Why the Touch Bar May Keep this VoiceOver User Away from a New MacBook Pro

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Since it's launch was announced last month, I had been keen to spend some hands-on time with Apple's latest MacBook Pro.

I was curious to find out just how much thinner, lighter and faster it would be compared to my current MacBook Pro; and to test the ‘improved’ keyboard and larger trackpad. But, what I most wanted to try was the Touch Bar; the multi-touch enabled display which has replaced the physical function keys on all but one model in the 2016 MacBook Pro range.

Today I finally had that opportunity, as today was the day that my local Apple Store received display models.

Having now had that hands-on time, I wanted to share some of my experience and immediate thoughts on using the Touch Bar with VoiceOver.

Some Caveats Before I Begin

Everything that follows is based upon just 20 minutes spent with a 13 inch MacBook Pro in a busy Apple Store. It’s possible that I may have missed some things; mistaken others; or that some functionality and features are not available in demonstration models.

For the purpose of this article, I am only going to be talking about my impressions of using the Touch Bar with VoiceOver. If you are looking for a more complete and in-depth review of the new MacBook Pro, here are some from mainstream sources to get you started: Wired, TechRadar and Engadget.

I am going to keep things fairly brief, as I know that others on here are planning to buy a new MacBook Pro, so they will be able to offer more informed reviews and walk-throughs in due course.

So, Just What Is The Touch Bar?

Apple tells us, that the Touch Bar:

… replaces the function keys that have long occupied the top of your keyboard with something much more versatile and capable. It changes automatically based on what you’re doing to show you relevant tools you already know how to use — system controls like volume and brightness, interactive ways to adjust or browse through content, intelligent typing features like emoji and predictive text and more.

According to The Verge, the Touch Bar is powered by a modified version of watchOS. On that basis, it should come as no surprise that the implementation of VoiceOver support on the Touch Bar makes it feel and work much like VoiceOver on an Apple Watch or an iOS device - it utilizes interaction and gestures that any existing user of VoiceOver on those platforms will know and be comfortable with.

So, What Does That Mean In Practice For VoiceOver Users?

Sitting at the MacBook Pro for the first time, enabling VoiceOver is as simple as ever. Yes, the method has changed, but is still quick and easy. Instead of using Command+F5, you now press and hold the Command key whilst triple-clicking the Touch ID button located to the right of the Touch Bar.

Once VoiceOver was enabled, the Touch Bar was transformed from a strip of glass displaying things that I could only guess at, to something that appeared to be completely accessible. I could touch and swipe, and VoiceOver would tell me what it had found and provide the type and level of feedback that we would expect on iOS and watchOS. If I moved to another application, touching and swiping would typically result in VoiceOver telling me that the available buttons and controls had changed to ones more appropriate and useful for the new context. In all cases, whatever I tested appeared to behave as expected.

If I wanted Function keys, pressing and holding the FN key would have VoiceOver tell me when I touched the Touch Bar that this was what was now on the display (note that VoiceOver users can always use the numeric keys in conjunction with the FN key and the VO modifier keys).

In short, the Touch Bar appeared to be completely accessible with VoiceOver. And, even in the space of just 20 minutes, the way that I was using it changed and became a little more efficient. I had started with using the same finger for touching, swiping and double-tapping; but this quickly changed to using one finger for touching and swiping, and a second for the double-tap. This felt more natural, comfortable and efficient. Given more time, I would have been curious to see if using two hands would have been even better.

So, Using The Touch Bar With VoiceOver Is Great, Yes?

Well, this is where things take a turn.

As I have said above, the Touch Bar appears to be completely accessible with VoiceOver. For anybody with experience of iOS, it should offer no barriers in terms of accessibility. For those without that experience, the learning curve shouldn’t be too steep.

However, in regard to switching from physical Function keys to the Touch Bar, I could personally see no benefit as a VoiceOver user. In fact, my 20 minutes served only to confirm my main concern since first hearing rumors about the Touch Bar … not only could I find no immediate benefit, but for my use case and workflow it actually threatens to be a retrograde step.

Tasks such as changing the volume level or pausing playback now take more steps if using the Touch Bar … hence more time. Quick and easy taps on physical keys have been transformed into something a little slower and more involved. Perhaps this would improve as I became more familiar and comfortable with the Touch Bar; perhaps things would improve as I adjusted to the alternative methods that allow VoiceOver users to still use physical keys for tasks that rely on Function keys (such as using the FN key in conjunction with the VO modifier keys and numeric keys); perhaps I sat down with a preconception that it was going to be worse. But, for now, using the Touch Bar to do anything that I previously did using one of the physical Function keys simply left me feeling frustrated. Without exception it was slower and a far less satisfying experience.

