few thoughts

First off I think that Apple's implementation of accessibility features sounds very thorough and well thought out. I'm very excited to hear how complete the voice over features are going to be.

Secondly I agree with you mike, it sounds like those are the two possibilities for how we would get notifications; I hope that the option to raise your writs to have voice over read the notification is going to be the way it works, and I believe that it will.

Thirdly, yes it is true that the watches that you can try on in the store are jus running demo loops, but I thought I understood that there would also be units attached to iPads that ran full versions of the soft where. The following is quoted from a business insider article about the in store experience.
The actual watches you try on are unresponsive and run only programmed demos, but there is also an interactive Watch mounted in a display unit you can try out.

Is it the case that even this interactive display unit does not have voice over? If that is the case then it is truly disappointing.

who els waited up until midnight to order their watch? I did and i got through the store about fifteen minutes after the official time had come. I chose the thirty eight millimeter, silver sport model with white sports band.

Display units

Just wanted to say that I have been reading people talking about the units with soft where on them in the stores and it does seem that those units only allow you to interact with a few apps. So I guess it is right that you can't try an accessible apple watch in the store yet, but sighted people can't try a lot of the soft where either.

Interactive display unit

The interactive Watch mounted in the display unit at my local store did indeed have VoiceOver, and I was able to try it out.

Interactive display unit

Thats good to hear Kelly. I originally thought there would be a way to test voice over in the store. I changed my mind when I heard other people on the site claiming they couldn't do it. I bet that was more a matter of the Apple employes, that the person talked to, just being ignorant. I remember all to well the time that I went to buy a bluetooth keyboard for my phone after iOS 4.3 came out, and the employees at the apple store kept telling me over and over again that bluetooth keyboards wouldn't work on the iPhone.

Voice over volume

I am pretty concerned with the reported lower volume of voice over. This question is for you David, along with Kelly and anyone els who has been able to look at the watch. ow would you describe the volume of the watch speaker? If the iPhone's volume was a ten, what would the watches volume be in comparison? a five? a three? I would very much appreciate hearing more about your experiences.

probably done by design

The Apple watch's volume is probably low by design. Lets think about this for a second. It is much much easier for the watch to just speak the time, instead of having to come up with a super-complicated series of vibrations or taps on the wrist. They're trying to make it so everyone can pick up the watch and just start using it. I'm reading other threads on the site about all these complicated ways of the watch letting people know the time, and as I said in that topic, it made my head spin. Keep it simple, guys. Speaking the time is not going to ruin anyone's day in the grand scheme of things, this is not the talking watches we all remember with the ridiculously loud bong sound followed by some impossibly obnoxious voice speaking the time. It literally takes the watch what, a second and a half to tell you the time, and if the volume is low, you can do this without too much concern. Also, we're all just speculating. Until someone gets the watch into their hands full time, and gets a chance to spend some time learning its quirks, this is all pure speculation. It's popular enough that I'm seeing at least 3 different forum topics about it. We shall see how it goes.

Sorry about the long speculative posts

I think that you make a good point about being happy with what we have Toonhead.

Its kind of like the book if you give a mouse a cookie. I don't know if anyone els has ever read that book, but its like, we worry about the watch being accessible,and then find out that it is, then we worry about if it will include a full version of voice over and we find out that it does, then we worry about how an accessible apple watch will fit into our lives, it is almost like we can't be happy.

I'm sorry for my previous posts that have fed into that. I don't think the tactile time telling thing is really a big deal, maybe a feature for the future, but I'm excited to get the coolest and most accessible talking watch ever if its current features work well. The only reason I originally posted about the vibration stuff is because it was what people were talking about and I am so excited about the watch that I just want to talk about it, no matter where the conversation goes.

I agree though that speculations about any way of improving the time telling feature is not the best thing to talk about right now. So lets talk about something that is more worth while, like the watches volume.

I think that you make a good point that often it would be desirable for the watch to have a low volume. After all the most attractive thing about the Apple watch is that it offers a convenient, unintrusive way of accessing technology. however, I do hope the watch has the ability to be at least loud enough to be used outside. I don't want to be able to only use my watch in a quiet room like David mentioned in his original post. I have not had a chance to play with the watch yet, so I have no idea about the quality of the speaker. I just see low volume as being a potentially big drawback for me, depending on how low it really is of course.

I think that any potential lack of volume in the speaker is probably more a tradeoff that Apple made, because of the size of the watch, then anything els. I just hope it can get loud enough and I would very much appreciate hearing any more, first-hand experiences about the watch, since I might not be able to see one until mine arrives in two weeks.

Thank you!

