Apple and the value of universal design

This entry originally appeared on my disability blog, I hate stairs.

If you’re the techie type or an Applehead like me, then you know that Apple has announced exciting new updates to its iPod+iTunes product lineup. The highlight of the revisions is arguably the new and improved iPod nano, which touts a larger screen, an FM tuner, and the ability to record video on the fly via a built-in camera. But one of the features that struck me was the use of VoiceOver, a Mac OS accessibility feature, to announce the artist and title of a song.

VoiceOver on iPod nano (Source: apple.com/ipodnano/features/voiceover.html)

VoiceOver on iPod nano (Source: apple.com/ipodnano/features/voiceover.html)

I don’t know how the folks at Apple decided upon VoiceOver as an iPod feature, but I would like to think that they were fully aware of the need for universal design. People who have blindness or low vision will find this feature useful. People who have mobility impairments, like me, will appreciate not having to hold the iPod up to look at the screen (since, you know, I can’t). Oh yeah, and people who are running or working out or doing any number of activities can find out the name of that cool song on their new album without missing a beat.

It’s all good

Universal design works for everyone, thus the term. Fellow disability blogger, Cheryl, gave us an interesting case study of universal design at her school’s gym. The moral of the story was that it didn’t take wads of cash and new stuff to make the gym more accessible. It took some planning and thoughtful consideration for various types of people with differing abilities. The end result was more space and better access for everyone.

The iPod nano’s ability to announce the title and artist of the current song reused pieces of technology that was already on the Mac.

VoiceOver dialog in Mac OS

VoiceOver dialog in Mac OS

VoiceOver itself, is normally used to navigate through Mac OS (and apps and Web sites) without the need to see the screen or the need to point and click with a mouse. Its purpose is mainly to provide full (or almost full) control of Mac OS to people who have blindness or low vision by allowing them to use the keyboard to navigate. VoiceOver uses the text-to-speech capabilities of Mac OS to read labels and Web site text. Reusing this technology on the iPod for a seemingly different purpose demonstrates that more accessible design can benefit more than people with disabilities. A possibly better example is the iPod shuffle, which has been making use of VoiceOver for the last few months.

How VoiceOver works on the iPod shuffle (Source: http://www.apple.com/ipodshuffle/voiceover.html)

How VoiceOver works on the iPod shuffle (Source: http://www.apple.com/ipodshuffle/voiceover.html)

I’ve highlighted the nano because I tend to think it is a more popular model than the shuffle, but VoiceOver on the iPod shuffle solves an interesting design problem. The iPod shuffle is made to drop all the barriers of the usual clickwheel and screen interface and get straight to the music. There was formerly a play button and a couple of skip buttons. It was ultra-small. You could put it on, hit play, and go. The downsides were that you could not see title and artist information and you could not have multiple playlists—two essential portable music features. VoiceOver and an unobtrusive button on the earbuds now enables listeners to know what’s playing and be able to navigate multiple playlists on the fly. By holding down the earbud button, VoiceOver lets you know what’s playing. Keep holding it and it will read off your playlists. Users of the old shuffle and Mac users who are blind have similar user interface challenges. They both need to use the interface without a screen. VoiceOver solves that problem for both users!

I hope at this point you are thinking to yourself… Aaaaaahhhhhhhh. :-)

Where to go from here?

This section represents my wishlist of Apple accessibility features. For starters, I would like to see the navigational capabilities of the iPod shuffle expanded to the other iPod models. As it turns out, my iPod interface challenge is similar to the examples I previously described. I normally use an iPod nano when I’m traveling long distances in my van. I hold the lightweight iPod in my lap and I can operate the clickwheel, but I can not lift the iPod to view the screen. As such, I normally create a long playlist, set it, and forget it. However, I would love to have the ability to navigate through my playlists using VoiceOver. An unrelated feature I would also love to see is the ability to use iPhone and iPod Touch keyboards to control my Mac. For people who have fine motor skills but not the strength to make large movements, a super-compact, touch keyboard would be a great feature.

Now I turn it over to you. Give us an example of universal design that has made your life easier or suggest an accessibility feature (of anything) that you would like to see.