So, perhaps those contextual buttons and controls could offer me some hint of a benefit from the Touch Bar? Unfortunately not, as my immediate observation was that much of what I was offered is already available as keyboard shortcuts.

I can see a benefit for any sighted users who typically use the mouse pointer to navigate to the menu bar; click; navigate to a menu item; and then click again. Reaching for the Touch Bar has the potential to be quicker and easier. But, I am fairly sure that I won’t be the only person on here who has keyboard shortcuts firmly stored in their fingers’ muscle memory. So, how many of us will be reaching for the Touch Bar to open a new Safari tab, move back/forward, compose a new email or expand a folder view? My guess is that muscle memory; speed and convenience will keep us using those keyboard shortcuts.

If you aren’t using the Touch Bar regularly and routinely, it’s likely that you won’t automatically think of reaching for it or remember what buttons and controls are available and when. This means that when you do decide to reach for it, it’s likely that the time and energy spent finding out if what you want is actually there and to activate it if it is, will continue to frustrate. To get the most from the Touch Bar, my view is that using it will need to become second nature to you. As it stands right now for me, I don’t see that coming easily or naturally.

I should stress that this is certainly no criticism of how Apple has implemented VoiceOver support. It’s just the reality of the difference between a sighted user taking a quick glance at the Touch Bar compared to how I currently feel that it would work for me as a blind user relying on VoiceOver.

I did wonder at one point whether things would have been different had I been sitting down at a Mac for the first time. Without muscle memory and dozens of keyboard shortcuts steering my fingers in established directions. Would the Touch Bar quickly become second nature with none of that to get in the way. Over time, it will be interesting to see if that proves to be the case for those making the switch to a Mac.

On a more positive note, one feature of the Touch Bar which I thought might potentially be of some benefit and was something that I would have liked to have spent more time exploring, is the ‘Control Strip’. This is an area on the far right side of the Touch Bar which offers quick access to some basic system controls.

According to a very comprehensive review of the Touch Bar by Jason Snell on Six Colors, the Control Strip is:

… available at all times. It consists of four user-configurable buttons (by default it’s Brightness, Volume, Mute, and Siri), a fifth Now Playing button that appears if media is currently playing, and at its far left edge, a narrow button that you can tap to expand the Control Strip to take over the entire Touch Bar. The expanded Control Strip features even more system controls, including keyboard backlighting controls, and is also customizable.

Depending upon the level of customization available and whether my fingers could be trained to find the controls located here without needing to swipe, I do see some potential for this to add something to my use case. I will be interested to hear if this does prove to be the case for those who end up owning a new MacBook Pro in the coming months.

Although it was not something that I could see in action, I did have the Apple Store briefly enable Zoom so that they could tell me a little about how this works with the Touch Bar. Apparently one option is to have a representation of the Touch Bar and the location of your finger displayed on the main screen of the MacBook. I don’t know how well this will work for low vision users, but the description was certainly very positive and encouraging for those who rely solely on Zoom.

Conclusion

From my limited experience, VoiceOver support on the Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pro is as good as we have come to expect from new Apple products; and is no doubt the result of much thought, time and effort from Apple’s engineers.

However, in terms of real-world usability in regard to my use case and workflow, I came away from the Apple Store thinking that my current MacBook Pro will have to last me for many more years. Not only does the prospect of having to adapt to the Touch Bar not excite, but it genuinely makes me feel that the experience for me as a VoiceOver user would be less efficient and less satisfying.

For this reason, I cannot stress enough how much I would encourage anybody thinking of buying a new MacBook Pro to spend some time using one beforehand. From my experience, knowing that the Touch Bar will work with VoiceOver is not the same as knowing that it will work well for VoiceOver users. I am not saying that you will reach the same opinion as me … mine is specific to my personal circumstances, use case and workflow. However, first-hand experience will enable you to make an informed and qualified decision that will be right for you.

Of course, there is still that one MacBook Pro in the 2016 range which doesn’t have a Touch Bar. However, that brings in other considerations which are beyond the point and scope of this post (hint: ‘entry level’ model, price point for an ‘entry level’ model, and does not offer the same connectivity, CPU and drive choices available from other models in the range).

