On Siri, Voice Control, and How the Blind Use iPhones

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

I have a love-hate relationship with Siri.

When I tell Siri to set my alarm just before I go to bed, I appreciate the convenience of being able to simply tell my phone something and it get done. I’m the type of person who might possibly sleep through my first alarm, so I set several as an extra precaution. When I wake up and am sure I’m out of bed, I tell Siri, “Turn off all of my alarms,” and go on with my day. The same goes for setting my monthly hair cut appointments; almost always, it just works.

When I ask Siri things like, “What’s zero divided by zero?” I laugh, because its response is funny and because whoever programmed it clearly has a good sense of humor.

But when I dictate certain words, such as “horn,” (something I do regularly, as I am a railroad enthusiast and often send train horn recordings to friends) and Siri hears and inserts another four-letter word instead, I get really, really mad. But I know that text dictation will never be 100% accurate, and thus I either check all of my texts (paying particular attention to the ones I think it might have difficulties interpreting), or I just enter them by hand.

My biggest gripe with Siri isn’t about anything it does or doesn’t do, however. Rather, it is that Siri's potential to assist blind and low vision users is generally misunderstood and overstated. Too often, I read articles in the mainstream (that is, not specifically written for an audience of users with visual impairments) media about iOS accessibility which extol the access Siri provides blind users. While Siri is one of many accessibility tools, the sighted public’s idea of how we use it is ripe with misconceptions.

Many of the articles I’ve read over the years have generally touted Siri’s ability to dictate text, thereby negating the need for typing on the touchscreen. But as we saw with the “horn” example, dictation is far from perfect. Since the blind user relies only on speech (rather than being able to quickly scan the text Siri has dictated), closely reviewing the text—either by word, or better yet, by character—is necessary if there is any concern about erroneous dictation. If time is of the essence, I either must decide to send an imperfect text (hopefully with most of the correct words), take the time to proofread it and make any changes, or just enter it by hand from the outset.

That the sighted public, more often than not, assumes blind people would benefit from dictation rather than typing is nothing new. I’ve been asked many a time if I use Dragon Naturally Speaking on my computer, and my response is now usually a variant of, “Why would I need that?” Dragon and other speech-to-text software is great for people who aren’t able to type, but the idea that a blind person, with no other disabilities or extenuating circumstances, wouldn't be able to type and needs dictation software has always bothered me.

Sadly, this “Voice-controlled technology is easiest for blind people” mentality has seeped into peoples’ perceptions of how the blind use iPhones. In a recent iMore article, "Making the iPhone camera accessible for the blind," the author asserts that the first step Apple took in the process of making camera use accessible to blind users was making sure everyone could easily get to the camera app:

The first step in making the Camera app accessible is making Camera.app accessible. In other words, making sure everyone can get to it whenever they need it.

You can navigate to Camera using VoiceOver, but Apple's made it even easier. Simply tell Siri "Open the camera". Even "Siri, take a selfie" works. It doesn't automagically switch it to the front-facing mode or take a picture, though—at least not yet—but it gets you where you want to be.

While I hate to destroy the image of the courageous blind man who, just by talking to his iPhone, has a whole new world opened up to him...Siri generally does not make things easier for me. Anyone who has asked Siri a question and gotten the response, "Here's what I found...take a look!" will know what I mean; there is often a lot more involved than just Asking Siri any question and it directly telling you the answer—enough so that I often am faster at just looking the information up myself. The same goes for launching apps; when all is said and done, I'm quicker at using my iPhone by hand than I would be asking Siri to do it for me.

While on its face this may look like a criticism of Siri (and, by extension, Apple), I think my quarrel is really with automation and "smart" technology in general. What it comes down to is that I usually don't want to talk to my phone, and I usually don't want my phone to automate things I could simply do better myself. (Don’t even get me started on “smart” canes.)

But, I digress.

Coming back to the iMore article, I think it’s wonderful that mainstream journalists are giving much-needed coverage to accessibility. The more developers who can be made aware that blind people use their apps, the better for everyone. There’s no shortage of work to be done, and that one article may be the article a developer reads and realizes, “Hey, I should really make sure my app works for blind and low vision users.”

