The Mac's Messages App Explained

Last modified
Monday, April 19, 2021
Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Intro

If you have an iPhone, you’re probably fairly familiar with the Messages app on iOS, using it to send and receive texts, photos, videos, and other files. As part of Apple’s interconnected ecosystem, this capability is also available on macOS.

An example of how the Messages app could be useful on macOS is if you’re working on your Mac and a text comes in. Rather than stop what you’re doing and switch devices to view and respond to the message, you could simply open the Notification Center or Messages app on your Mac, view and respond to the message, and get back to your original task.

While certain aspects of the Messages app’s interface may initially seem confusing, there are a number of tricks, which I will cover in this guide, which you can use to maximize your efficiency with it. In fact, being able to do tasks like calling and texting seamlessly on both my Mac and my iPhone is one of my favorite cross-device integration features.

Terminology

Messages refers to the built-in app on iOS, iPadOS, macOS, and watchOS used to send and receive both iMessages and standard SMS text messages, with this guide primarily focused on the version of the app for macOS.

iMessage is an Apple service that allows you to exchange messages with other Apple users independent of a wireless carrier. In addition to not requiring a dedicated texting plan, iMessage includes a number of additional features, such as increased customizability of messages and end-to-end encryption.

Short messaging service (SMS) is the universal text messaging standard supported on nearly all modern phones. Typically, the ability to send and receive SMS messages is facilitated by a wireless carrier and service plan. In contrast, to use iMessage, all you need is an Apple device signed into an Apple ID. If you don’t already have an Apple ID, you can create one for free. If you have an iPhone, you can use your phone number in addition to your email address to send and receive iMessages.

When you send a message using the Messages app on any Apple platform, the type of message, either iMessage or SMS, will be determined automatically. In any conversation, the message text field, the field used to type messages, will include either the word, “iMessage,” or, “text message,” as part of its accessibility label to convey this information to VoiceOver users. Visually, iMessages are denoted by a blue bubble, whereas SMS messages are denoted by a green bubble.

Setup and recommended settings

When you first set up your Apple devices, you were probably asked to sign into your Apple ID, at which point iMessage should’ve been activated automatically. Thus, if you want to send and receive messages on more than one device, make sure all your devices are signed into the same Apple ID. When you open Messages on your Mac for the first time, you may be asked to sign in again, after which you should be able to use iMessage.

At this point, you should make sure any email addresses and phone numbers you want to use with iMessage are enabled on all your devices. To do this on iOS and iPadOS, go to Settings > Messages > Send & Receive, and make sure any email addresses and phone numbers you want to use are selected. To do this on macOS, choose Messages > Preferences, (or press Command-Comma) click the iMessage button in the toolbar, and make sure any email addresses and phone numbers you want to use are checked. You may also want to make sure the, “Start new conversations from,” setting matches on all your devices, so your messages appear consistently to their recipients.

To set up your Mac to send and receive SMS messages, on your iPhone, go to Settings > Messages > Text Message Forwarding and toggle your Mac on in the list. You can then send and receive SMS messages on your Mac the same way you do iMessages, assuming your iPhone is on and connected to a Wi-Fi or cellular network.

If you want to have your existing messages synced between your devices, on iOS and iPadOS, go to Settings > [your name] > iCloud, and toggle Messages on. On macOS, choose Messages > Preferences, (or press Command-Comma) click the iMessage button in the toolbar, and select the, “Enable messages in iCloud,” checkbox. With this feature enabled, all your existing messages should become available on all your devices, and if you delete a message or conversation from one device, it should be deleted on all other devices.

Finally, you may want to have messages delete automatically so as to prevent them from accumulating and occupying space. To do this on iOS and iPadOS, go to Settings > Messages > keep messages, and select an option. To do this on macOS, choose Messages > Preferences, (or press Command-Comma) click the general button in the toolbar, and select an option from the, “Keep messages,” popup menu.