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15 Comments

#1 I won't be getting one, but not because of the touch bar

I'm about to buy a MacBook Pro in the next week or so. I won't be going for a 2016 one, not because of price, not because of the touch bar, but because of the ports.
I'm all for innovation, technology and going forward, I'm sure I would have adapted just fine to the touch bar and I'm sure I'll eventually adapt to USB-C only, but for me the ports is the main reason why I'll be going for the late 2015 MacBook Pro.
Apple should have at least left one USB-3 and one thunderbolt port on the new Macbooks together with a USB-C or two. This would have allowed people to switch all their stuff over time rather than having to spend a load of money to convert everything all at once. I have 3 or 4 external hard drives, a few SD cards and a bunch of flash drives all USB-2 and 3, for me to suddenly switch everything will mean a lot of money or a lot of dongles and adaptors. I hate dongles and adaptors, what's the use of a laptop if you have to carry around a extra bag with a bunch of cables and adaptors.
That being said, I would like to spend some time with a new MacBook to check out the touch bar, I'm sure Apple will do a lot with it going forward, in a year or 2 or a MacBook generation or 2 from now, the touch bar will be a total different beast.

#2 beat me to it

I was going to do a write up with my first impressions of the touch bar after playing with it for a few minutes at my college bookstore yesterday, but you've done a better job than I would've. I completely agree with your early assessment. It's great that the touch bar is accessible, but perhaps just because it's arguably more efficient for a sighted person, doesn't mean it is for a blind one. Maybe by the time I need a new laptop, and if I decide to stick with a Mac, the touch bar will be the norm.

#3 What's the difference?

What's the difference between the touch bar and the trackpad for VO users? I don't see why we need, in my opinion, two touch surfaces that can do the exact same thing.

#4 Sticking With Mine

I bought a new MacBook last November. I'll be sticking with that one for a while. Maybe by the time I need to invest in a new machine, The ports and touchbar will be more doable than now.

#5 whaj I heard

Hello.

I just want to share some information that I heard. I heard it from a tech journalist, & I haven't heard any confirmations of this yet, but I still feel this is worth sharing. I heard you could get a mac without the touch bar. If anyone here is looking at getting one & doesn't want the touch bar, I'd ask someone at the Apple Store to confirm.

Again, I've only heard it from one place, but I itill felt like this piece of intel was worth passing along.

#6 Dawn is right.

Dawn, you're right, they make another Mac, with function keys. Personally, I think it's to keep people such as those who are dissatisfied with the touchbar happy. Thing is, I really don't understand why people are all freaked out over this. Have i played with the new Macs, no I have not. The USBC ports, ok, I can see someone not liking that. The touch bar seems as intuitive as ever. Run a finger across, tap, ok I raied the volume. I don't really like the niw edea of the track pad seeing as right now I constantly bump the damn thing when i'm typing. someone asked what's the difference between the trackpad and the touchbar? The trackpad is for the moving around of the screen, in pages on Safari, or around your Pages document. Having had a Windows computer forever, that i always touched the mouse pad and it mades Jaws, freeze or something else dumb, I am absolutely thrilled with the idea I can run a finger along the bar, tap to change something, slide my hand back down on the keyboard. i get this is not for everyone, I ask you this. For someone's personal circumstances, the touchbar doesn't work for you, that's fine, excpet in five years, when you need a new one, you're thrown back into the oh crap I have to use this or nothing. I understand this was a brief experience, I'm not digging the original poster. i'm just saying everyone flips out over a change and it's a love it or hate it mentality, in general, not the original person's viewpoint. Sometimes, you just need to go for it. If I look at a new Mac, i'll report back. i just continue to shake my head when I find almost instant either maybe this is good, or the oh, I won't want this because of, insert reason. sooner or later, you'll have to accept change.

#7 As weak as your argument is ,

As weak as your argument is , .. I have almost no wish of writting bback but ... well here we go.

If sooner of latter everyone had to accept changes then everybody would be standardized in the world.

Want to change anything? Impose a change and after five years everyone will be there.

Did we have any product failure in history? Absolutely not! Because every single new product ever made available was a change and everyone has to accept changes so no product has ever failed because we have historically adopted to every single change ever made.

Want to sell a boat in a region with no sea? Simple! Make every single car available like a boat (no wheels ) and in five years everyone had to keep up with changes and then everybody is having a boat like car with no wheels and thus not able to move at home and so everyone is walking on foot again!

No fellow coleag: not everyone will have to keep up with changes. If changes are not good enough they will be dropped and companies that do not change again will eventually disappear. Incidentay Apple itself has gone this rout when their changes ere ..... not useful at all and this was it until someone called Jobs just put things on track again.

Nothing prevents the same thing happening again and nop we are not going to stop to analize either criticizing or being happy about changes because everyone has to accept changes anyways.

The touch bar imposes a loss of productivity to blind people who need to feel the keys to make fast typing of keystrokes. More than that, many folks deppend on Windows to make work or other stuf that is more productive on that platform and one of the advantages of Macs is you can run both systems in the same machine .. but nobody knows what's going to happen when Windows screen readers have to interact with the touch bar.