On the other hand, when I read articles which (albeit indirectly) suggest that the easiest way for a blind user to accomplish a task like opening the camera is to ask Siri, I can’t help but think that the expectations for my best possible user experience have just been lowered. Reading it as a blind user, I can’t help but think that the assumption, even if subconscious, is that I need voice-controlled devices because I can’t see.

Of course, I know lowering of accessibility expectations was certainly not the author's intent, and that misconceptions almost always arise because people simply do not know any better. But I can’t help but wonder: how much more productive could the accessibility conversation be if sighted journalists and developers better understood how people with disabilities actually use the accessibility features of assistive technology? What would happen if a person looking to undertake the development of an assistive app started the process by asking real users with disabilities, "What areas of daily life could an app help you with?" What would happen if a journalist writing a story, instead of assuming that Siri was the simplest way for a blind user to accomplish a task, researched the topic or asked a group of blind users their opinions? (On this latter question, I informally surveyed my Twitter followers, and about half of those who responded indicated they launch apps with Siri, either some of the time or all of the time. Others said they did not use Siri to launch apps, with reasoning ranging from simply not adjusting their usage habits to take advantage of the new Siri features, to finding apps with VoiceOver being faster and preferring to rely on themselves.)

In the end, I want the same great experience that sighted users have. I want fully accessible app interfaces, not simplified “blind-friendly” apps with voice control. While there is certainly a market for this type of app (such as for very new users or those who have physical disabilities), simplification and voice control should never be the first thing a sighted person thinks of when they consider accessibility or how the blind use iPhones. Accessibility is inclusion, and inclusion is designing a great user experience for as many people as possible—from those who cannot type at all to power users like myself. Thankfully, Apple has demonstrated time and time again that they get it, and that accessibility for blind and low vision users goes well beyond voice control.

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22 Comments

#1 couldn't agree more

Subject says it all; Very well said and my exact opinion also. :)

#2 Seconded

I never use the voice dictation stuff now at all, it's braille screen input all the way for me. I use the braille to launch apps as well, much quicker for me. To me, braille input is the best thing to happen to IOS in years.

#3 Totally agree that accessibility means far more than Siri

Hi! I just read this blog post, and I totally agree with its contents. There's no denying that Siri has been useful to blind users since it was launched in 2011, and those users have included me, but I certainly have never totally relied on it. I have launched apps with Siri from time to time, but before that was possible I had got so used to launching apps by hand that I have mostly kept up that habit, even now, plus launching apps with Siri doesn't always work: for example, I remember trying to launch the Radium app with Siri some months ago, and every time I tried it told me that I didn't have iTunes Radio. I used dictation a lot in the past, but I had to proof-read it every time, however slowly and carefully I dictated, so braille screen input is faster for me now, even with my fairly frequent typos using that. Besides all that, there are times we may not have an Internet connection, which Siri needs to be able to function at all, so it's great that Apple has put VoiceOver and other accessibility features into its i-devices, so that we have plenty of accessible options and are therefore not forced to rely on Siri. Still good that Siri is there if we want to use it, though!

#4 Nice blog post

I also agree with most of what you said in your post.

I think the bottom line is that there isn't just one single tool that accomplishes everything a visually impaired person might want to do. We should learn to pick and choose from a growing toolbox of solutions which tool works for us for the particular task at a particular time.

Taking your "open the camera" task as an example, yes, it is easier to just double tap on the camera icon on the home screen to open the camera app rather than asking and waiting for SIRI to do it. However, I do find SIRI useful for opening up apps that might be buried in a folder on some page or other rather than swiping, tapping, and flicking to find a buried app among a hundred or so apps. so, we do what is best for the circumstance.

As for dictation, again, for a quick note that isn't too important it works fine. For something more detailed and you don't want to look like an idiot with bad grammer or spelling, I use a blue tooth keyboard (or write the note on my PC).

I do wish thethat there was an easy way to correct mistakes make when dictating (as with Dragon). Correcting using only voiceOver can be a nuisance.

--Pete

#5 You can also use

You can use spotlight search to launch apps.