App overview

As it does on iOS and iPadOS, the Messages app on macOS organizes messages in threaded conversations, which are located in the, “Conversations collection.” To open a conversation, interact with this collection with VO-Shift-Down-Arrow, move to your desired conversation with VO-left and right arrow, and select it with VO-Space.

Alternatively, you can locate conversations and messages by navigating to the search field and, unlike text fields elsewhere in macOS, pressing VO-Space to start editing. Type your search term and interact with the, “Search results collection,” to view matching conversations and messages. Press VO-Space on a result to open that conversation. You can quickly tell what conversation is open by pressing VO-F2, or VO-Function-2 if you’re using a Mac with a Touch Bar, as the window is named after the participants in the open conversation.

Once you select a conversation with VO-Space, keyboard focus will be placed in the message text field, although VoiceOver may not indicate as such. Thus, to send a message, simply type what you want and press Return. When a participant in the open conversation responds, VoiceOver will speak the sender’s name, followed by the contents of their message; past messages in the conversation can be viewed by interacting with the, “Messages collection.”

From within the conversations collection, you can quickly jump to the messages collection by pressing VO-J; pressing VO-J again will focus on the message text field, where you can type and edit your message.

Additional options for a participant in the open conversation can be found in that participant’s popup menu. Keep in mind that participants’ popup menus can either be located in between the conversations and messages collections or at the bottom of the window; it’s not uncommon for them to relocate unpredictably on their own. To access settings for the open conversation, choose Conversations > show details (or press Command-I) or click the, “Conversation details,” button in the toolbar.

a tip for quickly navigating the app

While the interface of the Messages app can seem a little busy, there is one trick that I use to jump to my most used elements from anywhere in the window. To do this, I assign the conversations and messages collections, and the message text field, to hotspots 1, 2, and 3 respectively.

To set a hotspot, focus on the element, such as the conversations collection, and press the VO keys, along with the Shift key and a number ranging from 0 to 9. For example, to set the conversations collection at hotspot 1, I would navigate to it and press VO-Shift-1. Note that it is not necessary to interact with a collection, just place VoiceOver focus on it.

In the future, whenever I want to navigate to the conversations collection, I could get there simply by pressing VO-1 from anywhere in the window. Repeat this process for other elements you want quick access to, so all you have to remember is the numbers you assigned them to.

Creating a conversation

To compose a new message to someone who you have an existing conversation with, simply navigate to and open the conversation as described earlier, type your message, and press Return.

To create a new conversation, choose File > New Message (or press Command-N) or click the Compose button in the toolbar. You should then be focused on the, “To,” field, where you can enter a phone number, email address, or contact’s name. If typing in this field results in the macOS error sound, press the Tab key once and try again.

As you type, VoiceOver will announce contact suggestions, as well as suggestions for existing conversations those contacts are in; use the up and down arrow keys to select an option, and press Return to add it as a recipient. Alternatively, you can use the, “Add contact,” button to select a contact; interact with the scroll area in the resulting dialog, interact with the contact’s name in the, “contact list table,” then interact with the, “contact info table,” and press VO-Space on the email address or phone number you want to use.

Once a recipient is added, you can add another one right next to it, and navigate the text field like any other in macOS. Similar to the Mail app, each recipient is read as a single object in the field; to delete one, simply navigate to it with the left and right arrow keys, and press the Delete key as if you were deleting a single character.

Once you’ve added all your recipients, navigate to the message text field and press VO-Space to start editing. Type your message and press Return to send it. As the Return key is used to send a message, press Option-Return if you want to insert a line break into the message.