It is not reazonable to expect that Windows and thus Windows screen readers are going to support Apple only feature and the loss of function keys will for sure put those who deppend on Windows but want to run iit on Macs and use screen readers at a very serious risk of not being productive in either platform.

#8 More Time Required

I have ordered the new MacBook with the Touch Bar. I will not receive it until early December. I would encourage everyone to remember that a new feature like the Touch Bar takes some time to get comfortable with. I know lots of VoiceOver users who did not feel very positive about using the iPhone after the first twenty minutes. I am personally not going to offer any opinion until I have worked with the new MacBook for a few days. Adjusting to something new is a challenge for all of us. I am excited to explore this new hardware.

#9 Appreciate the reviews, and

Appreciate the reviews, and resources. Its my intent to update my 2012 Macbook Pro 13" in the next month or so. The main draw for the new macbook's Pro 13" with touch bar are the touch bar, finger print sensor, form factor, performance, and new USB C ports. I am not anticipating the computing world to switch to things like the touch bar and USB C features as mainstream features in the next 4 years, I do anticipate these efforts eventually diffusing to other computers eventually. Why not get a jump on it. Keep in mind I also felt the same way about zip drives and some of the cabling that came out in the late 90's. Regardless, if you are not comfortable with the touch bar, pick up an external as you switch over. I cannot wait to start drafting my next set of projects in Pages and Numbers with the touch bar.

#10 I thought you could use the number keys as fn keys?

I thought you could use the number keys as keys with VO?

#11 Yup, you can. You just press

Yup, you can. You just press the FN key with VO and the number.

#12 Thanks for confirmation

Thanks for confirming that for me! I thoough so, but I wasn't sure after juit hearing it in one place.

#13 useful and useless features

App Developer

I can see the touch bar providing some useful features, usually if one has forgotten the keyboard shortcut. However, I can see it slowing things down. Consider that, in order to perform any action with voiceOver enabled, you have to double-tap your bar. This is, by definition, slower than pressing a key. One thing that would irritate me is the volume control. I would note that even on the large blank planes of glass that apple produces, the volume control is always a tactile button in one location. This is so common that I have found zero touch-screen devices, including all those running android and windows, that don't have a physical volume control, even if they've dumped physical buttons for home screen access. While the control won't be moving around, it now requires you to interact by tapping rather than pressing. In some cases, this could be problematic. Sometimes, I am in a location where I don't want any chatter from my computer. If it starts, I can lunge and hit my volume down or mute button in under a second, then either leave it that way or, if I have forgotten to bring my braille display along, verify that my headphones are recognized. I can see that particular task taking longer with a touch-screen control. For anyone familiar with keyboard shortcuts, it's going to be faster to press them than to search the bar for something that's only probably there. I think it's nice that they have added an adaptable interface, but I would prefer it not replace the keys that are not yet obsolete.

#14 How are the keys obsolete?

Simply, if you go back, Function key, plus Voice over, I'll never write VO because I think alcohol not voice over, and the + key or - key does exactly what you want. Until they come out with a complete Mac, computer with a glass touch surface, why is everyone so confused, upset, freaked out, it's not for me? No, i haven't seen them. When I do, I'll just, go with the flow. You don't like the touch surface of the Mac os 2020? Ok Bluetooth keyboard to the rescue!! Seriously folks, we get all up in arms, even politely about how someone says it's not for them, there are adaptations. Apple and other manufacturers all know they need to keep the older generation in their specs. I mean, not older as in elderly but people that want to things with a keyboard, not a touch bar. Ah I can see i'm wasting my computer's breath trying to make sense when clearly I'll be in the minority on this issue. If I get a touch bar, and hate it I'll be the first to say I'm sorry.

#15 Two Months of Angst is finally over!

I wanted to thank all of you for the most memorable experience along, with the gazillian reviews on the new Mac.
I really, really wanted in on Mac O/S but, after the mixed reviews on the keyboard, touch bar and inconsistent battery life reports. I decided to give this idderation a miss. Darm man, no Coninutity for now man LOL! then there is the outrageous price! Gees Louise tim, take it easy on me Bro! I could write about all the contendars in my quest for a new ultra book as there are some freaking beautiful products out there includeing the gorgeous 2016 MBP! Look man, I want a laptop and I want it at the best price possible. so, I am happy but sad.
I'll have a Mac some day! Honestly, I will! Here's what I bought today and I think it represents awesome value though it is WINDOWS
! Sorry Applevis and Sorry Tim!
!HP Spectre x360
Intel® Core™ i7-7500U
13.3" touch display
16 GB LPDDR3-1600 SDRAM (onboard)
512 GB PCIe® NVMe™ M.2 SSD
$1,05925.00
She's no 2016 MBP but, it's good times ahead! Hello Serey! Hello Cortana! LOL!