#6 I emphatically agree!

I emphatically agree!

#7 Great article

Club AppleVis Member

Great article. I very seldom use Siri for anything more than sending very brief voice messages. I remember when it first came out and everyone was saying how wonderful it was. Well, I'd had a couple of drinks and was talking to a married friend of mine on facebook. One of my statements I told Siri to send was "I know. I'm in Atlanta. We should get together sometime." After receiving no response by the next afternoon, I went back into Facebook (there was no Messenger app at the time) and checked to see if I missed the response. Much to my surprise and mortification, the message Siri sent was "I love you. I'm in Atlanta. We should get together sometime." Needless to say, my apology was immediate! So, while Siri is great for very short messages, with very close monitoring, I can't see why anyone would think it would be a primary source for operating an iPhone. Again, great article.

#8 I agree, but

I guess I get to be the slightly dissenting voice here.

I agree with the substance of your article. In fact, I use Siri only rarely. In fact, very rarely, and hardly ever use dictation at all. The thrust of your article is spot on.

I do wish, however, you could have used a different example to support your assertions, correct as they are. Rene et al over at iMore are among the mainstream journalist types that, for the most part, reallyget it as far as accessibility goes. In fact, before he even mentions siri, he mentions opening the camera with Voiceover gestures, *then* mentions Siri as an easier alternative. Easier it even may be, in the right circumstances. Yet, there are many, many more blatant examples where us poor blind folk can't use an iPhone at all, except that we have Siri on which to rely. Oh, there's that Voiceover thing, which uses Siri's voice to talk. (Except it doesn't really.) I think perhaps one of those would have made your point much better. In fact, I'd suggest starting, for instance, with some of the articles about the Dot, which seem to posit that blind people can't use smartphones at all.

#9 Siri

I agree with the points listed, however, I think the editor on the iMore article was referring to launching apps using Siri as being easier in general, for instance, if an app you wish to launch is in a folder. I usually do this when I'm busy and my phone is charging, because I can use the "Hey Siri," command, although eventually I'll have to physically use the phone once the app opens. Also, Siri is getting better and better in terms of dictation. I don't usually use it on my phone, however, there's no other option when sending text messages on the Apple Watch, unless you'd really like to communicate with just Emoji. I've had times in which I have to cancel a message on Apple Watch in order to dictate it again, because Siri used the wrong words or missed something.

#10 A Fair Point

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Hello Buddy,

You make a very good point in regards to my choice of articles as an example.

My main reason for choosing the iMore article was simply that it was the article which inspired my post. I've seen other examples over the years, but I've generally read them, realized how badly the author mangled the details, and moved on and forgotten the specific author names, publications, etc. The iMore article was the piece which inspired me to write the above blog.

You are also absolutely correct that the author mentioned using VoiceOver gestures to navigate to the camera before telling the reader how to do so with Siri. My intention was to respond more to his assertion that using Siri was easier than navigating, as my takeaway from his article was that Siri was the ultimate in terms of ease-of-use.

#11 A Lover of Siri

I think I may also be a bit on the descenting side of things in regards to Siri's usefulness, though I will say that I do agree with the posters views here. As for my personal use of Siri, I use this extensively when dictating a message or E-Mail. I realize that Siri has its frailties but perhaps because I have been a medical transcriptionist in the past, I have gotten very fast in utilizing the roter in order to correct any words. I am also a long-winded talker and Siri keeps up with me. I also use Siri to open apps within a folder because it's much faster. I, for one, am very glad to have it as a frequently used tool in my arsenal.

The "sighted" community will probably always have a misunderstanding of the visually impaired community and the real way we use our technology simply because they don't walk in our shoes. We can continue to educate whenever possible and make the best out of things whenever situations arise.

#12 It Isn't Only Sighted People

Unfortunately, sighted peple aren't the only ones who don't think very practically and tend to worship Siri (and I'm not saying that she isn't useful; I, too, occasionally use her to open apps from folders). Over on the KNFB Reader Users list in the NFBnet list hierarchy, there's an off-topic thread which, I hope, has mercifully died, in which one person asked tout about a hands-free phone for a blind person with little hand dexterity and two or three respondents touted the iPhone with Siri. It proved almost impossible to disabuse them of the notion that Siri will do everything except have sex! Some of us that, while useful, Siri did not adequately substitute for the touch-screen and I suggested that someone try the touch-screen using only his/her fist. No dice. the Siri-worshippers wouldn't acknowledge that Siri could become confused or people couldn't always get out of situations like that using Siri alone.