Yes, you are 100% correct. I think some of you guys are just expecting far too much too soon. Some of you can't ever just be happy with what we have now. Is it accessible? Yes. does it have a full version of VoiceOver? Yes. does it have a cool way to tell me the time? well, maybe? waaaa! not fare I want to know this now! Seriously, these iDevices are modern wonders. Think for a minute about the time it takes to create, design and test such a device. Also remember that the watch uses an operating system all its own, called watch OS. There are going to be imperfections, bugs, etc. This is the first generation of this thing, Apple has never attempted something like this before, and the road will possibly be bumpy. So if absolutely everything isn't accessible, please give Apple a break. I consider it a treat that any of these iDevices are accessible in the first place. Most modern tech companies don't even give accessibility a second look. I said all that to say, please lets be thankful for what we have.

Volume

It was very difficult to hear VoiceOver at maximum volume in my local Apple store. Any more than a foot or so away from the watch, and I could not hear anything. Keep in mind that the overall noise level in the Apple store was quite high. It was difficult to hear the Apple employee a few feet away, let alone the watch. I will not attempt to make a comparison to the volume of VoiceOver on an iPhone because I did not use an iPhone at all in the Apple store.

Expectations

I don't think we should be "grateful" just because a product is accessible. The fact that other products aren't, isn't a reason to treat accessibility as an after-thought. I'm not suggesting that apple aren't considering accessibility, as they clearly lead the field in terms of off-the-shelf accessibility. But that is not a reason to just accept whatever is offered without making constructive suggestions. And note I say "constructive", not just complaining.

So, the fact that some people find a talking watch inconvenient and intrusive is not unimportant. There's nothing about the watch's technology and current build that prevents it from running an app to provide various ways to use the taptic engine to tell the time. It doesn't require a complete redesign or the imposition of an overhead on anyone else. Some people would just like to suggest that there are other ways to let the wearer know the time in a subtle and unobtrusive way, using the existing features of the watch.

Let's not restrict feedback and suggestions just to seem grateful please. We're just as much customers and consumers of the product as anyone else, and we pay the same price. So our feedback and ideas are equally valid.

Having been a software developer for 30 years, I know it's easier to build accessibility in at the start, and to design the products to allow enhancements. Apple seem to do this in general. So getting feedback from customers is vitally important to improving the product and ensuring that design decisions are validated and improved.

Apple watch

Apple watch sport I hear you say voice over on what about battery life I like sound of it sounds like it so near sighted persons as always thought watches for people with no sight are not nice looking sounds out date we are limited . I am so interested want see it but cons urn apple wouldn't have 1 with voice over running . With voice over on bout running wifi. How long bat last and what about alarms reminder

expectations

I agree david. I like your way of thinking. Now I just wunder, does this have a headphone jack? And will it be possible to connect to the mac and pc? Will they make it possible to sync with ITunes in time, or is this IPhone app going to do everything ITunes has done in the past for IPod?

Some answers to nano junky's questions

Question... does this have a headphone jack?

No the watch does not have a headphone jack; you will connect headphones, and other audio devices, through bluetooth.

Question... will it be possible to connect to the mac and pc?

answer, as far as I know the watch will not connect to your desktop in any meaningful way.

Question... Will they make it possible to sync with ITunes in time, or is this IPhone app going to do everything ITunes has done in the past for IPod?

I, of course, do not know what Apple will or will not due, "in time" but for right now I believe it is correct that all sinking of music, or other content, will be managed through the phone app.

You have some good points, but I'd just like to say...

you have some valid points about the apple watch in regards to telling time. I would just like to put it out there that I am in no way complaining about the accessibility strides apple has already made, because I think that this is a wonderful start to what could in many ways be a game changer! that said, though, I think it's fair for people to voice their opinions. My biggest thing here is that apple does not seem to have allowed third-party watch faces, otherwise I would just code this myself once the watch came out and deploy via my dev account to my own devices. The problems I have seen with most talking watches are that you either have to have the volume loud enough for you and possibly those in your very immediate vicinity to hear, or you have to raise your wrist up closer to your face to hear, which makes it very obvious that you're checking the time. In a meeting or small social circle that might seem rude if done incorrectly. I have ordered an apple watch and who knows? I might find that it's not an issue at all. All I'm saying is that I think it would be a neat feature to add not only for us, but for sighted individuals as well.
Cheers,
Megan

Agreed, and for the deaf or

Agreed, and for the deaf or deaf blind. I'm slowly loosing my hearing due to something I did 9 years ago and I work better with vibrations sometimes then with speach. Who knows maybe apple will allow you to code faces so that a vibration can be for the time like the pocket watch what's his face reviewed somewhare. Lol!

Take care.