Managing messages and conversations

When focusing on individual messages and conversations, you can use the Actions menu, accessed by pressing VO-Command-Space, to view additional options. These actions are similar to the actions available via the rotor on iOS and iPadOS, so if you use them on those platforms, they should feel very familiar on macOS. The following is a list of available actions for conversations:

  • Hide Alerts: disables notifications for the current conversation
  • Delete: deletes the conversation
  • Pin: pins the conversation to the top of the conversations collection
  • Press: performs the equivalent of VO-Space to open the conversation
  • Show menu: performs the equivalent of VO-Shift-M to access additional options, similar to the, “More,” action on iOS and iPadOS
  • Jump to messages collection: performs the equivalent of VO-J

In addition, you can perform the following actions on individual messages:

  • Copy: copies the message content to the clipboard
  • Reply: (iMessages only) send an inline reply to a specific message, useful for busy group conversations; choose Edit > reply to last message (or press Command-R) to reply to the most recent message in the open conversation
  • React: send an expressive response to a message, such as heart, thumbs-up, thumbs-down, ha ha, or exclamation; choose Edit > tapback last message (or press Command-T) to react to the most recent message in the open conversation
  • Press: performs the equivalent of VO-Space, which doesn’t seem to do anything
  • Show menu: performs the equivalent of VO-Shift-M to access additional options, similar to the, “More,” action on iOS and iPadOS
  • Jump to message text: performs the equivalent of VO-J

Notifications

By default, the Messages app notifies you whenever a new message is received. If you want to quickly view a message without opening the app, you can press VO-O to access the Notification Center from anywhere in macOS, and find the message by interacting with the, "Notifications list." Press VO-Space to open the message in the Messages app, or to send a quick reply, choose the, “Show more,” action from the Actions menu, interact with the message, type your reply in the provided text field, and press Return.

If you'd rather not receive notifications for new messages, you can turn off all notifications from the Messages app in System Preferences > Notifications, or you can choose to hide alerts for specific conversations as described earlier. To change the sound that is played when receiving a new message, choose Messages > Preferences, (or press Command-Comma) click the General button in the toolbar, and select a sound from the, “Message receive sound,” popup menu.

Attachments

Similar to email, iMessage and SMS can be used to send photos, videos, and other files as attachments to messages. To attach a file, you can either copy it from the Finder and paste it in the message text field, or navigate to it in Finder, press VO-Shift-M, and choose Share > Messages. In the resulting dialog, enter or select recipients as described earlier and click Send. Look for the, “Messages,” option in share menus throughout macOS, as they provide a quick and convenient way to share content from a wide range of apps.

To attach a photo or video from your library, the most accessible way is to copy it from the Photos app and paste it into the Message text field. Although there is a photo browser you can access from the Messages app directly, it is not fully accessible with VoiceOver. Specifically, it can be difficult to dismiss the popover and return to the main window after selecting a photo with VO-Space.

If you receive an attachment, you can open it, preview it with Quick Look, or save it to the Downloads folder from the contextual menu, accessed by focusing on the attachment and pressing VO-Shift-M.

Message effects

If you want to add a sense of personality to a message, you can send visual effects to accompany it. Examples of effects include love, balloons, invisible ink, and confetti, among others.

To send an effect with a message, type your message, click the, “Apps,” button, and choose the, “message effects,” option from the resulting menu. Select an effect, and click the, “Send with effect,” button to send the message.

In addition, some messages will cause the Messages app to automatically send an effect. For example, typing, “Happy birthday,” without the quotes, will cause the app to automatically send an effect of balloons, which VoiceOver will announce as the message is sent. Likewise, typing, “Congratulations,” or, “congrats,” will cause the app to send an effect of confetti.

If you receive a message with an effect, VoiceOver will announce it as the message is received. If you receive a message covered by invisible ink, navigate to the message in the Messages collection and press VO-Space to uncover it.

Audio messages

In addition to text, you can also send brief audio iMessages by clicking the, “Record audio,” button, recording a short message, and pressing VO-Space when you’re done. You are then given the option to play the recording, send it, or cancel it.

If you receive an audio message, simply focus on it and press VO-Space to play it; it will then be deleted automatically after two minutes. To retain the message, click the, “Keep,” button immediately to the right of the message.