Oh well.

#13 The results of this style of media coverage

Last year, I did a stint teaching folks who had no usable vision about technology. Many of them were getting on in years, and new to being VI. As a result, it was often a bit of web research carried out by their friends or family that'd encouraged them to pick up an iDevice or something running Android. In each batch of new faces, one repeating pattern was that almost every person arrived using their respective voice assistants to accomplish a few meagre tasks, but beyond that, their phones were practically paperweights. Many of them had no idea that VoiceOver or Zoom existed, let alone where to find them or how to use them. It was a really rewarding job to get people going, but something definitely could be done by Apple to improve the situation. My idea is that an accessibility summary could be included as part of the setup wizard. I wrote to them explaining the positive impact this could have pre iOS 8, but no dice as yet.

Oh, and sorry Sockhopsinger, but I laughed... a lot :D

#14 Siri Needs to Get Better

Michael: Thanks for another thoughtful post. . I hate typing on the soft keyboard; I'm not good at it, and have little patience. I do like the dictation option, and other speech to text engines seem to do it a whole lot better than Siri. Under similar ambient noise conditions, for example, dictation in the Uber app is superb. Siri frequently scrambles my words, or worse still, doesn't get it at all. The uber app rarely makes a mistake that needs to be corrected, and even if there is an error, the address I want will usually pop up in the address list for easy selection. Remember the Google 4-1-1 service. It's speech recognition was great, too, and supposedly its whole reason for being was to collect speech samples which google could use to make its speech recognition better. And what about the excellent speech recognition in Amazon Echo? I could go on and on, but it seems to me that Siri needs some substantial improvement in order to make it an effective tool for sighted or blind users alike.
Scott

#15 Concepts and Misconceptions

I agree with the original post and it's certainly a valid point.

It is also more ubiquitous than is suggested. I'm not saying the article is pointing any specific fingers, because it explicitly makes it clear that it isn't. But the general misunderstanding about what blind people need spans across all kinds of technologies and physical interactions.

All too often, when I tell people that I'm a software developer, I'm asked if I talk to my computer. When I have the time to stop and discuss it, I'll say that the problem isn't getting information into computers, but getting it out. I appreciate that not all blind people have learned to touch type at all, let alone become proficient or obtain qualifications. I'm certainly much faster at typing a command than speaking it reliably. And that last word "reliably" is the key part. If speech recognition were perfect, then everyone can speak faster than they can type. But the fact is, there is nothing in the world today that will perfectly understand everything said to it by anyone. And I include other human beings in that. There are several simple exercises to demonstrate this, which I will use on occasions. They don't work in text for the obvious reason that it's intended to show how hard it is to interpret what you're hearing. But if you ever want to show people how complex it is, just say to them, "It's very hard to wreck a nice beach." Most people, given the context of the conversation, will re-interpret that as, "It's very hard to recognise speech."

Also, the tendency is very much to look at the surface of a problem. Typifying this, although by no means the core of the article, was the point made that it claimed using SIRI or VoiceOver to start the app was a significant point in making the camera accessible. Well, ahem, but surely far more important than being able to start the camera, is having any hope of actually using it once it's open? I use the camera on my phone for holiday snaps just like anyone else. But the features of VoiceOver within the camera far outweigh how easy it is to launch it. The fact that VoiceOver will tell me if there's a face in the frame, and roughly whereabouts in the field, is invaluable when trying to avoid taking completely pants pictures. The fact that one can autofocus by double-tapping the image means that even if you're not pointing at the thing you think, you'll at least get a sharp image of the brick wall behind it.

But for most situations, the really big issue, which Appple at least does seem to take on board, is the fact that you must design accessibility in at the start, and not add it as an afterthought. The more that inclusion starts in the basic building blocks of products, the easier and more widespread it should become. If companies can just take off-the-shelf components that are already inherently accessible, the goal of inclusion will be very much more achievable.

#16 Siri

You know that with iOS 9 she suppose to be much better and more able to figure out what you need. I like her very much even when she is a pain and tells me off when I ask a question such as what is zero divided by zero.

#17 Siri

I have also heard that Siri will get better in iOS 9.
I also think that Siri is handy at some things but not all.

#18 Been Asked Same As You

This is another great blog post. The question about Dragon Naturally Speaking and/or Dragon Dictate is one which I've gotten a few times. I've also been asked if I actually dictate stuff to VoiceOver or the other screen readers I've used, and then if the software takes it from there. I guess this only goes to show just how little some people know about the capabilities of those of us with visual impairments. I've never used Siri so can't comment there, but I did actually get to hear and read about the person behind Siri. That was pretty awesome.

#19 A few thoughts

I work at a college where I am the backup for the person who regularly teaches Dragon. This means if that person is out ill I help out, so I've mastered Dragon, and though I type 75 words per minute I am an advanced Dragon user.

This means I found Siri much easier to master than most and use it every day. My biggest secret is to be sure especially when dictating, to pause to let Siri hear the background noise first. It makes fewer mistakes that way. Then speak normally at your regular speed, but enunciate clearly as if a deaf person were reading your lips.

As for typing, I improved my speed here by playing text adventure games. Do that and you will grow faster on the onscreen keyboard.

I find when I need Siri the most is a bumpy ride in a vehicle where typing accurately is nearly impossible.

As for what the sighted think, I just don't care. In fact, if it's friends I'm texting who already know I have a good grasp of grammar and spelling, I'm not concerned if Siri makes me look like an idiot. If it's someone I want to establish a good impression with, then I use a Bluetooth keyboard or my PC to email them instead of dictating with Siri.

Siri is really underused by many people, which I find sad. Go to Youtube, search for Siri and learn all the tricks.

#20 Food For Thought

Thank you for this excellent article. As a blind person who recently acquired an iPhone, I am recognizing both the benefits and the limitations of Siri. While I like using Siri, I also recognize that when I can, I am able to open apps without relying only on siri. If I just want to open an app quickly, I'll use Siri. Otherwise, I'll just find the app and open it manually. I also have a theory as to why the misconceptions about Siri are so widely spread. The public is lead to believe that because a blind person can't see the screen, they have no choice but to dictate everything. The assumption is that they can't type, since they don't know the standard keyboard. For whatever reason, the media tends to assume that blindness is the same as other physical disabilities. I disagree with that. Like many of us, I llearned to type when I was younger, and this skill is valuable. I also recognize that there are times when I want to dictate something quick. Usually it will work, but at other times, the iPhone misses the mark. When this happens, I usually head for my reliable wireless keyboard. I am not a fan of typing on the soft keyboard at all, but this has more to do with that I am skilled with the keyboard, and less to do with blindness. I'm sure there are plenty of others who are not blind but like typing on a physical keyboard when traveling. It's much more efficient, and you know you're entering the text accurately. Having said all this, I also agree that the big issue in the blind community is indeed how to communicate information about what an app is doing nonvisually. This is why Voiceover is such an asset to the blind community, and why I have to give Apple credit for what they've done. I also believe that while there are some videos on You Tube that demonstrate how a blind person can use an iPhone, there are times when the best thing you can do is bring your phone with you and show people how you use it with Voiceover. Often, people are surprised at this. It's normal for someone who has never seen a blind person using an iPhone to think it's amazing. However, if they have questions, I'm willing to do what I can to answer them.

Again, thank you for this excellent post

#21 One efficient use of Siri

Hello,

I use Siri to launch apps I in frequently use, that are buried in side folders, or on another page of my home screen. This is sometimes faster than searching for them.

Thanks. Jim

#22 Serie

I have used her to send a great many text messages, about a dozen e-mails and open an occasional app. As I have used her over the time that I have owned an iPhone, there has been a definite improvement. One must take care when making a request that you don't get more than you ask for, but that is the way with most things in life.