Conclusion

While the Messages app can certainly seem complicated or cluttered at first, I hope this guide has succeeded in explaining the basics, as not every feature of the app was covered. Being an app that was ported from iOS using Apple’s, “Mac Catalyst,” technology, I have a feeling it may still be something of a work in progress. Hopefully, with user feedback, Apple can work to address bugs and inconsistencies in the app’s interface and behavior. Personally, I would like to see the following inconsistencies resolved:

  • Elements in the app’s interface should not move unpredictably on their own
  • Text fields should start editing when the user places VoiceOver focus on them, as they do in other situations in macOS
  • The user should be able to dismiss popovers by pressing the Escape key, or Function-Tab if they’re Mac’s keyboard doesn’t have an Escape key

More information is available in your Mac’s built-in help, Apple Support, and the AppleVis forum to name just a few good sources. If you have any questions or believe any of the information in this guide is inaccurate, sound off in the comments.

Disclaimer

The article on this page has generously been submitted by a member of the AppleVis community. As AppleVis is a community-powered website, we make no guarantee, either express or implied, of the accuracy or completeness of the information.

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Comments

Submitted by Seanoevil on Monday, April 19, 2021

This is a very informative guide, thank you for sharing.
The Messages App had me questioning my basic ability to use the Mac. I have spent many fruitless hours trying to get the Keyboard Focus to the Message Edit Field with varied success. Sometimes it worked, other times it seemed nigh on impossible. On these occasions, none of the standard navigation techniques could get the Keyboard focus to land on the Message Edit Field. No matter what VO announced, any letters typed would end up in the Search Field and the only way to proceed was to shut down and restart the App.
Little did I realise that simply selecting the Conversation would allow me to simply type and send!
Many thanks
@SeaNoEvil00

Submitted by Nick Giannak III on Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Thanks for the detailed writeup, but I do wonder about spell checking with command semicolon? When you land on a misspelled word, what do you do? VO-Shift_M doesn't help with that anymore in Messages, whereas it does in other apps...At least on my system.

Submitted by Tyler on Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

In reply to by Nick Giannak III

Interestingly, the spellcheck facility on macOS doesn't appear to work in the Messages app, but at least for me, spelling suggestions and autocorrection work as expected.

Submitted by John Gurd on Friday, April 23, 2021

I bought a Mac Book Pro a year ago and only use it for Logic Pro. I hardly used the Message app there as it didn’t sync with my other IOS messages and the structure looked cumbersome. Now it’s working with my other message apps and I’ve got ways to use it more effectively. I’ve been meaning to learn to use my Mac for other thing so any other articles in the same vein would be very welcome. Thanks so much.

Emojis can be accessed by pressing Command-Control-Space to bring up the emoji picker. By default, it is organized into a table; interact with the grid for your desired category, navigate to your desired character with VO-left and right arrow, and press VO-Space to insert it into the message text field.

Additionally, you can quickly locate emojis by typing in the search field at the top of the table; be sure to interact with this element before typing your search term.

HTH

Submitted by Karina Velazquez on Saturday, April 24, 2021

Hey thank you very much for this guide. The message app was one of the native macOS apps which I couldn't understand since I started using the Mac. Now after 2 years I could deal with it and also now I understand the hotspots of VO.
You should include only the guideline for inserting emojis.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Saturday, May 1, 2021

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Tyler, thanks for an informative and comprehensive article. As you already know, I'd still be pounding my head on the keyboard if it weren't for your help with the Mac Messages app.

VO+J behaves as you describe, namely, I can use it to jump from the conversation collection to the messages collection to the message text field.

Once I have focus in the message text field, I would expect another VO+J to cycle me back to the conversation collection. It doesn't. Instead, it takes me back to the messages collection. If I want to go from the message text field to the conversation collection, I must first VO+Left Arrow to the Apps button, then VO+J jumps to the conversation collection. Very odd.

Regardless, your information about VO hotspots - that wonderful feature I've used countless times before but always forget about - provides a better navigation mechanism.